The Pacific Northwest Arts School in Coupeville wants islanders to know it’s their school, too

Posted in Feature, Visual Art

Whidbey Life Magazine

It is an extraordinary thing that in a town of 1,842 residents on 50-mile long island north of Seattle, there is an active and thriving fine arts school for artistic-minded adults.

The Pacific Northwest Arts School on Main St. in Coupeville, is run by a paid staff of three, along with a pool of about 10 eager volunteers. Sounds small, but it’s as if this place in the prairielands of Whidbey Island (which has been around for 26 years against all odds) has become a magnet of sorts for people from off the island. That’s ironic because there are so many artists that reside on the island itself. But the school is notorious for attracting off-islanders from all parts of the world with its visual art workshops and events like the “Plein Air Painters” competition.

Pacific Northwest Arts School's executive director Lisa Bernhardt at her desk. (Patricia Duff photo)

Pacific Northwest Arts School’s executive director Lisa Bernhardt at her desk. (Patricia Duff photo)

The school’s executive director, Lisa Bernhardt, says the purpose of the nonprofit organization (previously known as the Coupeville Arts Center when it opened in 1986) is to promote visual arts education in the community and beyond. But, the fact is, it’s been attracting more “beyond” than local and Bernhardt would like to see that change.

“I want people to know that you can come through the door and take a class, attend a lecture or go on an excursion. That’s the word I want to get out: This school is for the community,” Bernhardt said.

At the school’s downtown Coupeville location photography workshops, painting and drawing, mixed-media, fiber and special sessions for drop-in artists are offered, where folks can drop by and take a one-time painting, drawing or collage class for $10 or visit the school for a free lecture. Students can also drop into one of the larger workshops for an hour and half, get comfortable with the class and then decide if they want to take the full session. (Look for “Special Sessions” on the school’s website for the latest drop-in classes starting this month.)

“The open studio times are for the locals who don’t have the time or money to take a full-fledged workshop,” Bernhardt said.

That sense of welcome is not only evident from the library housed at the school with its 1500 volumes of art books available to its members, but also from the new installation of free lectures. Five lectures were given in 2012 by visiting artists, including free lectures on photography, painting and clay and one on art history with a visiting professor from Skagit Valley College, among others. The school also hosts an art excursion to the Seattle Art Museum every year on a shuttle, which includes a breakfast and box lunch.

Bernhardt said it’s a family affair of sorts, in other words, the school’s members are its main support.

“We want to give our members something to connect with and make them feel a part of the school,” Bernhardt said. By “we,” Bernhardt refers to the other two full-time members of her team, office administrator is Karen Fuller and facilities manager is Daryl Terado.

Painting teacher George Strickland painted this one which he calls "Trolley." (Photo courtesy of PNWAS)

Painting teacher George Strickland painted this one which he calls “Trolley.” (Photo courtesy of PNWAS)

When the local founders had the idea in 1986, they took what grant money they acquired and started the school as a fiber based program at Camp Casey. Eventually the school added photography, painting and mixed-media and fiber arts and moved to the current location in the mid-90s.

Art hobbyists from off-island currently make up 80 percent of the student body, majority of whom are female and older than 55.

It makes sense that the school has caught the eye of people from other parts of the country, indeed the world. They are serious enthusiasts who travel to the island for workshops in which they are ready to explore that penchant for art they’ve always had.

The Pacific Northwest Art School in a town with sweeping take-your-breath-away views from the top of Ebey’s Landing and the general rich history of the place make it the perfect place to be inspired as an artist. Also, its sweet little downtown shopping area on Penn Cove, with quaint boutiques and a surprising selection of good restaurants makes Coupeville a fine place to visit, and to spend a week honing one’s arts skills and generally enjoying the bucolic beauty of the island, especially in the summer. That’s why the school has been so popular to this particular demographic of student.

“I’m happy where we’re at with that,” Bernhardt said, “but I’d love for the community to know we’re here. Before the recession we had 800 students per year and now we’re nowhere near that number.”

But Bernhardt is optimistic the school is heading toward those numbers again, especially with all the new programs that are being introduced. Also, another installation hopes to connect the community to the school.

A mixed-media class is all smiles after taking the Helmuth workshop at Pacific Northwest Art School in Coupeville. (Photo courtesy of PNWAS)

A class is all smiles after taking a collage-making workshop at Pacific Northwest Art School in Coupeville. (Photo courtesy of PNWAS)

Local metal artist Jonathan Ward suggested a kinetic sculpture be installed on the school grounds as a kind of conduit between the school, its members and donors and the community it serves. The sculpture will move with a series of “cogs and gears” made from the tools of artists, such as knitting needles, paint brushes, or a real gear or a cog and will have the name of a person or business who supports the school engraved on it.  The unveiling of the kinetic sculpture will take place at the school’s annual meeting on Friday, March 1. Ward has already created the base and donors will add their “cogs and gears” through the years.

There are myriad ways the school keeps its doors open, including its January Art Mart supplies sale, the Christmas Gala and annual end-of-the year auction, all of which support the management of the school and feed its children’s scholarship program, where children in grades 3 through 5 study art in clay, painting and crayon, and learn about famous artists after school. The program is taught by a retired Oak Harbor school teacher and awarded 17 scholarships in 2012. A program for teenagers and middle school students is currently in the works.

The poetic imagery of Robert Stahl's was part of the South Whidbey Photography Club's free lecture at the school. (Photo by Robert Stahl)

The poetic imagery of Robert Stahl was part of the South Whidbey Photography Club’s free lecture at the school. (Photo by Robert Stahl)

This is the start of the art school’s 27th year and Bernhardt sees new possibilities all the time. She just needs the community to see them, too.

“I want this school to be about creative and positive things,” she said.

The Pacific Northwest Art School holds its popular Art Mart, where artists can find deals on art supplies, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26 at the campus at 15 NW Birch St., Coupeville. New and gently used art supplies may be dropped off at the art school. If you’d like to rent a stable and sell your own items, you may do so for a fee of $25 per table.

Call 360-678-3396 for more info, or email Check out all the upcoming classes, lectures, excursions and workshops at

Some recent news and upcoming special events for PNWAS:

Whidbey Playhouse and the Whidbey Island Soroptimists of Coupeville are joining forces to help support the arts school in a benefit performance of “It Runs in the Family” at the playhouse in Oak Harbor. The performance of the British-inspired farce is at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27.  Tickets are $25 and also include British style tea, cakes, cookies, sandwiches and champagne in addition to the matinee.  Tickets can be purchased through the art school. The proceeds will benefit both the Pacific Northwest Art School and the Coupeville chapter of the Whidbey Island Soroptimists.

Thanks to certain “fiber arts angels” who pledged $4,000, the school kicked off its 2013 campaign with new sinks and, if all goes well, new floors in the classrooms and for a tree root removal in the parking lot. Go to the website and DONATE  to the project to raise the $3,000 needed to finish these renovations.

(Photo at top, Textile artist Elin Noble teaches workshops on shibori techniques of dyeing cloth. Photo courtesy of PNWAS)

Patricia Duff is an award-winning journalist whose most recent kudos include several wins in the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association 2011 competition.

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