Eight years after his death, people still share stories about Royal Nebeker – about how he nearly died in a coastal storm or how he became friends with Robert Redford or the amazing workshops he hosted. But mostly, they talk about how Royal Nebeker made Astoria an Oregon arts mecca.
“Royal had an outsized influence,” said Jeannine Grafton, owner of Astoria’s RiverSea Gallery. “Astoria became a printmaking hub due to him. He brought in big-name artists to show at what is now the Royal Nebeker gallery, and they would do workshops with students while they were here. Bringing in those high-profile artists really put Astoria on the map as an arts town. What Dale Chihuly did for glassblowing in the Northwest, Royal did for printmaking in Astoria.”
Little about Royal’s early life suggests he’d settle on the Oregon Coast. Born in 1945 in San Francisco and raised in that city, Royal earned his first master’s degree in fine art at Brigham Young University, and his second in printmaking at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts in his mother’s homeland of Norway, where he kept a studio and visited often. What followed next, says Sarah, his wife of 40 years, was one of those inexplicable tales of synchronicity ever present in the artist’s life.
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It was 1974 and Royal, still a bachelor, was ski-bumming the slopes of Park City, Utah, where Robert Redford singled him out as the best instructor and befriended him. But it was off the slopes, in a little Salt Lake City bookstore, that Royal was first introduced to Astoria via a slender book titled the same.
He may have mentioned the book to friends, or it might have been just another of those coincidences, but soon, someone told him that a community college in Astoria was hiring an art teacher. Royal apparently filed the information away and moved on. Then, ski season over, he took a job in Washington as a choke-setter for a logging operation. Money in his pocket, he hit the road again and soon found himself in a small town that reminded him very much of Norway. That town, of course, was Astoria, and Royal was enthralled.
Recalling his friend’s news about the job opening, he found a phone booth and called Clatsop Community College. Hundreds of other applicants had had the same idea, and the school had already decided on a hire. With no particular place to go, Royal sat down on a grassy knoll to enjoy the scenery and soon found a four-leaf clover. Then another. And another.
“So, he thought something good is going to happen,” Sarah said. “That’s kind of how Royal lived his life.”
And sure enough, something good did happen – the phone rang. Royal answered it and landed a job interview. He called his parents and asked them to put his suit on a Greyhound bus to Astoria. Days later, the properly dressed Royal won the job.
Not long after, Royal met his wife-to-be when she took one of his classes, though she is quick to say, “It was very above board. We didn’t really get together until the summer when he was not teaching. We were married in Norway in 1975.” Up to that point, Royal planned to stay in Clatsop County only a few years. “But he fell in love with me and in love with the area, too, and he stayed,” said Sarah, an artist and dancer known for her arts education advocacy.
Royal died in 2014, at age 69, but nearly 50 years after he chanced upon the little town so like the Norway he loved, art in Astoria continues to thrive. The community boasts dozens of galleries — February’s Astoria ArtWalk on Saturday, Feb. 11, includes visits to 10 galleries and another nine sites displaying artwork — along with a significant population of artists. The Clatsop Community College art gallery, now the Royal Nebeker Art Gallery, is a hub for art students who continue to learn under the standards he established, and a showcase for exhibits that draw visitors from all over the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
“He played such a role in really developing our program,” said Kristin Shauck, art instructor and director of the Royal Nebeker gallery. “It has such a huge reputation, particularly the gallery. One thing that Royal felt strongly about was for the gallery to be a hub. It’s an important teaching tool for our program for all of our studio-art classes. Royal was really instrumental in that. When I got here, it was really a vibrant arts community. I feel like we are continuing that legacy the best we can.”
The gallery hosts about five shows a year. One of those, paused during the pandemic, is the annual Au Naturel show, a juried international exhibit Shauck suggested when she first joined the college nearly 20 years ago. It seemed a stretch for the small-town arts program, until Royal signed on. “He said, ‘Let’s do it. I’ll be the first juror.’ Royal being the first juror really helped us get that going.” Shauck is considering alternating the Au Naturel show with The Ship Show, a recent exhibit so popular guests asked her to make it an annual tradition. Next up, the Faculty and Familiars exhibit opening Thursday highlights the diverse artwork created by the college’s art faculty, plus a selection of invited artists. It runs through March 23.
Even in its early days, the community college’s art department stood as a model to others. Newport artist Sandy Roumagoux recalls studying the program when she was setting one up for the Oregon Coast Community College. She looked to Royal to see what classes he offered and why, and how he managed to accomplish so much in so little time.
