Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

Toledo: A coastal mill town where the “love of art is deep”

The Toledo Art Walk over Labor Day weekend epitomizes the city’s arts-centric focus, built largely on the legacy of painter Michael Gibbons.

|

JJudy Gibbons joins muralist Casey McEneny at his painting of her husband, Michael Gibbons, on Toledo's Main Street. A self-guided walking tour of nine murals is among Toledo Art Walk events over Labor Day weekend. Photo courtesy: Michael Gibbons Art
Judy Gibbons joins muralist Casey McEneny at the painting he did on Toledo’s Main Street of her husband, Michael Gibbons. A self-guided walking tour of nine murals is among Toledo Art Walk events over Labor Day weekend. Photo courtesy: Michael Gibbons Fine Art

Not everyone can see beauty in the heart of industry. But where some see only smokestacks, the late artist Michael Gibbons saw wildflowers and mountain peaks, covered bridges and flowering trees. He saw not only beauty, but also an opportunity to share it, to create something bigger and lasting.

Thirty years later, the city of Toledo continues to nurture Michael and Judy Gibbons’ vision. A mill town of 3,700 set seven miles from the coast, Toledo has evolved into an arts hub of galleries, studios, museums, and festivals set on streets colored by murals, where vacant storefronts offer peeps of creativity.

It all started in 1993 with what was meant to be a one-time open studio for Gibbons, a mentor artist for the Corvallis-based Vistas & Vineyards plein air program. Two neighboring artists, Doug Haga and Ivan Kelly, opened their workspaces as well, and so began the Toledo Art Walk, an annual Labor Day weekend event spanning three decades and counting.


OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An occasional series


Kelly, who emigrated from Northern Ireland, moved to Toledo after marrying his wife, Sharon, who was raised there. “I didn’t have a gallery,” recalled Kelly, a member of the American Society of Marine Artists. “I just showed some paintings in the living room. I saw what Michael was doing with his gallery, and I thought I would have a go at it myself and converted an old garage. I’ve been on this corner for 30 years. In the former days, we’d have 500 to 600 people come through. It’s maybe a little less these days, but it’s still quite a large turnout.”

Sponsor

Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

Over the years, the number of artists and open studios grew to as many as 50 artists. The Gibbonses added Vicarage Garden Art Talks in their backyard English garden, with talks by Michael and other artists, music, and a wine and cheese reception. In 2002, the couple and like-minded friends founded the Yaquina River Museum of Art in an 1887 schoolhouse, and in 2006 it received 501c(3) status as a nonprofit and soon became the sponsor of the Art Walk. 

Visitors to the 2021 Toledo Art Walk listen to a presentation at the 1887 schoolhouse that is home to the Yaquina River Museum of Art. Muralist Casey McEneny Casey McEneny will give an art talk at the museum, beginning at 1:30 p.m. during each day of this year's Art Walk. Photo courtesy: Michael Gibbons Fine Art
Visitors to the 2021 Toledo Art Walk listen to a presentation at the 1887 schoolhouse that is home to the Yaquina River Museum of Art. Muralist Casey McEneny will give an art talk at the museum, beginning at 1:30 p.m., during each day of this year’s Art Walk. Photo courtesy: Michael Gibbons Fine Art

Newport artist Marion Moir recalls the plein air painting contest judged by different artists each year with cash prizes provided by community donors. “We had a route all the way up to Elk City where we could paint,” Moir said. “We all took it very seriously. The competition was from all over Oregon — really fine art, really tough competition. You just painted right out there. You got bugs in your paint, you got sunburned or sometimes you’d freeze to death. And the wind — my paintings ended up in the bay. It was really special. The whole thing.”

Today, some artists continue to show in their studios, but the majority are in galleries. Along with art displays, the weekend includes artist talks; the Founders Show with paintings by Gibbons, Haga, and Kelly; and a self-guided mural walk of nine murals, including a newly dedicated mural by Casey McEneny of Gibbons painting a scene by the Yaquina River. McEneny met the Gibbonses when he took a class from Michael in 2005.

“Michael was very sophisticated and well versed in what he did,” said McEneny of his  mentor, who died in 2020. “Judy and Michael together had a pretty clear view of the legacy they wanted to leave for that town. They had this dream no one else could see, this vision of what Toledo could be, a vision they had to really convince people of. What inspired me was seeing them work together. All the directions and things that have been going on are really cool. It’s kind of the spirit has taken off.”

Michael Gibbons – 2008 Painting plein air in Wren, OR at the Harris Bridge.
Michael Gibbons paints at the Harris Bridge in Wren in 2008. Gibbons, with fellow artists Doug Haga and Ivan Kelly, was a founder 30 years ago of what is now the Toledo Art Walk. Photo courtesy: Michael Gibbons Fine Art

That “spirit” is alive year-round and found everywhere from empty storefronts to the library, where original paintings by Gibbons, Haga, and Kelly are displayed. “There’s a lot of art here,” said Deborah Trusty, Toledo Public Library director. “I have noticed we have people who want to come in just to look at it throughout the year.  It’s easy to look at Toledo as this little mill town that is not very sophisticated. It’s a small town out of the way. The population is low, the average income is pretty low compared to the rest of the state. But this love of art is deep here.”

