On the Waterfront
Many people who come through Anacortes, Washington are trying to catch the ferry to the San Juan Islands and so drive through, without ever seeing one of Fidalgo Island’s most attractive and artistic locations.
Those who continue past the ferry turnoff are greeted by the “Welcome to Anacortes” archway leading to the city’s historic downtown. Past the archway, Commercial Ave. is a straight, tree-lined stretch of Americana.
A look back
Like a lot of historical districts, this area was built in fits and starts. The city’s first big building boom was in 1890. Rumors of Anacortes being the Western terminus for the transcontinental railroad fueled rampant land speculation that ended abruptly that winter when Anacortes wasn’t chosen.
Shipbuilding and lumber mills kept the town growing steadily through the early 1900s and left Commercial Ave. with a pleasant mix of brick and wooden buildings that originally housed dry goods stores, restaurants, hotels and other fixtures of rural American towns.
Today, the lumber mills are gone, but Anacortes retains its strong ties to the sea. Shipyards still operate on the waterfront at the north end of Commercial Ave. and Cap Sante Boat Haven Marina occupies the sheltered bay by the Depot Arts Center and W.T. Preston Snagboat Museum.
Mix of galleries
Unlike the fate of other old downtowns, Anacortes’ historical business district is still bustling. Where the hardware stores, groceries and clothing stores used to dominate, Commercial Ave. now hosts a comfortable mix of bookstores, craft shops, restaurants, antique stores, and seven art galleries in four blockswith two additional galleries, Bowman Gallery and Gallery at the Depot, one block over on “R” Ave.
Over the years, the San Juans have drawn and nurtured a host of fine artists and many of them have chosen to showcase their work close to home. Anne Martin McCool is one of these local artists who also happens to own a gallery that shows the work of 17 other local artists. Located in an intimate storefront, the Anne Martin McCool Studio is full. Anne’s watercolors, oils and giclee prints hang with works by watercolorist Rebecca Hyland, while glass cases often hold jewelry by Carol Cunningham, teapots by Donna Perugini and clay crow sculptures by Teri Silva.
Further down Commercial Ave., Scott Milo Gallery is on a sunny corner with ample windows and high ceilings. This gallery handles numerous artists and the windows show work by fused glass artists Annette Tamm while the walls may hold Rob Tilley’s photography or watercolors and acrylics by Jennifer Bowman.
There are also several galleries that highlight artwork from national and international artists as well as local artists. One of these, Insights Gallery, showcases art by a range of contemporary artists including sculptor Tracey Powell, biomorphic abstractionist Michael Clough, and Ramona Hammerly, who paints lush Northwest landscapes. Among its 20 artists Insights also represents Nova Scotia artist Jeanne Aisthorpe-Smith and Vancouver’s Brittani Faulkes.
Most of the galleries are open year-round and all the galleries participate in monthly First Friday Art Walks that draw residents and tourists downtown for the evening.
The Star Bar Café also takes part in the Art Walks. It’s an award winning, mostly vegetarian restaurant that also showcases art. Under its high ceiling and quietly turning old fans, art lines the walls propped on shelves over every table.
The Arts Walks are also a good time to see at least a few of the over 100 murals gracing downtown Anacortes. Bill Mitchell began this project in 1984 and has left a painted legacy of local history throughout the city. Working from historical photos, Bill has commemorated local children, storekeepers, modern musicians and even entertainers at the 1962 Arts Festival. His is slated to end the mural project this year.
Festivals and Art Shows
Along with First Friday Gallery Walks, the community also hosts two large art shows during the year.
The Anacortes Quilt Show and Walk is held in conjunction with the nearby Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, when the tulip fields burst into bloom in April. Quilters display their fiber art in shops throughout Anacortes and attendees are also encouraged to take quilting classes at local quilt shops.
This year marked the 44th anniversary of the Anacortes Art Festival. Commercial Ave. is blocked off and 250 juried artists booths are set up, allowing visitors to stroll through the booths or stop in at the galleries.
A big part of the festival is the Art at the Port. It’s part fine art exhibit, part artists in action. This year’s artists in action showcased their techniques in stone sculpting, blacksmithing, silversmithing, basketry, painting and weaving. And the exhibit was an Art at the Port Invitational ExhibitionNuArt 05: Juror’s Choice. A prominent group of past festival jurors from Washington and Oregon including museum directors and curators, gallery owners and art educators were asked to recommend artists they felt represent the “Nu” Northwest temperament in art. What evolved was an incredibly diverse and significant show that included works by 22 artists.
Anacortes has become a prime art destination as well as the gateway to the San Juans.