Sitka Center for Art and Ecology

Storytelling without words

From pets to the pandemic, from wildfires to vampires, a Sitka Center project spurs discussion among second-graders about the year's big events

You might think in a world turned upside down by COVID-19, kids asked to name a significant event in their lives would naturally turn to the virus. But with the exception of one second-grader who noted it occurred on a special day, it barely registered a blip this week in a virtual arts-literacy class.

The session was the first class held since the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology took over the Community Arts Project on the North Coast. Sitka’s general manager, Nicola Harrison, led the virtual project with two second-grade classes at Nestucca Valley Elementary School.

THE ART OF LEARNING: An occasional series

The project focused on the Native American tradition of “winter counts,” the recording of significant events for the year, which began with the first snow of the season. Tribes and families in the northern Great Plains gathered to discuss the year’s events. A  “keeper” was charged with drawing the events on a buffalo hide and passing the tale onto the community and future generations. In this way, they recorded history both with art and in the oral tradition of storytelling.

Home school was the year's most memorable event for Kael S.
Home school was the year’s most memorable event for Kael S., a 7-year-old participating in a Sitka Center class covering pictographs, Native American winter counts, and storytelling through art.

Ten students in Nicole Royster’s class gathered on bedroom floors, at dining room tables, and on living room sofas for the Zoom session to discuss this thing called art. Amidst the usual calls for muting and unmuting, enabling audio, and general requests to sit still, the class looked at pictographs from Egypt, Australia, and by Native Americans, as well as stone carvings from Easter Island. They talked about the purpose of art, about symbols and about storytelling without words. Then they took up pencils and paper to sketch ideas about the year’s important events.  

Roy volunteered first to share his, a party hat, mask, and cake, “because coronavirus struck on my birthday.”

But the popular theme of the day tended toward animals. One girl sketched her family’s new baby chickens; another, the dog and kitten that did not initially get along, but eventually became friends. Still another talked of going with her mother to pick out a dog and with her father to pick out a cat. One girl reported, sadly, that she planned to sketch the picture of the old dog she gave away.

The big event for Lucian was losing a tooth. Brodie also went with the dental theme, noting he had four teeth filled.


Marking a year, marking a change

As Sitka Center for Art and Ecology assumes stewardship of an arts-literacy program, its first lesson brings a Native American tradition to elementary students

When the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology offers its first art lesson for the Community Arts Project this month, it will tap into a centuries-old Native American tradition, one that will call on families to gather, reflect, and maybe even begin a new tradition of their own. 

In Native American culture, it was known as the “winter count,” a tradition practiced by certain communities of the northern Great Plains, said Nicola Harrison, Sitka general manager and former executive director for Community Arts Project (CAP).

Every year, elders would gather to talk about events of the passing year – measured from the first snowfall of the year to the next year’s first snowfall. The elders chose one important event and named the year for it. The person known as the “keeper” painted a pictograph on a buffalo hide, paper, or cloth to commemorate the event. The keeper was also tasked with storytelling and ensuring the winter count was passed down to subsequent  generations.

Battiste Good (Sicangu Larkota) (ca. 1821-1894) kept a winter count that was unusual in that it contained more than 500 years of Lakota History. Its reference to the year 1834, “the year the stars fell,” commemorates the November 1833 Leonid meteor shower with an image of a tipi covered in stars. Photo courtesy: U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Crafts Board
Battiste Good (Sicangu Larkota) (ca. 1821-1894) kept a winter count that was unusual in that it contained more than 500 years of Lakota history. Its reference to the year 1834, “the year the stars fell,” commemorates the November 1833 Leonid meteor shower with an image of a tipi covered in stars. Photo courtesy: U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Crafts Board

This month, Sitka will reach out to some 300 students in the Nestucca Valley Elementary and Garibaldi Grade schools in its new role since taking on oversight, operating, and fundraising responsibilities for CAP this fall.   

“The kids in the community need to express themselves now more than ever and have that joy in their daily routine,” Harrison said. She will make a classroom presentation via Zoom, followed by a discussion to “share ideas and talk about events we want to share and how we would symbolize with imagery and not use words,” she said.

THE ART OF LEARNING: An occasional series

Students will have access to a prerecorded demonstration they can watch with their families on how to do the project. Instead of sharing art supplies at school, Harrison said, Sitka will purchase and deliver individual supplies that the students can keep.

