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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Difference Makers: Taking art to the streets of Spokane

Karen Mobley poses for a photograph at her home on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2018. She is an artist and writer, and she worked as the city arts director for 15 years. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

In the summer of 2005, Karen Mobley was attacked by a beaver.

Swimming above the Upriver Dam on the Spokane River, she came upon a family of beavers, and was able to savor the situation for only a moment before a fleshy, coarse-haired tail began whopping her. Over and over again.

“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I thought I was going to drown. She just kept beating me and beating me.”

Soon enough, a friend in a canoe came to her rescue, wielding an oar and offering dry refuge. Bruises marred Mobley’s forehead for days.

Mobley tells the beaver story now with the grace of humor, but she insists there was more terror than laughs at the time. But the anecdote says much about the artist: she loves nature, and she’s a survivor.

Mobley isn’t that well known to the general public, even though she was a longtime city department head. Her work remains on display all over town, even if it isn’t her work. As the city’s arts director, she helped bring numerous public art pieces to town, including the many murals brightening the city’s many underpasses and the collection of sculptures in the city core.

Events that have become part of Spokane’s cultural terra firma were begun during Mobley’s tenure, including First Friday, Terrain and the Visual Arts Tour.

Despite her abrupt eviction from City Hall during budget cuts, Mobley remains part of the art world in Spokane, both as the public art program contractor for Spokane Arts and as a working painter and writer.

Mobley said her career as an artists’ and arts administrator – which began on an elk refuge in Wyoming but wound through Oklahoma, New Mexico and Wyoming, again – has no overriding theme or narrative thrust.

“For me to gravitate to nonprofit work and to arts administration in government and universities, it wasn’t totally an unnatural step, but it’s kind of a convoluted trail,” she said.

She may be right, but the work she has done, both alone and as partner and collaborator, didn’t just come about on its own. It’s thanks to her dogged perseverance, which comes in handy not just in beaver battles.

“It’s no big, grand gesture,” Mobley said of her career. “It’s a million small and persistent actions.”

Wyoming to Spokane

In 1997, Mobley moved to Spokane, sight unseen, when she was hired as the city’s arts director. She came with a sterling resume, as The Spokesman-Review mentioned in the first article about her that June. The woman she was hired to replace had lied on her resume and was summarily dismissed by the city manager. Burned and wary, the city made sure Mobley was qualified, the article reported, and “did a thorough check of her resume.”

What a resume it was.

Mobley grew up in the Sunlight Basin of Wyoming, where her father worked as a state game warden. Her mother was an editor and journalist.

“Both of them were very creative,” she said. “My parents were big suppliers of art materials. We did a lot of storytelling and building things – what child development experts would call ‘imaginative play’ was a thing that happened a lot in our house.”

After a year in Australia as an exchange through the local Rotary club, Mobley enrolled at the University of Wyoming, where she considered becoming a lawyer.

“Like a lot of younger people who are interested in art, I kept wandering around looking for something practical to do,” she said. But the arts called. She graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.

After some brief stints as a research assistant for an art historian in England and at a commercial art gallery in Kansas City, she moved to Oklahoma City and got her master’s degree in painting at the University of Oklahoma, where she also worked at the art museum.

“Oklahoma has a lot of money and there are a lot of art collectors and they have a really good museum at the University of Oklahoma,” she said. By this point, she had shed any conceptions of chasing a “practical” job.

“I just dived off the bridge,” she said. “There was no going back.”

Her new degree took her to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, where she’d spend more than five years running the school’s art gallery, her “first really good job.” She worked full time, had her own studio and helped start a visiting artists program.

At the age of 32, she was hired as the director of the Nicolaysen Art Museum and Discovery Center in Casper.

“That was a good and a bad thing,” she said. “Casper is 120 miles from everything in every direction. It’s almost contraindicated that there would be such a contemporary museum in such a conservative place. And it was really, really difficult to raise as much money as we needed to raise. I had to raise $1,000 a day for every day I worked in a community of about 60,000 people. It was a real hustle.”

After nearly four years at “The Nic,” Mobley was 36 and “exhausted.” So she responded to a national search the city of Spokane was doing to find a new arts director.

A different town then

The blooming arts district that surrounds the historic Fox Theater was nothing like it is now when Mobley came to town.

The Fox had been partitioned into a second-run, discount movie house and was facing destruction. The Davenport Hotel was boarded up and ready to be demolished. The blocks that now house the Montvale Hotel, First Avenue Coffee and Lucky Leaf Co. were known as the city’s “most dangerous downtown neighborhood.”

“It was a different town then,” Mobley said. “The Fox wasn’t done. The Davenport wasn’t done. We did a ton of on-the-street activity downtown to try and re-engage this area. It was so bad that I would walk around and call detox and get drunks picked up off of the sidewalk before First Friday.”

Now, all that’s changed, a shift in fortunes Mobley not only witnessed, but played a large part in. Her “small and persistent actions” began to work, though Mobley rejects taking credit, saying it took “thousands and thousands of hours with a whole bunch of people.”

For First Friday, the once-a-month art and music exhibition that now takes place all over downtown, the city arts commission staff “would literally run a duplicated mimeograph thing around town and there’d be 12 venues.”

