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.
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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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”