In traditional Native American culture, a winter count might record disease, war, disaster, or natural phenomena, such as the widely depicted Leonid meteor storm of 1833.


Talking back to the darkness

In difficult times, two workshop instructors say, writing can illuminate corners of the mind and restore a sense of possibility

In these difficult days, most everyone is looking for a way to cope, to find peace, to make sense of things. For some, it’s taking a walk, paddling a kayak, or learning a new skill. And for some, it’s writing. In the near future, Nancy Linnon and Kim Stafford will be leading writing workshops at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. I talked with them about writing your way out of darkness and how to defeat the demons that hold people back.

Linnon’s online workshop, “Changing in Place,” runs this weekend, Sept. 5 and 6. A writer for nearly all her life, Linnon has long had a practice, especially during tough times, of writing daily. But when the pandemic struck, she’d let that practice lag.

“I wasn’t giving it the attention it needed, given how chaotic and painful things were,” said Linnon, a writing instructor of 25 years. “My yoga teacher immediately went online daily, so I was doing my yoga practice daily. I was like, ‘I can do yoga every day, but I can’t write every day, when writing has been my practice?’ There was a lot to digest. Things were starting to pile up internally. I brought that practice back into my life. Nothing sees me through like writing.”

Nancy Linnon will teach a writing workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.
Nancy Linnon advises writers, “Before you sit down, tell yourself you are free to write the worst junk in the world.” She will lead a virtual writing workshop this weekend at the Sitka Center.

Linnon thinks of writing as a tool, not just to express what is there, but to discover what you didn’t know was there. It’s a sort of flashlight moving around inside, illuminating corners, she said. For her, one corner was a troubling connection with a family member who lost her mother when she was barely more than a toddler.

“My oldest sister’s mother died in the polio epidemic” of the mid-20th century, Linnon said. “I’m in the middle of this pandemic and not drawing the connection that an epidemic like polio had touched my father’s life. It was in the writing that I had that ‘A-ha.’ Probably if I had talked to my sister, it would have come up. Instead it came up in the writing, keeping me present in myself in a way nothing else really does.”

For those new to writing or intimidated by it, Linnon likes to draw on the teachings of author Natalie Goldberg. While some may insist writing is as simple as sitting down and picking up the pen, Linnon acknowledges it’s not always that easy. One important tip is to keep your hand moving.

“The other thing is, before you sit down, tell yourself you are free to write the worst junk in the world,” Linnon said. “All these voices in your head come and say, ‘You’re not describing it right.’ This isn’t the place for that. Don’t cross out, don’t think, don’t get logical, don’t worry about punctuation or spelling. When the critical voices come in, either put what they are saying on the page, or notice them and try to write through them. Go where your mind takes you. Another thing Natalie Goldberg says is, ‘Go for the jugular.’ It doesn’t matter what you start writing about, it’s the flashlight thing again.”

Stafford’s online workshop, “Pandemic Diary for the Earth” is set for Oct. 10 and 11. Like so many in these challenging times, Stafford said he finds himself starting the day with a sense of being surrounded by dire news.


‘I am still here.… It still is a time for singing’

Voices from the front: Five members of the coastal arts community talk about how the pandemic has changed them – and it’s not all bad news

I can’t think of another time in my life more unexpected or unpredictable. When will it end? Who will I be when it’s over? Certainly not the same, of that I’m sure. But the pandemic has not been without bright spots. Nearly every day I see evidence of something good. A rekindled relationship; an inspired new business; new friendships formed at virtual gatherings.

Thinking others must be experiencing the same, I reached out to members of the coastal arts world and asked three questions: What has been a pleasant surprise of the pandemic? What have you learned? Will your work be different as a result?  Here are their answers, edited for length and clarity.


Betsy Altomare is co-owner with her husband, Keith, of the Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City. The theater is closed but offering virtual films through its website. And every day from 6 to 7 p.m., the Altomares sell their popular popcorn to go.

Betsy Altomare is co-owner of Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City.
Betsy Altomare says she has been surprised at the outpouring of love for the Bijou Theatre.

What has been a pleasant surprise of the pandemic?

Altomare: Probably the reminder that people really love the Bijou Theatre. We decided to do a GoFundMe with the goal to pay off our mortgage, which was only $2,984. We actually raised it in 10 hours.

What have you learned during the pandemic?

