As you drive out Highway 18 toward the Oregon Coast, the tiny town of Willamina isn’t really visible from the road. But head north past the sprawling lumber piles at the junction with Highway 22, and within a couple of minutes you’ll find yourself in a community that has art going on.
This weekend is a good time to do it, because the 30th annual Willamina Coastal Hills Art Tour is returning after a 2-year pandemic hiatus. It runs 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday on the West Valley Community Campus, on the west end of downtown.
The location, it turns out, is part of the attraction.
In years past, a few tour artists were on the campus, but many partnered with the local chamber of commerce and set up shop for the tour in local businesses. This year, virtually all will gather in what used to be the local high school — one of those elongated, New Deal-era brick buildings that, in cities around Oregon and the nation, have been rehabilitated and transformed into libraries and community centers.
In 2003, the last class graduated from this building, which then sat empty for years before a private party purchased it. A nonprofit formed in 2013, and after a $50,000 grant from the West Valley Kiwanis and a lot of work parties, the building is on its way to being a center for art and culture.
“We have some really exciting ideas and plans on how to fill out the space,” says West Valley Executive Director Amanda Widemark. “One of the big ones is having a dedicated art wing with studio space and space for classes and gallery space.”
Funding from the Ford Family Foundation enabled the group to hire Widemark this year, and since July she’s been getting the lay of the land and making plans. Organizers and artists are on the front end of the kind of project that transformed the old school in Newberg into Yamhill County’s crown jewel of community art centers, the Chehalem Cultural Center.
That’s the long game, and this weekend, the public can feel the vibe of an arts and culture center filled with art and culture.
The popular event was organized in 1991 by a small group that included Ginny Wymore, April Wooden, and the late Betty Frownfelter. Prior to West Valley’s sponsorship, it was run by a local economic improvement district and chamber of commerce.
“It’s not a studio tour and never has been,” said Cris Darr, a retired bookseller and quilter who sits on the West Valley board. “It’s been between the businesses and artists, but frankly, there aren’t that many businesses left in Willamina, and the community center is fixed up enough that we have rooms available for the artists to be in.”
The tour will include four woodworkers: George Darr, Will Eikleberry, and Pam and Gary Shofstall; William Lindberg with paintings and poetry books; Sandra Walker with acrylic painting; Kylie Mead with acrylics and watercolors; Lisa Loo with children’s books and cards; and John Vamos, who does laser-engraved home decor. Artist Linda Voeks will be at the Willamina Public Library for a fundraiser there.
Two additional groups will be represented: the Coastal Hills Quilters, in which Darr is active, and the Grand Ronde Art and Craft Guild, which will be in Willamina Christian Church across the street from the school.
Finally, visitors can see the fruits of this year’s Art Conspiracy, a summer art camp that brings children and teens together for an intensive week of artistic work at the new high school across town. Some of the pieces made there — prints, sculpture, fabric work, and more — will be available. All art is for sale.
Some artists, such as Darr, are returning to the 30-year-old event, but there will be new faces. One of those is Vamos, retired from the U.S. Navy and keeping busy with laser engraving. His father, Janos Vamos, was a Hungarian immigrant and well-known woodworker and toymaker in the area; the son is keeping that creative spirit alive. He started a few years ago with Christmas gifts and now is a working artist.
“I have moved to this as being my full-time job, if you can call it a job when you love what you do,” he said. As a first-year Coastal Hills Art Tour participant, he regards this weekend as a good opportunity to get his name out there and showcase his work.
“On a more personal level, I would consider this a win if I can make enough to cover the cost of the table and produce some smiles,” he added. “While smiles don’t pay the bills, they do help keep me passionate in what I do.”
Willamina native Katie Kendall is thrilled to see the event return. Kendall, her sister Meredith, and their husbands, Jed Vinson and Dave Scheafer, have run lively arts-centric businesses and events for years in McMinnville and Willamina. Just a few blocks from the campus, Kendall operates the Willamina Merchants arts collective out of an old bank building. The 6-year-old shop, which started as a holiday pop-up but now operates year-round, features work by about 20 local artists plus local wine, sold out of the building’s original vault.
“Willamina is a great town with many supportive citizens and many, many new ones who are just coming out of the woodwork this year after having moved here during the shutdown,” she said. “I hope it will be a successful art tour this year. I will be there all weekend.”
West Valley Community Campus will keep on keepin’ on after this year’s art tour wraps. The center’s monthly “Wet Season” music series runs on the third Saturday of the month through March with Johnny Wheels & the Swamp Donkeys on Nov. 19 next up. Waiting in the wings for subsequent months are the 99 West Jazz Band, Robert Sarazin Blake, Joe Austin & Janet Kay, and the Tony Coleman Band.
Both this weekend’s art tour and the Wet Season concerts are free. Find the West Valley Community Campus at 266 S.E. Washington St. in Willamina. For more information, call 503-929-4037 or write firstname.lastname@example.org.