Arts Olympia: Keeping Art Alive in Olympia

The Three Graces steel sculpture by Margo Westfall and Don Lovert
The Three Graces steel sculpture by Margo Westfall and Don Lovert

By: Alec Clayton

Art cannot be created in a vacuum. Artists have always depended on other artists, as well as emersion into the culture, for inspiration, encouragement and criticism. If they hadn’t lived and worked within such a culture we would not have the Sistine ceiling or the “Mona Lisa” or Picasso’s “Guernica.”  Picasso and Braque worked together every day when they were inventing Cubism. They regular met with other artist and poets at Gertrude Stein’s salons. They argued, they fought sometimes bitterly, and they shared ideas, and as a result the world was enriched. The same can be said for the Abstract Expressionists who made New York the art capital of the world. They met regularly at the Cedars Tavern and in a club called The Subject of the Artist. They got drunk together and sometimes had fist fights, and they grew as artists.

Local artists throughout the world, including right here in Olympia, still depend on such interaction. There is a vibrant artists’ club here called Arts Olympia that has been going strong since the early 1990s. They are more encouraging and less critical of one another than were the Cubists and the Abstract Expressionists. But like these earlier artists, they benefit from getting together.

None of the Arts Olympia founding members could remember exactly when the first meeting was. A couple of them thought it was as early as 1985, but Kathy Gore-Fuss, who organized the whole thing with the help of Susan Christian and Louise Williams, dug out some archival notes indicating the first meeting was in 1991.

Gore-Fuss is a painter and sometimes three-dimensional artist who has taught at The Evergreen State College and has been exhibiting her work in area galleries since moving here from Seattle in 1980. Christian is a counselor and a painter. She lives in Shelton but has been active in the Olympia arts scene for decades. Williams passed away in 2004. She was an excellent and well known painter.

None of these founding AO members are still active with the group, but others such as painter Jeffrey Stewart and sculptor David Edwards have been a continuing guiding presence, and newer members who have come along over the years have kept it going strong.

AO meets twice a month. They meet at the Coach House on the first Monday of every month except for the summer months to discuss business and announce upcoming exhibits or classes and sometimes to show and discuss their work.  Every third Monday they have a salon with a pot luck dinner. Usually there is a specific topic for discussion, and sometimes there are guest speakers. Arts Olympia also holds an annual exhibition of members work only.

Some of the salon topics have been: a hands-on introduction to table-top printing methods, discussions on the nature of abstract art, creativity as we age, the poet as the conscience of a nation, what is Northwestern art, and art and storytelling through the ages.

Through the Windshield, acrylic and ink painting by Mia Schulte
Through the Windshield, acrylic and ink painting by Mia Schulte

Upon reminiscing about how the group got started, Gore-Fuss said that when she moved to Olympia she felt disconnected from the cultural hub of Seattle’s art scene so she decided to form Arts Olympia with the hopes of connecting with a creative community in South Puget Sound. “Louise Williams and Susan Christian were very enthusiastic and helpful in beginning the process to get the artists organized,” she said. “We invited everyone we could think of to my house for the first meeting and it just took off.  It filled a need for a wide variety of artists in Olympia and offered something a bit different from The Olympia Art League, which had a thriving membership as well. Susan offered a downtown studio space for AO to meet in once a month, and we began inviting artists to become paying members to provide a small operating budget for group shows, critiques and offering some workshops. When I look back on it now, it strikes me that numerous artists coalesced as the first grassroots effort to create an artist cooperative of sorts without any dedicated building or facility.  It’s 21 years later and it would be fabulous if Olympia would be willing to support the construction of an arts facility that we could enjoy and share with the surrounding communities in South Puget Sound. If you build it, they will come.”

After that first meeting they moved to Christian’s old studio, which is now Adesso Restaurant. Christian said, “There were about 12 of us at first. We had a group membership, I think it cost us as a group $12 a year. We used to sit in a circle and talk and sometimes people brought slides.”

Early on the group started having shows in the Washington Center. “Georgia Munger and I took Tom Iovanni out for a fancy ‘corporate lunch’ at La Petite Maison and asked him for some kind of support,” Christian recalled. Iovanni was director of the Washington Center at the time.

Tuck Petertil curated a show about spirituality. Christian curated a show called Summertime Blues (all the work had to be blue or had to make blue do something interesting). There was also a self-portrait show.

“One thing I kind of loved about AO was that some people had a lot more experience than others and there was respect and kindness all around,” Christian said.

Current member Mia Schulte said she joined because she was just beginning to put her art out in the public and felt she needed to talk to other artists. “The first salon was packed and I was surprised by the depth of conversation, strong opinions and wealth of experience amongst the members. Not only was it an opportunity to meet in a relaxed atmosphere and get to know the members better, but there was a real sense of each individual’s passion for art,”  Schulte said.  “The salons give the members an opportunity to share

Fireworks for Kandinsky, acrylic and pastel painting by Becky Knold
Fireworks for Kandinsky, acrylic and pastel painting by Becky Knold

their knowledge, ask questions and reflect on issues. I generally come away with ideas and thoughts that challenge me, motive me and force me to think and clarify my own opinions,” she said.

Another current member, painter Becky Knold, said, “When I listened to some of the ‘old-time’ artists talk about their art (Maury Haseltine, Kathy Gore-Fuss, Jeffree Stewart, and others) I was inspired and knew I wanted to participate.”

Knold said there is always a sense that everyone values each other’s growth as part of something larger, the idea that Art is an important thing to be doing.

Artist Susan Emley said, “I joined AO because of the strong, supportive community of diverse artists. The artists create with all types of art media (painting, sculpture, photography, mixed media, assemblages, fabric, jewelry). All levels of artistic experience are represented from rank beginners afraid to show their work, accomplished professional artists, ‘Sunday painters’ and retired college art professors. I gain such valuable insight and I’m greatly inspired in my own work by being a member of Arts Olympia.”

Come Along, acrylic painting by Susan Emley
Come Along, acrylic painting by Susan Emley

This year’s annual show for members will be February 10, 11 and 12 at the Coach House at the State History Museum, 211 SW 21st Avenue in downtown Olympia. There will be guest speakers and readings by local poets.

The Arts Olympia membership fee is $25.00 per year. The AO email address is The AO website is  New members are welcome.


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