Altomare:  Patience, and that viruses don’t discriminate.

Will your work be different as a result of the pandemic?

Altomare: That’s the big one. Very different. We’ve been doing virtual cinema. That’s been fairly popular. Right now, we have nine movies on our website and they are things we would normally play. I think we’re going to continue doing a few titles even once we open our doors. Also, the popcorn.  

Alison Dennis has been the executive director at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology since October 2018. The nonprofit was fortunate to receive a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program that has allowed Sitka to keep its full staff working full hours.

“We’re working remotely from home, both making preparations for the summer, adapting as we learn what will be possible, and also hard at work planning the 2021 schedule now,” Dennis said. “Even before the pandemic, Sitka had been pursuing a number of innovative ways to expand our reach, and we’re excited to share more about what we’ve been working on in the months ahead.”

Alison Dennis is executive director for Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis.
The Sitka Center’s Alison Dennis says she feels both more isolated and more connected than ever.

What has been a pleasant surprise of the pandemic?

Dennis: The generosity of the Oregon arts community is awe-inspiring. Whether generosity in spirits (well wishes) or financial support (donated money for spring workshops we’ve had to cancel). Instead of requesting full refunds, people are donating part or all of it. We’re really overwhelmed. One of our newest team members put it this way: “The people are reaching out to us to make sure the Sitka team is doing OK. I’ve never worked anywhere where people care so much.”

I was really moved by that reflection. One of the other biggest surprises is feeling isolated, but also more connected than ever at the same time.

What have you learned during the pandemic?

Dennis: On a practical level, the Oregon Coast is an art and nature destination. It’s important for all of us who are part of coastal tourism and government to collaborate across county lines to determine when and how we welcome people back to the coast. On an art and ecology level, now is the time to listen to nature. Altea Narici, a cellist and vocal artist from Rome, participated in a residence here. Reflecting on her time here the first week of the pandemic, she wrote, “The world is saying I am still here, life is still here, spring is happening now. It still is a time for singing.”

Will your work be different as a result of the pandemic?

Dennis: I bet it will. At one level, Sitka is very much a place-based organization. We’re a place people come to get off the grid, connect with nature, reflect, and create. At another level, Sitka’s real work is the inspiration people take with them into their lives after spending time in this place. The pandemic is bringing communities together across geography in new ways. I’m excited to see how Sitka’s community of art- and nature-inspired people will connect, share, find inspiration in one another’s work through the pandemic, but also beyond.


Blood, sweat, tears — and a little Beatrix Potter

Lincoln City's Nora Sherwood left a lucrative career in geographic information systems to become a natural science illustrator

The daughter of a foreign service diplomat, Nora Sherwood has lived the life of a world adventurer from the start. Born in Colombia, she graduated high school in Spain and, in between, lived in Sweden, Finland, and Chile. She returned to the United States to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, then embarked on a highly lucrative, but largely unknown, career in geographic information systems (think Google Maps).

After raising a family, she walked away from geographic information in favor of a career she wasn’t, to be honest, quite ready for. Not that it stopped her. Today, Sherwood is a successful natural science illustrator whose clients include Williams Sonoma, Oregon State University, and the High Desert Museum in Bend.

Lincoln City artist Nora Sherwood is scheduled to teach a workshop on bird illustration this summer at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.
Lincoln City artist Nora Sherwood is scheduled to teach a workshop on bird illustration this summer at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.

Sherwood recently hosted a virtual tour of her studio in Lincoln City and is scheduled to teach a July workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology (it’s full, but there’s a waiting list). We talked with Sherwood about her career as a natural science illustrator.

So about the midlife career change — what made you trade a career in technology for one in the arts?

Sherwood: It’s kind of complicated. There are two main reasons. First, I got into that field very early on and rode a really interesting wave of trying to help people understand how that tool could be applied. When I got to the point of telling people I was into geographic information systems and they stopped asking, “What is that?,” I realized it was time to get into something else. I started a family and took time out to raise my kids. Geographic information systems is a fast-moving field. When I was able to focus again full-time, the field had gone past me. I would have needed to do some significant retraining, and with a family I just didn’t want to do that.

Why natural science illustration?

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I wanted to do next. I have always liked science illustration. I like the style of that artwork. There are programs where you can be taught how to be a science illustrator. I looked into that. If I had looked into it better, I might have realized how much money I was leaving on the table. (Laughs.)

