In the ecosystem of the art world, the co-op gallery fills a vital niche. These artist-run art establishments bridge the sometimes-yawning gulf between the closed world of the avocational artistic dabbler and the public realm of galleries run by art dealers. In a cooperative gallery a group of artists band together to pay the rent and to staff the gallery. They are easy to start and hard to sustain.
The Freighthouse Art Gallery, however, boasts that it is Tacoma’s oldest artist-owned gallery. It has been in existence now for almost 20 years. It is the anchor of the east end of Freighthouse Square; the historic train building-turned-shopping center nestled between the Tacoma Dome and the Dome District’s Link rail station.
Despite the economic downturn that has left vacancies among the shops in the building – like teeth missing from a smile – the Freighthouse Art Gallery is holding its own. Over a dozen artists display the fruits of their labor in the welcoming space. (There is currently space for two more artists.) Paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints and photographs take up every inch of wall space. Each artist has his or her distinct display area. Other wall space, however, is taken up by a mix-and-match hodgepodge of works by multiple artists. A gift shop area across the corridor is also densely stocked with art for sale.
The stalwarts of the gallery – those artists who have been there from the early days – are watercolorist Val Persoon, “primitive modernist” Ruth Volkmann, fused glass artist Mike Jutten and the late silkscreen artist Dick Clifton (now represented by Ann Clifton).
Persoon does everything from flowers to people, from boats to wildlife. Volkmann, a retired art teacher, paints houses in the snow and cats at play in a primitive style that brings Scandinavian folk art to mind. A trip to the Antarctic inspired scenes of penguins and icebergs. Jutten, who operates a studio in the depths of the building, does dishes and slabs of glass with designs of fish and old-timey bicycles. The circular serigraphs of Clifton are like mandalas of the Pacific Northwest: showing iconic scenes of salmon and Mt. Rainier.
The art in co-op galleries exists to please the eye and indulge in sentiment. It is safe and comfortable middle class art for middle class homes. It is not interested in being shocking, confrontational, grotesque, academic or clever. The artists themselves have various levels of training. Many are self-taught practitioners who have dedicated themselves to fulfilling a dearly held dream of becoming an artist. They come from all walks of life.
Katia Ramirez, for example, is a psychologist who works at the women’s prison in Purdy. Her acrylic paintings are mystical fantasies involving flowers, fairies, horses and butterflies. She also does commissioned portraits of pets.
There is much to see on a slow perusal through the gallery. It is much like rummaging through an antique shop seeking treasures. April Cox does high voltage rock and roll stuff – like high school girl art on caffeine. Kimatha Kesner paints animals as well as big female faces peering out from amid vivid leaves. Dan Clark’s specialty is photographs of steam locomotives while Joyce Webley does digitally altered photos of hot rods and sunflowers. Watercolors are done by Susy Stremel, Olga Poisson, Gloria Bacon (who also does photography) and Lucy Schwartz who seeks “quality beauty” in her paintings of chickens, birch trees and laundry on the clothesline. Ed Monger does carvings of ducks and birds that are finished in natural oils.
There is much beguiling charm in the work of this group of artists without guile.
The Freighthouse Art Gallery is open 7 days a week: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For further information call (253) 383-9765.