In 2020, the city launched the Arts Revitalization of Toledo (ART) initiative aimed at energizing the city’s business district with an “art-centric” focus to draw tourists and engage locals, Mayor Rod Cross said.

One of the first moves by the ART committee of local citizens and businesses was to establish Phantom Galleries, a project that pairs artists with vacant storefronts.

Sponsor

“The galleries serve two purposes,” Cross said. “One, to display up-and-coming artists. We want local artists to be seen by people. And two, to attract people to the buildings. We have a lot of empty storefronts, and we’ve had some good luck with storefront owners actually having their businesses start back up because of the Phantom Galleries.”

They’ve also started the summer Art, Oysters & Brews festival, which happens the first weekend of each month, July through September, coinciding in September with the Art Walk.

Pastel artist Steve Bennett of Jacksonville gives a demonstration in Micheal and Judy Gibbons' garden during the 2012 Toledo Art Walk. Judy Gibbons says Bennett and his artist wife, Sue Bennett, began coming to Toledo in 2007 and often rented an art studio/living space from them for several weeks to work plein air in the Yaquina Estuary. Photo courtesy: Judy Gibbons
Pastel artist Steve Bennett of Jacksonville gives a demonstration in Michael and Judy Gibbons’ garden during the 2012 Toledo Art Walk. Judy Gibbons says Bennett and his artist wife, Sue Bennett, began coming to Toledo in 2007 and often rented an art studio/living space from them for several weeks to work plein air in the Yaquina Estuary. Photo courtesy: Judy Gibbons

“It brings in a different demographic,” Cross said. “We have people who come just for art, some just for the brew, others for the oysters. Last year, Judy [Gibbons] was so happy, because they had so many people coming through the galleries. Art Walk also gives a boost to us. We’re doing our best to work together. We learned a long time ago when we all work together in this town, we can have some amazing things happen.”

At the September festival, they’ll dedicate the mural local kids worked on during the past two festivals. Organizers plan to include the kids’ mural-making as an annual part of the fest.

Cross isn’t stopping there. “My dream is the dream I got from Michael, and that is to have at least one studio downtown with at least two apartments. An upstairs, where the artists would live, and down below, working studios where they can display but also work.”

Michael Gibbons painted this “View of Toledo," a mill town whose slogan is, "Where Industry and Art Meet."
Michael Gibbons painted this “View of Toledo,” a mill town whose slogan is, “Where Industry and Art Meet.”

The city is also working with the Oregon Cultural Trust, Oregon Arts Commission, and Business Oregon as part of a five-city pilot program – Condon, downtown Eugene, Newport, and downtown Portland are the others – to build art and cultural programs. Cross is hoping for funding from the Legislature to expand ART Toledo and launch additional programs, including partnering with schools to “integrate the kids into the community and help community to see our kids have talent.”

Katy Keuter, who worked with the city in recent months as a community outreach specialist through the Resource Assistance for Rural Environments program, has seen the impact Toledo’s art culture has already had on students.

Sponsor

Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

“I had the opportunity to help with the Phantom Galleries,” said Keuter, an interdisciplinary artist from Eugene. “Three high school students came through, and I asked what they wanted to do after school. All three wanted to be artists, and what was interesting is all three were extremely talented.”

Keuter added that Toledo “seems to be at the forefront of what they are doing. They are doing what they do in Europe, honoring their artists. I’m just really impressed by it.”

Be part of our
growing success

Join our Stronger Together Campaign and help ensure a thriving creative community. Your support powers our mission to enhance accessibility, expand content, and unify arts groups across the region.

Together we can make a difference. Give today, knowing a donation that supports our work also benefits countless other organizations. When we are stronger, our entire cultural community is stronger.

Donate Today

Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

SHARE:
Corrib Theatre From a Hole in the Ground Contemporary Irish Theatre Alberta House Portland Oregon
Kalakendra Indian Classical Instrumental Music First Congregational Church Portland Oregon
Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon
Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon
Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon
Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton Oregon
Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon
Newport Visual and Performing Arts Newport Oregon Coast
Kalakendra Indian Classical Instrumental Music First Congregational Church Portland Oregon
Triangle Productions Perfect Arrangement Portland Oregon
NW Dance Project Moving Stories Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon
Oregon Repertory Singers Finding Light 50th Season Portland Oregon
Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon
Imago Theatre Carol Triffle Mission Gibbons Portland Oregon
Maryhill Museum of Art Goldendale Washington
Portland State University College of the Arts
Bonnie Bronson 2024 Fellow Wendy Red Star Reed College Reception Kaul Auditorium Foyer Portland Oregon
PassinArt Theatre and Portland Playhouse present Yohen Brunish Theatre Portland Oregon
Pacific Maritime Heritage Center Prosperity of the Sea Lincoln County Historical Society Newport Oregon Coast
Portland Art Museum Virtual Sneakers to Cutting Edge Kicks Portland Oregon
High Desert Museum Sasquatch Central Oregon
Oregon Cultural Trust donate
We do this work for you.

Give to our GROW FUND.