Sherwood works primarily in watercolor, but also uses colored pencils, pen and ink, graphite and scratchboard. She says an involved illustration, like these ospreys building a nest, can take 50 hours to complete.
Sherwood works primarily in watercolor, but also uses colored pencils, pen and ink, graphite and scratchboard. She says an involved illustration, such as these ospreys building a nest, can take 50 hours to complete.

Are you a natural artist?

No, I am not. That was kind of the crazy part. The program at the University of Washington assumed you would already be an artist. I had the rude shock of realizing my art skills were not good enough. Fortunately, the Gage Academy of Art (a four-year art school oriented toward adults) was nearby, and I took all the basic drawing and color-theory classes it offered. It’s been blood, sweat, and tears. I felt a little bit desperate. I had walked away from my career. I had to do this. I graduated in 2014 from the University of Washington with a Certificate of Natural Science Illustration.

On your webpage, you talk about some of the illustrators who have influenced the field, Maria Sibylla Merian and John James Audubon. But your favorite is…

Beatrix Potter. She’s thought of as the “Peter Rabbit lady.” But she turned to doing those books partly out of frustration at not being taken seriously for her studies of mycology.

In this ever-changing age of technology, does science illustration still have value?

I think sometimes a piece of artwork is much more beautiful than a photograph, so that you will actually want to look at it. You might blow by a photograph of the same subject.

What about from a practical standpoint?

I get asked to do projects for people who need stuff you can’t photograph. I’ve drawn a lot of blister beetles. They’re a commercially important beetle used in surgery as a blistering agent so that medicines can be put in subcutaneously. I worked with a professor in entomology who needed drawings of blister beetles. The differences are really subtle, so that you need to see those differences only and not the whole beetle. You need to simplify it.

The Western Painted Turtle is native to Oregon. On a post for the Burke Blog, Sherwood writes: “Science illustrators don’t render individual specimens, but rather often illustrate an accurate ideal,” a composite of attributes from multiple specimens that can be used to illustrate guiding characteristics in scientific papers, journals, and field guides.
Sherwood says she enjoys illustrating reptiles, such as this Western Painted Turtle. On a post for the Burke Blog, Sherwood writes: “Science illustrators don’t render individual specimens, but rather often illustrate an accurate ideal,” a composite of attributes from multiple specimens that can be used to show guiding characteristics in scientific papers, journals, and field guides.

What is your favorite subject?

I am pretty much known for birds.

What is the most difficult?

I’m not as good a botanical artist as I would like to be. I’m still getting better at that.

How long does it take you to complete an illustration?

The simplest I would ever do would be five hours – for maybe a 5-inch portrait of a little bird. At the other end, 50 hours. That might be something more like a 13-by-19 illustration of a pair of ospreys building a nest.

You’ve lived all over the world. What drew you to the coast?

I really had no say in the matter. We lived in Steamboat Springs, Colo. My husband is from Southern California, and he wanted to get back to the beach, but not California. We moved in 2014. I didn’t like it initially. I thought, “Oh my gosh, how am I going to make this work?” But now I think this is a wonderful town for an artist.


This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

Joanna Priestley: Discovering where the magic is

The Portland filmmaker, a spring resident at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, calls animation a “fascinating combination of art and science”

Joanna Priestley’s animated film, “Jung & Restless,” was scheduled to premiere this weekend at the Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City, but fell victim to the COVID-19 outbreak when the showing was canceled. Priestley, a spring resident at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis, promises she will eventually make it happen. We talked with her about her work as an animator.

Joanna Priestley began her animation career by making films using rubber stamps and index cards.  Photo by: Tim Sugden
Joanna Priestley began her animation career by making films using rubber stamps and index cards. Photo by: Tim Sugden

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Priestley: I was born in Portland, a third-generation Oregonian. I spent some time away, but I always come back to Oregon because Oregon is the best. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, got my undergraduate from Berkeley, and in my 30s, went back to get a masters at the California Institute of the Arts. That’s the school Walt Disney founded.

Did you go to school knowing you were going to be a filmmaker?

I always really, really loved films. I watched everything I could. In high school, I connected to the Multnomah library system and they had a fabulous collection of animated films.

How did you discover it?

My teacher showed them in school. That’s where I was first exposed to animation as an art form.

