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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Chewelah’s First Thursday Art Walk rivals Spokane’s First Friday: ‘This town has an interesting vibe’

CHEWELAH – On the first Thursday night of every month, this old mining town 45 miles northwest of Spokane comes to life with artistic expression.

A crowd mingled in the Trails End Gallery on Main Avenue last Thursday for the opening of a plein air show featuring paintings of Chewelah’s valley countryside – lush scenes of fields, sky and mountains foregrounded with barns, farm trucks and windmills.

The show was a last-minute idea when the scheduled solo artist backed out, gallery owner Tim Nielsen said. He always wanted to host a plein art event, a tradition of painting in the open-air rather than in a studio.

“The work tends to be impressionistic because the light is always changing,” Deer Park artist Natalie Utley said. Wind drying the paint encouraged her to work fast.

Although she is an experienced landscape artist, this was Utley’s first gallery showing. She joined 24 artists who made the paintings over Memorial Day weekend.

Chewelah Plein Air 2024 will be at the gallery through June 29.

“It is really great to see such a small, rural community support the arts,” Utley said.

When Nielsen started the First Thursday Art Walk eight years ago, his gallery was the only venue to participate. Now it is a full evening with many businesses showcasing local, regional and professional artists.

The plein art show overflowed into the community spotlight gallery next door in the Aaron Huff Memorial Cultural Center where Hector Torres, a local chef who usually works during First Thursday, was checking it out with his family.

“This is cool; it brings a little representation to local artists,” Torres said.

Across the street, longtime Chewelah resident Nancy Bloom showed a year’s worth of her abstract acrylic paintings at The Yale Press coffee shop. Her work contrasts dark and light pastel colors. She works intuitively, without a plan.

“When I start, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Bloom said. “Maybe I’ll pick out some colors, I’ll just do a scribble, sometimes without looking, then my idea is to respond to that, whatever is on the canvas.”

She took up painting during the COVID-19 pandemic since she lives by herself and needed something to do. The artistic community has been nothing but supportive.

“If someone has a question, you know there are five people you could call that would give you good answers, and we are always encouraging each other,” Bloom said.

Yale Press owner Jessica Sety said First Thursday is a nice excuse to stay open late. And for new artists, it gives them confidence.

The night culminated with a celebration in the city park, where a draped steel horse was unveiled.

The life-size sculpture is the original prototype of the lead stallion from Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies, the wild horse monument near Vantage, Washington, overlooking the Columbia Gorge. The 15 stylized horses galloping the ridge over Interstate 90 is said to be one of the most viewed artworks in the state.

Sculptor David Govedare, who lived in Chewelah, used the prototype to promote and raise funds for the project during the state centennial in 1989. Govedare, also known for The Joy of Running Together sculpture in Spokane’s Riverfront Park, died in 2021.

The lead stallion is on lease in the park from Govedare’s son, Forest, for one year.

Economic development through art

Nielsen modeled the art walk after First Thursday in Portland, where he used to run a custom jewelry shop.

He moved with his wife, Nondis, to her family farm in Chewelah in 2015. Since he had developed clients across the country, he was able to reopen his jewelry business in town. He had a little extra space, so he added a small art gallery in the front where he displayed work from his network of friends and artists.

His First Thursday functioned as show openings for Trails End, which usually features a new artist every other month.

Slowly, he encouraged other businesses to join him on those Thursday nights. The cafe across the street was a good fit.

“Coffee shops are traditional venues for beginning artists to show their work,” Nielsen said.

A few bars and restaurants jumped in, and the recurring event became a fixture.

Nielsen invites his artists to talk about their work over craft beer at Quartzite Brewing Company the Wednesday night before.

“I think it is really helpful for people to hear an artist’s narrative before they see the work,” Nielsen explained.

As the event grew, so did the gallery. Trails End moved into a larger space in 2022, and his shows are booked out for the next two years.

He doesn’t curate a particular style – he knows good art when he sees it.

“I really like having variety,” he said. “Every artist I know is different; all have unique styles.”

Relying on his jewelry business gave the gallery room to develop on its own without pressure to profit. He still makes jewelry in the back.

“I don’t think it would have succeeded on its own, at least when we started,” Nielsen said.

And as the gallery grew, so did the artistic community, through synergy.

For a quarter-century, Chewelah Arts Guild has organized events of its own and is a support group for artists.

Community members formed a nonprofit to transform an old armory into a performing arts center, which opened its doors in 2018.

Meanwhile, in 2019 Chewelah became the second municipality in the state to form a creative district, a program by the Washington State Arts Commission that encourages local development through the creative sector.

“We have always had a lot of creatives, but they were on the fringes,” President Chuck Ritchie said. “We are bringing them to the forefront.”

The creative district builds collaborations and funds various projects through grants. It has funded new building murals and preserved old murals, it plans to bring more sculptures to the park, and it recently installed a sound system for the park’s bandshell so they can have live music.

These converging movements have revitalized Chewelah.

Nielsen was inspired reading articles about how towns that embrace the arts do better economically than towns that don’t.

“It fosters engagement, and things happen,” he said.

For him, the mere existence of an arts guild was an enticing reason to move there.

Mayor Greg McCunn also touted the idea of creative convergence as an economic driver, which he said helped the town escape its industrial boom and bust cycle by diversifying. Decades ago, magnesite and aluminum plants that employed hundreds closed abruptly and ruined the town’s economy.

On Main Avenue, there were eight vacancies before the pandemic, McCunn said. Now, there is only one.

“People who are coming to Chewelah want to invest in and be part of the community,” McCunn said.

McCunn’s business Mountain Market participates in First Thursday with the McCunn Gallery, which often displays photography.

Under McCunn, the city expanded a juried art exhibition Nielsen started called Winterfest into a full-fledged festival with winter activities including a rail jam and skijoring competition.

“People have figured out this town has an interesting vibe to it,” Nielsen said. “I think that really appeals to entrepreneurs.”

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.