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Wandering the Galleries of Walla Walla

by Tanja M. Cupples-Shipp

One of the best-kept secrets in southeastern Washington is the sleepy little college town of Walla Walla. This pleasant, peaceful town is located smack-dab in the middle of amber waving wheat fields, sweet onion fields, vineyards and the lush foothills of the majestic Blue Mountains. Walla Walla has a great deal to offer tourists passing through the area, from art, music and wine tasting to wilderness adventures and historical sites. Walla Walla is just one of the many towns along the Lewis and Clark Trail worth visiting. Many of Walla Walla's sights can be enjoyed in a day, but if a visitor really wants to enjoy the area and what it has to offer, there are many hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfast inns from which to choose. The Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce is more than happy to provide prospectivevisitors with all the information necessary to plan the perfect visit.

If it's art you're after, Walla Walla has several galleries to enjoy. The numerous galleries exhibit everything from sculpture, blown glass and pastels to oil paintings and bronze work. These galleries are located within easy walking distance of one another and are free for anyone to come in and take a look. All of them are wonderful, and their proprietors are willing to answer any and all questions that visitors have about the art, the artists and anything in between. All of the galleries have their own unique style and ambience, which makes stopping into more than one of them an absolute must for art lovers.

An easy way to begin your journey through Walla Walla's art world is to visit the Fenton-Stahl Gallery and the Paula Ray Gallery & Frameworks online. Both sites reflect the diversity and quality of art that these galleries have on exhibit, but there's nothing like seeing these galleries firsthand. I had the pleasure of touring the Paula Ray Gallery and Frameworks with manager Shanna Johnson as my guide, and was totally overwhelmed by the quality, variety, and beauty of the art on exhibit there. One of the first things a visitor notices about this gallery is its unique interior design. One of the former owners designed the interior himself, and the gallery was featured in Decor magazine. The styling is very contemporary, and the gallery was the 1995 National Winner of the Best New Gallery Design Award. The amount of art that one can view at this gallery is absolutely staggering. The gallery offers poster catalogues containing literally hundreds of posters, oil paintings, pastels, bronze works, porcelains, photographs, limited edition prints, and my personal favorite, earthquake detectors. So many of the artists featured are local that I came away with the feeling that everyone in Walla Walla and the outlying areas must be a starving artist. But what artists they are.

The woodcarvings and bronzes of Ralph Tretheway, and the bronze work of Timothy Mace, an up-and-comer, are so lifelike that you can feel the movement. Norman Adams' oils are incredibly realistic; several feature the animals of Africa in natural settings. His art has been featured on the cover of Reader's Digest and TV Guide, and has graced the insides of many other national magazines. Wanda Hart's photographs of the local scenery are sensual and mysterious, conveying the beauty and simplicity of the area's rolling foothills in their entire natural splendor. Roger McGee's bronzes compete for attention with the works of his wife, Cherie. There are so many talented local artists on display that it would take me a long time to name them all.

For lovers of funkier artwork, the gallery has the vibrant, tropical limited edition print, "All That You Wish For," by Susan Patricia. Then there are the earthquake detectors, metal sculptures on springs, made by Franzetti Designs of Taos, New Mexico. Roger McGee's bronze fish in the front window is another piece of whimsy that is just irresistible. The gallery is also a dealer of fine porcelains by Guiseppe Armani that reminded me of the works of Erte. They became a dealer of his works because there was no place locally to purchase them. While there, I found out that Shanna feels that one of the most important parts of her job is to educate the public and her customers. She gave me a valuable lesson in framing and the different types of mattes and glass that one can purchase with which to permanently display their art.

The Fenton-Stahl Gallery, just one block up from the Paula Ray Gallery & Frame Works, is just as interesting and unique. It's like walking through a rainbow of art, which owner Mollie Fenton claims was something that "just happened." Planned or not, this kaleidoscope of color arranged in this manner makes a serious impact. Fenton says a full 95 percent of the artists featured are local artists, and she feels that in the Walla Walla area "there are more artists per square inch than anywhere in the world." One of the local artists featured, Arthur Morgan, is not currently shown on the Fenton-Stahl site, but will be in the near future. He works with oils and pastels to create some of the most moody and lifelike landscapes that I have ever seen. A viewer who stares at Morgan's work long enough can almost become part of the scenery and breathe in the heady, woody scents of the trees in the paintings. Morgan's paintings vie for attention with more fanciful items such as David Castleberry's Walla Walla Woolies, fiber art fish with a sense of humor, and the walking sticks of George Rose. Rose's woodcarvings are shown exclusively at this gallery. The translucent loveliness of Nancy Becker's hand-blown glass pieces seems right at home with the lifelike nude sculptures of James Fritz. There are also beautiful pottery pieces, photographs, metal works, and more paintings and pastels from which to choose. They even have some silver jewelry with a western flair, and some fabulous watches that defy description, except to say that the bands are made of natural items. The visual effect of walking through a rainbow only enhances the beauty of the works presented.

Another gallery worth visiting is the Sheehan Gallery at Whitman College , just a few blocks from the galleries mentioned above. While walking about the Whitman Campus you will be able to see some incredible sculptures, including Jim Dine's Chainsaw Venus, a bronze originally carved out of wood with -- you guessed it -- a chainsaw, and Squire Broel's statue of a fish with a lemon balanced on its nose and a bowl balanced on top of the lemon, Three Stories. I had the good fortune to speak with Broel, a local boy who's made good, about this statue. The name of the piece plays off the fact that the pieces are stacked and that each separate piece of the sculpture has a story all its own. The fish, lemon and bowl are his own personal "visual vocabulary," which, along with several different flowers, are used in much of his work, and "speak" to him of the time he spent in Hong Kong. He was quick to state that the piece has "specific meanings" not only to him, but also to those who view it, and that these meanings are not necessarily one and the same. This is evidenced by the fact that my son, who is 13, thought Squire had put the bowl on top of the statue so he and the Whitman students might be able to use it as a basketball hoop of sorts. Broel has recently opened up a gallery of his own downtown (Web site soon to come), and feels the local art taken as a whole is "vibrant," and with more people practicing art in the area, "continually…getting stronger."

With so many galleries in the area from which to choose, I expected there to be a little infighting taking place between the different owners. I was pleasantly surprised to find that all of the owners I spoke with were in agreement: the more galleries there are in this, or any other area, the better it is for the area. Walla Walla is so alive with art that the local art culture is growing by leaps and bounds, and all of the owners wanted visitors and locals to know that anyone and everyone is welcome in their galleries.

I have only mentioned a few of the many galleries in Walla Walla. If you are fortunate enough to time your visit for the third Thursday of any given month, your hours of art viewing will be expanded, because many local galleries are open to the public after hours on these days. They are all within walking distance of each other, and if you should choose to turn your art experience into a walking tour, don't forget to take in, as if you could miss it, Historic Downtown Walla Walla. The Victorian charm of our street lamps, coupled with the Old World charm of outdoor restaurants and the incredible volume of art, just can't be beat. And the natives are friendly!

Tanja Cupples-Shipp is a working mother/freelance writer in Washington. Currently she is pursuing a degree in Social Science through Washington State University's Extended Degree Program.


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