Thirty years of studio tours

Thirty years ago, a small band of island artists banded together to create the San Juan Islands Studio Tour. Today the tour consists of 19 studios and 46 artists. The public is invited to visit these studios June 4 and 5 from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. A map of each studio and information about the artists can be found at

When Paula West, a local potter who has been involved from early on, was asked if she was surprised the event had lasted this long, she responded, “not at all! We all need art and beauty in our lives. Art enriches the community, whether you create it or purchase it. It enriches our environment and home and our daily routines.” West and her husband Joe Cooper’s studio is #8 on the map, located off MacGinitie Road.

“I had visited studios on the tour and liked the idea of seeing artists in their studios, where they work and what their process was, their tools and inspirations,” West said explaining how she became involved in the tour. “It brings you closer to the work, an appreciation and a connection when you interact with the artist and where the work is created.”

In fact, one of the unique experiences attendees gain from visiting the studios is catching a glimpse at the artistic process, from pottery to silk, woodworking, sculpture, pastels and more.

West was attracted to pottery in high school. “I loved the tactile, physical nature of clay and making something useful, functional and hopefully beautiful,” she said.

Mary Sly, said she knew she wanted to become an artist at a young age, in kindergarten. Today she creates silk garments As one who has been involved in the Island Studio Tour from the beginning, she is not surprised at the duration. “The core people involved, Nancy and Lewis Spaulding, Yvonne Buijs-Mancuso, have been determined to keep it going,” Sly said. Her studio, listed as 14 on the tour, is located off Sunrise Ridge Road. She became involved early on, as she was good friends with a couple of the original organizers, the Spauldings and Amanda Richardson. The friends were invited to put on a show in an islanders home during the early to mid-80s, and it had gone so well that the artists brainstormed for years about making some kind of tour work.

Richardson moved back to her native Cornwall in the mid-90s, but like Sly and West, she is not surprised the event continues.

“Bringing together artists and the public is such a good idea, the tour could carry on into the foreseeable future,” she said. “ I always thought one of the most important aspects was encouraging members of the public who would not necessarily go into an art gallery, to be comfortable and interested in art. What better way than talking to the artists that create it.”

Richardson was well known for her garden, as well as her large fabric collages. Those who attend the tour may notice a fair number of lush gardens as a number of artists, like the Spauldings, are also gardeners and nature lovers. When asked why she thought that was the case Richardson responded, “Many of the artists on San Juan are likely to love nature as that will be one of the reasons that brought them to the island. It is the same with Cornwall. Our art describes our personal passions, and for many, place and art are inseparable. Happily for us, where we live is exceptional.”

Jeweler Manya Pickard is not part of the tour this year but was one of the first artists on the tour. She reflected on the artist’s garden,

“The Studio Tour was partly a garden tour for some studios, and some of us had a great connection through our gardens,” she said. “ I still have plants and flowers that come up every year that I received from other artists. Amanda Richardson, who I met through the tour, gifted me many of those. The cowslips from the UK have naturalized in my flower beds and other odd places on my land including the woods. I treasure them.”

Pickard could not exactly remember how she became involved in the tour. “I’m sure that Nancy Spaulding had something to do with it.” She was both surprised at the honor she said because the idea was so new to her. “The Studio Tour …connected me with other artists, the community and visitors to the island.”

The tour has been a strong bonding experience for the participants. Each year to celebrate the completion of another event, the group gathers and breaks bread together. This post-tour gathering has always been one of Sly’s favorite aspects.

What the future holds for the Island Studio Tour will, in the end, be up to up-and-coming new artists.

“I don’t know how long it will continue on, or what form. The emphasis has been on artists who are trying to make a living off their art,” Sly said, noting that many of the core group of organizers are the same as thirty years ago. Looking forward, younger artists, perhaps like Mariah Michealson, whose ceramic and bronze figures can be seen at Studio 11, the Alchemy Arts Center, will eventually take the lead.

“Of course, I do hope the tour continues to grow and thrive. My concern is that it is harder and harder for young artists to afford to live here and find studio space,” West said.

For young artists, Richardson warned it is not an easy path.

“Only become an artist if you are truly obsessional about it. This is a tough journey. I am one of the relatively few to have made a living from my art since I graduated, but there have been peaks and troughs. That is the deal. It takes a lot of resilience to stay the course. Of course, if it works out, it is such a great thing to dedicate your life to.”

West advised up and comers not to give up. “Keep working! Art is a lifelong pursuit. It takes patience and time. Trust the process even when it doesn’t flow.”

West also wanted to thank those who have attended all these years.

“I want to make sure people know how much we appreciate the community for coming out every year, visiting the studios and purchasing our work. It is inspiring for us to see all of you and to share our spaces.,” West said.