by Jim Hight
Photos by Brandi Easter
IT WAS A DAMP, FOGGY SATURDAY NIGHT IN Old Town. Street lamps cast only pale circles of light, and visibility was about half a block. But the gloom and the mist didn't keep away hundreds of eager people who came to gaze at new art exhibits, gab with other art lovers and forage among trays of finger food.
First Saturday Night Arts Alive is a tradition that the Humboldt Arts Council began about two years ago. Eureka's downtown galleries -- along with a handful of restaurants and shops -- hold their exhibit openings from 6 to 9 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month.
"You don't even have to read the newspaper to know that it's happening every first Saturday," said Sally Arnot of the HAC.
During the warmer months there's outdoor music and the atmosphere of a street fair. Cooler weather doesn't seem to dampen attendance much, judging by the Oct. 5 Arts Alive, which I attended along with Journal photographer Patty Wilson.
Our first stop was the HAC gallery on E Street where we picked up a program. The gallery featured a group show organized by Jim McVicker of 17 local painters.
The HAC gallery was mobbed with friends, fans and students of the artists, among many others. The show was an absorbing visual experience, with gorgeous watercolors and oil paintings -- portraits, landscapes, interiors, a remarkable collection of local artists organized by a painter whose success has reached far beyond the county lines.
"Jim's often very busy with commissions out of the area, but he wanted to do a show here with a lot of local people who work in the contemporary realist realm that he's in," said Stock Schleuter, whose paintings included "C Street Gang." Painted in the studio of Michael Hayes, the work shows Schleuter, McVickers, Hayes and other Eureka-based artists sitting around a table, chatting and smoking cigars -- a kind of artists' "Miller Time."
A half-block away at Los Bagels another group show, "Collage," featured more challenging modern works by six artists. Jeff Jordan's "The Old Ways" stood out to my wandering eyes. It's a painting that creates a mystical effect, with large animal eyes forming a surreal mask over the face of what appears to be a Maori warrior, elegantly tattooed. He floats on an iridescent green background with large-diameter orange stipples.
But I couldn't stare long at that work before noticing the buzz of excited children. Looking around, I saw that half of the crowd was under 10. Looking up, I saw why: hung from the restaurant's high ceiling was a four-panel mural of a tropical landscape, peopled with strange and comical characters, a work that could only have been created by the genius of children.
"It's a place that might be an island off Argentina or Chile," explained Scott Rice, 9, one of the artists. He said that the subject matter came out of Los Bagels' owner Dennis Rael's desire to have a Mexican theme.
Scott and a dozen other young artists at Equinox School in Arcata created the mural, "Beloved Companions: Travel in Mexico," under the guidance of art teacher Jan Ramsey. The ranks of parents and friends who came for the reception was swelled by the Arts Alive crowd, a pleasant surprise for the young artists.
"Usually someone my age wouldn't have tons of big people come look at their art," said Tessa Pitre, 9.
Stepping out into the mist again, Patty and I only walked a few yards before we were drawn into Ambiance by the Civil War-era piano melodies coming from the fingers of Rick Evans. With wine and hors d'oeuvre and music, and art by a half-dozen painters, Ambiance provided a cozy haven. And shop owner Linda Vit said that's the whole idea of Arts Alive.
"Having events like this helps bring a camaraderie among the artists and businesses, a camaraderie that you don't necessarily get in the retail business," she said. "All of us that are open (late) are supportive of each other."
Across the street in Allure Jewelers, wire sculptor Elizabeth Berrien had similar thoughts about the community-building nature of Arts Alive.
"It has coordinated what used to be separate events.... Old Town really wakes up now on the first Saturday," she said as she twisted tiny black wires into another animal full of suggested vigor and movement.
Continuing east on 2nd Street we passed some hacky-sack players on the corner and an animated crowd imbibing strong coffee and conversation at the sidewalk tables of Humboldt Bay Coffee Co.
Inside the Old Town Art Gallery, we saw several enchanting exhibits placed around the walls, ranging from the landscapes of David Williams, with rich, deep green hills and vibrant blue water suggesting the Caribbean, to the more classical work of featured artist Veryl Culver Waldner. As several people hastened to explain, Waldner is one of the few remaining artists to use the encaustic method, which involves wax and a blow torch, yielding an impermeable surface with unique color blending.
We left Old Town that evening without stopping in many of the shops, cafés and galleries because we wanted to catch the annual "Maskibition" at the Ink People Center for the Arts, a short drive from Old Town at 12th and E.
The enormous juried exhibit of masks ran the length of the center's corridor gallery. The quality and originality of the entries was impressive; I chatted with Jeff Jordan (whose work I'd admired at Los Bagels) who said more than once, "Some of this stuff is really amazing."
The Ink People also won our informal survey of exhibit food. Even 15 minutes before closing, the banquet tables were still laden with tasty snacks and pastries, red and white wine and juices, capping a free movable feast that serves as dinner for many an Arts Alive patron.
"Usually Arts Alive is the whole evening for us," said Charlie Myers of McKinleyville. "I wouldn't waste money on a good dinner when I've had so much to eat at the receptions."
Nourishment for the body and spirit, every first Saturday.
Most of the exhibits mentioned in this article will be
over by the time you read this. See Galleries in the Calendar
for November listings. Arts Alive for this month is scheduled
for Nov. 2.
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