Karla Matzke

Karla Matzke stands in “The Portal,” her stainless steel sculpture at Terry’s Corner in 1999, when artists opened Camano’s door to the world.

Camano Arts Association is known for its wildly popular Camano Island Studio Tour that brings people to artists’ studios. But most people don’t realize it was the tour that created the arts organization.

It all started 20 years ago as a plan for three galleries to hold art openings at the same time so they could pool advertising money.

Karla Matzke and Jack Gunter ran the History of the World Gallery Part IV on south Camano Island, Sal Hutson ran Souvenirs of the Soul in downtown Stanwood, and Gayle Picken ran the David Maritz Gallery at Utsalady.

In 1999, Matzke, Hutson and Picken met to figure out what they could do by working together from their separate places.

“It’s not like we’re in a city where you can have a gallery walk,” Matzke said, recalling the details. “We decided to have a progressive tour, like a progressive dinner. People would start at Sal’s in Stanwood and have coffee and donuts, Gayle had hors d’oeuvres, and then we ended at History of the World with wine and a party.”

They invited artists between the galleries to open their studios, including Jack Archibald, Liz Hamlin, Shannon Kirby, Paula Rey and John Ebner.

“We figured out what the advertising would cost, pooled our money and sent out to our mailing lists and invited people to come,” Matzke said.

Art lovers were game. The tour drew crowds.

“All of a sudden we were getting calls from other artists, ‘Hey I want to be a part of this if you do it next year,’” Matzke said. “We weren’t thinking ahead to do it annually. So we thought maybe we should form some kind of group.”

“When the tour started, there was no arts association,” said Liz Hamlin, an artist who has been involved from the beginning. “We needed some kind of an organization to make decisions and make this tour work. It was more than a few individuals could handle — that’s how Camano Arts Association was born.”

Within a year, CAA held regular meetings to focus on the tour. For the first few years, the tour was the only goal. Matzke visited the Whatcom studio tour to see how they did it. The group decided to hold the tour each year on Mother’s Day weekend and call it the Camano Studio Tour.

Although artists are often known to be more concerned with art than business, they tackled the nuts and bolts of organization. They created bylaws and a mission statement and grew.

“As an organization, it’s become really well managed. We take it seriously,” Matzke said.

When they decided an advertising person was needed, Rosanne Cohn came onboard and “lifted all their boats.” She convinced them to go nonprofit and get grants. Rhonda’s Design created professional tour brochures — colorful works of art with an ever-expanding list of studios dotting the map.

Cohn’s wide media blitz put the Camano art tour on the map, artist Jack Gunter said.

“The tour was so popular that helicopters came up from KING-5 TV to cover it,” he said. “That was a real highlight for me.”

By then, CAA’s membership had grown to include artists not on the tour, Hamlin said.

So they started an all-member fall show, held at various places over the years. This meant that artists not on the tour could participate.

“The fall show has gone by the wayside, but there’s talk of bringing it back,” she said.

Art teacher Gail Merrick reached out to CAA years ago to start a mentorship program for Stanwood High School.

“It has a very simple concept. The purpose is to validate the students as artists,” Hamlin said. “Artists need validation; they can be insecure especially when starting.”

Mentors come to school and get the students to talk about their work. They listen to them and sometimes suggest improvements.

Most of all, the mentors tell them, yes, they can definitely be artists. Mentors connect students to the art world outside the school grounds. The students get to know the art community and some volunteer to help during the tour and other art shows.

“It’s fun to watch them as they go through their high school years, Hamlin said. “They’re very shy at first. By the time they’re seniors, they’re showing you everything they’ve got and can’t wait to tell you about it.”

Staff Reporter Peggy Wendel: 360-416-2189 or pwendel@scnews.com.

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