When you talk to Maggie Wilder, artist and co-owner of Gallery Cygnus, about why art flourishes in a place like La Conner, she first says simply “It’s the light.” But then she goes on to elaborate: “It’s geographically complex. The way water, earth and sky dissolve into each other is like no other place I’ve been. It’s as if we’re being suspended – held by the environment. And there is community.”
The reputation of La Conner as an ‘art town’ began when some ragtag, but very serious artists were profiled in a 1953 Life magazine article titled Mystic Artists of the Northwest. The piece described these artists as the “Northwest School”.
But let’s start further back. Maggie says La Conner wasn’t an art town when Morris Graves and Guy Anderson rolled into town in 1937. “But there was community,” she says. The first artist residence was a burned out building inhabited by Graves and Anderson – it was affordable housing for two unknowns. Later, Richard Gilkey (who grew up in the Skagit Valley), Graves, and Barbara and Clayton James “time shared” a little cottage that they rented from farmer Axel Jensen for $10 a month. It’s the same cottage where Clayton James still lives today. Eventually, Guy Anderson could afford a studio on First Street in La Conner – which today houses a clothing shop. Philip McCracken, who was born and raised in Anacortes, later made his lifelong studio on Guemes Island.
Maggie gazes out her gallery window and with a soft voice says, “It’s interesting to imagine what they saw back then. Whatever it was, they told their friends, and their friends came. When I arrived in the 70’s Tom Robbins was here, as was his good friend William Slater. The poet, musician and painter Robert Sund was also here, as was a woman painter who called herself Aurora Jellybean. Charlie Krafft and Bo Miller were out in Fishtown. Richard Gilkey was my first artist friend. He and Janet Huston were very welcoming and encouraging to many of us. As were Guy and Clayton. We all celebrated what we found here.”
Seventy-five years after that initial discovery by Anderson and Graves, La Conner celebrates its legacy. It is home to three significant museums and their ongoing exhibits – the Museum of Northwest Art, The Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum and the Skagit County Historical Museum. The annual Arts Alive! event is a wonderful weekend for artists and art lovers alike. The Swinomish people are experiencing a revitalization of their cultural traditions, exemplified by the Cedar Hat Pavilions across the channel. And every two years the Skagit River Poetry Festival transforms La Conner into a multitude of poetry events featuring acclaimed poets from around the country.
With a bit of introspection, Maggie pauses for a moment and then says, “It’s good to see a circle of appreciation.”