I’m guessing animation has changed by leaps and bounds since?

It has and it hasn’t. It’s changed technically. People have much more sophisticated technology and techniques of creating animation. But the basic way you create animation is the same. It was invented in late 1880s. It’s been refined, but still, the basic idea is the same.

What is the basic idea?

The basic idea is you study and learn how movement is created. Animation is this really fascinating combination of art and science. You have to understand both. If you look at sports, for example, you see loads of interesting movement. Like in boxing, there’s a preparatory action where you pull your arm back and clench your fist and then you push your fist and arm forward and slam into something, and then there’s a reaction where your hand snaps back a little bit. As you study that motion you can begin to understand how to break it down into individual drawings — or sculpture, if you are doing stop-motion animation.

A forest of hands is among the stream-of-consciousness images in Joanna Priestley’s new film, “Jung & Restless.”

That seems like it would take so many, many drawings.

You just decide how many drawings a second you are going to do to create your motion. You use 12 drawings a second, or 24 a second, if you are a Disney studio. I use 12 drawings a second. Some use eight drawings a second, some, in what we call limited animation, use four. You decide at the beginning what you are going to use. So then, you just go about calculating how far to move things with the drawings. If you’re using stop-motion animation with puppets or sculpture, you have to figure out how far to move the puppet or sculpture. And that’s where the magic is.


Coast calendar: Here’s to an arty new year

Art exhibits and author readings are among events getting 2020 off to an inspiring start

The first Saturday of 2020 starts with several events in Lincoln County, including two openings at the Newport Visual Arts Center. At 2 p.m., the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts hosts a First Saturday opening reception for the 11 artists chosen from the recent 2019 PushPin Show for the 2020 Mayors’ Show. There’ll be comments at 3 p.m. and the opportunity to schmooze until 5 p.m.

Winning artists include Linda Aguirre (miniature dioramas), Haley Dean (watercolor still lifes), Denise DeMarie (fiber wall sculptures), Graece Gabriel (photography), Sallie Inman (acrylic on wood panels), Susan Jones (woven reed sculptures), Herb Kateley (photography), Bill Posner (photography), Ben Soeby (mixed media on wood), Emy Syrop (gouache and acrylic on paper and canvas), and Jeff Syrop (watercolor and gouache on paper).

Art by Ben Soeby is among the work included in the Mayors’ Show opening Saturday in the Newport Visual Arts Center.

“Being selected for the Mayors’ Show highlights the VAC’s ability to inspire artists,” Jeff Syrop said in a press release. “The inclusiveness of the PushPin Show really jumpstarts artists’ creativity and the Mayors’ Show is an extension of that energy. It’s definitely an honor to be included.”

The Mayors’ Show was started in 2016 by former Newport Mayor — and painter — Sandra Roumagoux and the Oregon Council for the Arts to give more exposure to PushPin Show artists and to build connections between the arts community and city employees and elected officials.

“I happened upon the Mayors’ Show last winter and considered the possibility of being selected for a future year,” participating artist Susan Jones said in a press release. “That singular thought strengthened my commitment to art and inspired the choices I made while weaving my sculptures over the past year. I am excited and encouraged to be honored in this way by my community. We are fortunate to have this kind of support.”

The show will be up in the Runyan Gallery through Jan. 26.

Seal Rock artist Helen Nighthawk’s work in on display in the Upstairs Gallery of the Newport Visual Arts Center.

Also at the center, an exhibit by Seal Rock Artist Helen Nighthawk opens Saturday in the Upstairs Gallery with a public reception from 2 to 5 p.m.

Turning features acrylic and ink paintings on paper and plywood, and wood sculptures. A visual artist and poet, Nighthawk has been painting for more than 50 years. She has been involved with the Nye Beach Banner Project and been a featured artist at libraries around the county. She also worked as a scenic artist for films, television shows, and public and private productions throughout Seattle. Her credits include collaborating with directors David Lynch and Robert Altman. Her show will be on display through Feb. 1.  

AT THE SITKA CENTER FOR ART and Ecology, Saturday is the Resident Show & Tell. Visual artists Lanny DeVuono and Genevieve Robertson and writers-in-residence Maxim Loskutoff and Lydia Conklin will present what they’ve been working on since their arrival in October. Doors open at 12:30 p.m, with presentations starting at 1 p.m. in the Boyden Studio. The event is free and open to the public.