“My knowledge of him first came with him having a successful art program,” she said. Noting that Clatsop is the state’s oldest community college, started in 1958, she said, “I knew they had a history, but these programs just don’t start by magic, and you have to have it all in place in a year or two. That’s what I was looking for. Who was the person or persons who made this so successful for Clatsop?”
Although he loved the North Coast, Royal did consider leaving. His work was on exhibit in the U.S. and Europe, and a gallery in New York was interested in representing him. At home, the closest city and airport were a good two hours away and local galleries numbered just one or two, and small at that. But once he made the commitment to stay, he created a vision for his adopted home, and never wavered.
“He said, if I am going to stay here, I want the arts to grow,” recalled Sarah, who continues to live on the North Coast. “It wasn’t so easy to always travel to large urban areas to exhibit his work, sometimes transporting very large paintings. But this was a good place to raise our three children. It’s a beautiful place, and he appreciated that. His philosophy was, ‘You go out into the world and learn everything you can and then go back into your community and share it with them.’”
And that’s what he did, in classes — where it is said he was a strict and traditional teacher with the new students, looser and more fun with the advanced – and workshops.
Marie Powell, owner of the Marie Powell Gallery in Ilwaco, Wash., studied printmaking with Royal for several years. “To live in a small-town rural area and have access to the instruction and mentorship of a brilliant and accomplished artist such as Royal was phenomenal,” she said. “Rarely is there an expert, acclaimed artist who is also a successful, captivating, creative, motivating teacher. Royal was that combination. He was a positive force in the world of art, not only for Astoria, but for the state of Oregon and internationally as well.”
Among the most memorable workshops was one Royal put together in 1991, when he brought Japanese papermaker Naoaki Sakamoto to the North Coast to make paper with Indigenous artists from all over the U.S, including Rick Bartow, Lillian Pitt, and Alaska artist Edna Jackson, who brought cedar bark from her village.
Royal and the artists set up on a nearby estuary and made tools of wood and stone to process the cedar bark, then made it into paper for their art.
“It just so happened that there was an acquaintance who lived in this area, and she was an anthropologist,” Sarah recalled. “She asked, ‘Why are you doing it in that area? Does he realize this is where the Clatsop Indians processed cedar bark?’ We didn’t.”
Not that Sarah was surprised. By then, she was not only well accustomed to the coincidences that seemed to guide Royal’s life, but also, Royal had a deep respect for Indigenous cultures. It seemed only fitting that he would be drawn to a Native site.
It was only later that Royal learned that his grandmother was Sámi, a native Laplander. Sarah suspects his ancestry may have been responsible for Royal’s hearty character, perhaps never more in play than in 2007, when Royal and ceramicist Eddie Park became stranded in the old net-loft building on an Astoria pier known as Big Red.
Eddie was helping Royal board up Big Red, which housed his studio, when winds that have been described as gusting to 160 mph threw Park across the room, breaking his arm.
“Royal knew he had to get him out,” Sarah said. “The walls were falling away, and they could see the water churning below, and they realized they could die.”
It was 12 hours before Royal got the pair to safety by strapping them to a ladder and “scooting inch by inch” over the gangway to shore. He likely saved their lives, but the studio was destroyed; an entire exhibit bound for Seattle lost.
“After that terrific storm, he said he had to go back out there, and I could see how hard this was for him,” Sarah said. “He said, ‘I have to paint.’ I said, ‘How are you going to paint? Water is pouring into the building.’ But he went out and put up some tarps. I thought he was going to paint something very angst-ridden. But he gathered some materials and painted the most serene, beautiful painting of two bicyclists on the shore looking back on the building as it was. The water was perfectly calm.”
The stories people remember about Royal generally include an example of generosity, caring, charisma. “I thought he was the Mick Jagger of printmaking in the Northwest,” said Ben Rosenberg, artist and Clatsop art instructor.
What you don’t hear so much about is Royal’s religion – perhaps because people just didn’t know how to make it fit. His parents were born to Mormon pioneers. His father’s ancestors came west with Brigham Young; his mother’s crossed the Rockies with a handcart.
“He grew up that way and he decided for himself that it was right for him,” Sarah said. “He was very spiritual, very faithful, very dedicated. But believe me, it created interesting conversations.”
People in the art world didn’t know what to make of it; nor did people in the church, Sarah said. He belonged in neither world, and yet, he belonged in both. Once, she recalled, Royal had a one-person retrospective at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. The director pulled her aside. “He said, ‘Where has he been? How could we have missed this?’ Because it’s really hard for most people in the church to achieve what he did. People in the arts usually leave the church because they can’t reconcile. Royal said, ‘No, I’ll do it my way.’”
Which, it seems, is how Royal did most everything.