The art of love: Alchemy Art Center’s co-founders share their story for Valentine’s Day

As a San Juan island resident who loved art but grew up with limited access to resources on the island, Maria Michaelson had a vision. She longed to create opportunities and accessibility for islanders, particularly island youth, to explore and experiment with different art forms. Her dreams were realized as the co-founder and co-director of Alchemy Art Center, a non-profit community art center which offers monthly memberships, classes, workshops and seasonal artist residencies. However, her original vision had never involved meeting her future husband through the process, nor that he would be the other co-founder of the organization.

Growing up on the island – despite the lack of studio spaces and resources – Michaelson received artistic mentorship from a close friend of her mother’s, Jane Kitchell, who was a paper mache artist, painter, sculpture and illustrator. This relationship laid the foundation for Michaleson’s creative endeavors, and after attending Spring Street International School, Michaelson received her BA degree in Ceramics from the California College of Art in 2009. She spent much of her early 20s traveling internationally, including learning how to bronze cast in West Africa. Returning to the island in 2012, she sought a professional to help build her an art studio at her mother’s house on Cady Mountain, and in turn she was introduced to her to her future life and business partner, Eben Shay.

Shay grew up in Arlington, Washington before moving to Bellingham to attend Western Washington University in an art-engineering program. He changed career paths after college and began working with a contractor, building houses and conducting remodels. He took a particular interest in restoring wooden boats as an artistic form of woodworking. While living in Bellingham, Shay came to know a few of Michaelson’s close friends, so he was somewhat familiar with Michaelson before eventually visiting the island to meet her and learn more about the job of building her art studio.

“I remember getting off the ferry and meeting [Michaelson] at the ferry landing,” said Shay. “She just came back from Africa and I think a bunch of little girls had braided her hair with blonde hair extensions that went down to her waist. And so her appearance was just like, wow.”

Michaelson showed Shay the little pump house on her mother’s property where she wanted the studio to be built. Shay recounted his impressions of seeing the bedroom loft inside the pump house where Michaelson lived growing up.

“To just fully get immersed into [her] world when she was in middle school and high school was really neat,” said Shay. “Maria had an art show at the theater of a bunch of these wall hanging pieces that she cast in Africa… I was just seeing her art and just being like, ‘Who is this woman? She’s amazing.’”

In contrast, Michaelson was drawn to Shay’s quiet, introverted nature, and was taken by his unassuming genuinity.

“He was like a mysterious person to me. Some people are like, ‘These are my 10 awesome skills and you’ve known me for five minutes and now you know everything about me!’. [Shay] was more of like a slow-reveal kind of person, which was fun for intrigue,” said Michaelson.

Shay accepted Michaelson’s proposal for building the art studio and later completed the space by summer 2012. The two continued to run into each other at mutual friends’ gatherings and in town, with Shay giving Michaelson a bigger hug each time their paths crossed. They began dating that fall, and a year later he moved in with Michaelson, into the same place he spent months building her studio.

“I was living in Bellingham on a boat I had restored and Bellingham is this horrible anchorage, so I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll sail it out to Friday Harbor,’” said Shay.

“I never spent a single night on the sailboat; I instantaneously moved in with Maria and we didn’t have a single conversation about it. It just felt so natural.”

For the next few years, the couple lived and worked together in the studio, making and selling art, as well as teaching each other their respective expertises in bronze casting and woodworking. Michaelson and Shay fondly reminisced on this period, when the two spent their days collaborating on their work, serving as inspiration for each other and growing as artists.

In 2016, Michaelson and Shay secured the property that now hosts Alchemy Arts Center, beginning the process of achieving Michaelson’s original vision of a maker’s space on San Juan Island. A majority of the buildings that make up Alchemy Art Center were already on the property when Michaelson and Shay purchased the land, but they were in poor shape. Despite the daunting remodels required for the multiple buildings, Shay took the opportunity to apply his skills and reimagine the spaces.

“Everyone in the world but Eben is intimidated by new challenges; for most of us it’s like, ‘oh, I’ve never done that before and therefore maybe someone else who does should do it.’ Eben’s the opposite,” said Michaelson. “He wanted to make things crazier and more amazing because that would be more interesting and challenging and good practice.”

While Shay took on the physical component of renovations, Michaelson became the organizer of resources and paperwork. The couple’s differing skill sets and personalities meshed perfectly to turn Michaelson’s dream into a reality.

“Maria is really good at organizing people and getting everything and everybody into the right place, it’s highly impressive,” said Shay. “Maria’s an extrovert. I’m an introvert, and that works pretty great. We both have our different feelings about ideas, and just by who we are, we have different outlooks on a lot of things, which makes it more dynamic.”

Alchemy Art Center was officially registered as a 501 c(3) non-profit organization in 2018, and has since become a pillar of creativity and accessibility on the island, expanding its presence beyond studio memberships and workshops to include partnerships with other organizations and events within the San Juan Island community. But it was no easy feat to get Alchemy where it is today, and the two have overcome many difficulties and learned valuable lessons as co-founders and as a couple.

“[Challenges] are gonna come up in any relationship, and when you’re co-building this vision that is also your business, and it’s also where you live, it can be a lot,” said Michaelson. “We have a really large amount of trust in each other and in our communication process, and that has really served us well.”

“We’re still just starting and figuring out this organization,” said Shay. “Everything we’ve been doing – all the paperwork and physical work – we’ve been doing ourselves and hiring very few people [to help]. It’s taken longer…but in a way, I feel like we’ve grown as a couple because we’ve had to solve every single problem that’s come up.”

The couple has taken away important lessons not just in business but in their relationship, having been together for ten years, including four years of marriage since tying the knot in 2019. Michaelson highlighted the couple’s ability to leave space for one another to be individuals within their partnership.

“We give each other a huge amount of space to do what we love and don’t hold each other back. It’s been really nice to be able to continue being myself and maintain my own independent reality and feel supported by my partner. That’s something I have never experienced before this relationship,” said Michaelson.

Of course, the couple mentioned that while maintaining individual realities, it is important to set aside time to spend together and focus on each other.

“We love going on dates. Even if it’s just going to watch the sunset or running errands together, it’s really important to schedule out some time where you can be alone together,” said Shay.

Finding a balance between independence and partnership has allowed Michaelson and Shay to incorporate their love into all aspects of life and work, in turn spreading their creativity and warmth throughout the island community through Alchemy.