Artist Michael Gibbons liked to share the story of a day when he was teaching a painting class by the Yaquina River. An older fellow approached and asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m painting,” Michael answered.
“An artist?” the man questioned.
“I guess you could say that,” Michael said. The man looked at him, “Had one of them in town once; couldn’t make a living.” And he turned and walked away.
Michael laughed when he told the story, but it was no doubt not the first time he heard a discouraging comment. Nonetheless, it deterred him not in the least. In Toledo, the Oregon mill town of less than 3,500 where he lived, the idea of creating an artist’s community may have sounded foolish to some, yet that was exactly what the self-described “poet with a paintbrush” did. At one time, some 15 artists of various mediums created their art in the town seven miles from the coast.
Michael Gibbons died at the age of 76 on July 2 due to complications from a stroke he suffered in 2016, bringing to an end nearly four decades as the area’s leading champion of the arts. He is credited with founding Toledo’s annual Labor Day Art Walk and establishing the Yaquina River Museum of Art, and was instrumental in bringing chamber music concerts to town.
I met Michael shortly after moving to the Oregon Coast in 2000. At the time I wrote about beautiful homes, and was invited to his third-floor studio – a former attic. I remember it as a large open space of shadows and light with beautiful finishes and décor befitting an artist.
Over the years I spent many Labor Day weekends walking the streets of Toledo, ducking in and out of artists’ studios before taking a seat in Michael and his wife Judy’s backyard for a glass of wine and one of Michael’s talks. They were gracious, welcoming hosts, and those sunny afternoons (I don’t recall it raining once, though surely it must have) were a highlight of my summer.
Michael discovered Toledo in 1982 shortly after losing his Yachats home to a fire. The Episcopalian diocese owned the vicarage which it had been renting out. It was also damaged in a fire, and the diocese asked Michael to take a look at the property and advise what they might do with it.
“He said, ‘Wow, if I could buy this, this is big enough to be a studio and I could live here.’” Judy recalled. “He bought it on the spot that day.”
The couple remodeled the house, turning a basement into Michael’s signature gallery, where Judy presided over the sale of her husband’s art while acting as his business manager. Soon, other artists followed—sculptors, potters, painters, photographers.
“Artists looked at this little niche we had carved out, this house and the gallery space,” Judy said. “They heard we sold a lot of paintings here, and we have. People like to follow artists in out-of-way places. But it’s not like every month you’re going to sell X number of paintings. You just have to persevere. We had quite a few artists, but it’s a tough go.”
Michael was well-traveled, painting scenes around the country as well as in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, and Mexico. But there came a day when he looked out the window and realized everything he needed for his art was right out the window.
In an interview recorded last summer at Oregon State University’s LaSells Stewart Center with James Nelson, Michael said, “Standing in the living room window which is up on a low rise above the city and above the river, I looked out and said, what’s the matter with you dummkopf, here you have this incredible world of beauty right out your front door. What are you going abroad for and putting up with all that crap? So, we stayed on and decided to continue from here.”
His love of the local landscape was something of an eye-opener for Newport watercolorist Marion Moir.
“I had a few oil painting lessons with Michael,” Moir said. “We had places to paint up along the estuary. It had such a big influence on me. It just made me see everything differently. I call it the essence of the estuary. Before, I would just drive by and everything was beautiful, but I kind of took it for granted. When you paint outdoors you see it, you feel it, you smell it. All the senses. And I loved being with him and listening to his stories of his adventures in life. Watching him mix paint showed me pure patience and his love for the landscape.”
It might surprise some to learn that the artist whose work hangs in the Oregon Governor’s residence, is part of numerous corporate collections and has been shown all over the country, is self-taught.
As early as first grade, teachers praised the boy’s natural talent. But it wasn’t until the eighth grade that Michael saw someone create a painting. “He went home and got his lawnmowing money and went to the hardwood store,” Judy said. “He bought the little cubes you use to color white paint, brought them home and tried to paint with those.”
Michael chose to attend Benson High School (then the Benson Polytechnic Institute) in Portland because it was the only place he knew of that had an art department. One day, he approached his teacher and said, ‘I’ve seen all these art books, where can I see some art?’ That was how he—and his parents—learned of the Portland Art Museum.
“The teacher said, ‘I am calling your parents and telling them I am taking you to the Museum,” Judy said. “Michael found he could go on his own. He found this one painting by (Jean-Baptiste-Camille) Corot and that was his inspiration. He kept coming back to look at it. The guard got to know him.”
In a quote from an unnamed source, Michael said, “I had to paint things that struck people like that. I saw dawn, that silvery morning light and soft colors. They weren’t garish. It was like looking at a prayer.”
Michael will be remembered for his art, but also as a civic leader, a generous and patient teacher, and an inspiration to many.
Moir recalled a moment when she was having trouble getting a scene.
“I was trying to paint a tree,” she said of a plein air lesson with Michael. “I couldn’t get it right and so he showed me how on his painting with this special brush that he used. It was just a little inexpensive brush and he just took it and he created the tree with that little brush quickly, so quickly. My mouth fell open.”
Now it’s time for the next chapter in the artist’s legacy. Judy is working with several collectors of Michael’s work to create a coffee table book, though the logistics and expense make it a challenge. The chamber music concerts the couple helped establish will continue, as will the Art Walks, now under the auspices of the Yaquina River Museum of Art. But the big news involves a new vision for the house and gallery. “Michael’s hope was to make this a house museum,” Judy said. “I see that as the future. Michael’s hope was to leave a legacy of art, which includes the community here and the greater community, meaning the state. My hope would be we can make this possible.”