She and Annie Matlow, the former marketing director for the Spokane Symphony, got the fledgling Visual Arts Tour off the ground and convinced the Inlander to sponsor it, giving a boost to the biannual event and helping it to become a mainstay in Spokane.

Mobley and the arts commission “would borrow buildings downtown” and throw art shows. At the time, they called it “Raw Space,” which let artists display their work in vacant buildings downtown and on Garland – a precursor to today’s Terrain or Window Dressing.

Mobley said these shoestring activities strengthened the local arts scene in ways still felt today, things like musicians playing on the street and art exhibits at the STA Plaza.

“Artists getting coordinated to do things,” is how Mobley describes it. “A lot of that stuff, at the beginning, was small and persistent. In a lot of ways, that’s where some of the real work is done. I see it now on East Sprague and in Garland and North Monroe. Over the years, artists, the arts commission, various community people have just kept pushing.”

Her philosophy on being an arts administrator is simple, she said. Beyond the hours of discussion with bureaucrats who may not appreciate the subtleties of art, beyond the grant applications and beyond the choices politicians make, Mobley said it’s all very simple.

“You put the artist first,” she said. “You put the board members, the volunteers, the arts organizations, the musicians, all those people first, because if they’re succeeding, we’re all succeeding.”

Her own little universe

In 2012, everything changed.

The year before, David Condon was elected as mayor, and in his first budget he slashed 100 jobs from the city payroll. Mobley’s was one of them. The Spokesman described Mobley’s layoff as “the least surprising of the moves,” noting that her position and role in city government had been assailed for years.

During midyear budget cuts in 2004, two positions were slashed from the department, leaving Mobley a one-person department. The following year, City Council members discussed eliminating the department altogether and shifting its annual budget elsewhere.

In 2011, then-Mayor Mary Verner threatened to eliminate the department and its $160,000 budget. When Condon followed through on that threat, City Council President Ben Stuckart helped create a nonprofit group outside of City Hall, called Spokane Arts, to take over the functions of the defunct department.

The city put $100,000 into the fund in 2013 with plans to slowly ratchet the funding down. The City Council, however, kept the funding steady at $80,000. In 2016, Stuckart led the charge to devote a third of the city’s admission tax to Spokane Arts, which totaled $330,000 this year.

Though losing her job in 2012 was clearly not her preference, Mobley said it freed her to focus on her art: “the thing that I have the liberty to do now that was very hard to when I was at the city.”

“I’m more able to be myself and not be constrained by the expectations of others,” she said.

As a painter, Mobley works in oil, watercolor and mixed media. Her subjects, as of late, are “meditations on the atmosphere, science, the natural world.” She follows her muse and is “open to what the world presents me.”

“That’s one of the reasons I like painting: You have control of your own little universe,” she said. “You don’t have to wait for the world to catch up with your idea.”

In the last three years, Mobley has done five artist-in-residencies. In 2015, she was artist-in-residence at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. The next year she was at the Jentel Artist in Residency program in Wyoming, and at the AIR Paducah in Kentucky.

Locally, she was the artist-in-residence at the North Spokane Library and at Laboratory, an interactive art space in downtown Spokane.

Mobley also writes and publishes poetry. Currently, she has a manuscript she’s shopping around. Someday it’ll be a book.

Her goal is to submit 100 things a year. Proposals for an exhibition at a museum or commercial gallery show. She sends her books to publishers. She submits poems and humor pieces to magazines.

“It sounds like being an artist is lots of painting, which it is, but there’s also the other side. The hustle,” she said. “I’ve always been good with money, and I’ve always been good with organization. Despite rumors to the contrary, I think most artists who are successful are able to balance that. If you’re too emotional and you’re too disorganized, you’re not going to be able to accomplish what needs to happen. Artists who are successful have to be able to make a living and do creative work and relate and connect to community.”

If all her work still doesn’t sound like enough, Mobley continues her adjunct teaching job at Whitworth University, volunteering in the community and serving on two boards, for the Washington State Arts Alliance and Cultural Access Washington.

“We look at public policy as it relates to the arts,” she said. “I do a lot of reading of policy papers. It’s really dry and it’s statewide, so it’s a lot of conference calls and talking into the tin can.”

Mobley is both artist and administrator, and probably will be for a long time – if she has any say.

“One of the things I’m probably most proud of is, I didn’t allow my crazy job at the city to kill my creativity and my innovation,” she said. “When you’re in arts administration, you may start working on something and it might take you 12 years to go from the idea to when it’s finished. It’s kind of bureaucratic and it’s slow and it’s methodical and in some ways it’s not very emotionally satisfying because it’s this thing that just goes on and on and on.”

But Mobley finds meaning there.

“Sure it’s great that something happens in 12 years, but the emotional award often is when you have a human relationship with someone and you see them growing or you’re able to help them in a practical way,” she said. “I’m a practicing Christian – a reluctantly practicing Christian, because I feel like the church is a very flawed institution. But I think if you’re involved in your faith journey, that being in service to others is really important part of what you should be doing. That sense of being a servant in the world is an important part of me.”