The Reinvention Studio

In the mid-90s, Chimera, the art gallery that sits next to Lopez Coffee Shop and Holly B’s Bakery in Lopez Village, almost closed its doors. The artist cooperative was created in 1987 with what some members refer to as an “informal” approach to doing business. This, very Lopezian, invention needed to be re-invented if it was to survive. The members decided to organize the co-op to be run a bit more like a business – with an elected board, a tiered artist commission system, and generally more of a focus on finances. Excel spreadsheets entered the art world.

Over the past week I’ve had the privilege to speak with several of the 21 artists that make up the Chimera artist cooperative, including four of its board members, two of its founders, and a few of its newest members. I’ve taken many things away from those conversations, including the resounding theme of reinvention, which I think is what distinguishes Chimera from other galleries.

Chimera’s financial renaissance in the 90s is just one example of how its members have woven reinvention into culture of the cooperative. Every month the artists completely rearrange the front display area of the gallery to feature 2 or 3 artist members.  And, every year, the gallery shuts down for the first two weeks of January so that members can completely rearrange and refurbish the space – giving it a fresh coat of paint, and sometimes (like this year) new carpet. Founding Chimera member and glass artist, Lark Dalton, says this is his favorite time of year – when all the artists gather to work on a single project together, becoming closer friends in the process. Says Lark: “The best part of working in the gallery are the connections you make with people from near and far.”

Though artist cooperatives aren’t unique to Lopez, in some respects Chimera has reinvented the approach to galleries. It was opened in 1987 as an innovative way to give artists a place to show their work without having to maintain their own space. Members of the co-op don’t pay rent in the traditional sense. Instead, they work in the gallery, give a percentage commission from sales of their art to the co-op, or some combination of these two contributions. The more an artist works in the gallery, the more money they get to keep when their art is sold. If an artist works one day per month, they pay a 35% commission to the cooperative. If they work two days, that commission goes down to 25%. There are some artists who don’t work in the gallery; so their commission is 45%. The board members with whom I met estimated the average commission is about 27%.

How does one become a Chimera member? Over the years, the cooperative has developed a rigorous application process to accept new members. For starters, member artists must live on Lopez. Their work must be made, not assembled.  And it must meet a high quality bar. A sample of an applying artist’s work is juried by the board to help determine whether the art fits in with the rest of the gallery. Above all else, member artists must embrace the cooperative mindset. According to Iris Graville, author, book binder, Chimera board secretary and co-op member since 2000, “they must be part of a team.”

The two newest members of this team are hand-printed textile artist, Kristin Twigg, and glass artist, Terri Roush. “Everyone wants to share what they know about their work and help others out if they need it.” said Terri, when asked about what she appreciates about Chimera. Added Kristin: “The quality of work is fantastic, and the care everyone puts into their work is inspiring to me.”

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Top: Iris Graville next to her bound books and recent book, HANDS AT WORK. Bottom left: Kristin Twigg’s textile art. Bottom right: Terri Roush’s glass art.

Many small communities have co-ops. What might be different about Chimera is the collaborative spirit found among the member artists. “The arts world is so competitive,” said Iris.  “We all benefit when someone succeeds.”

Members not only collaborate with each other, they collaborate with the rest of the Lopez community. “I couldn’t do what I do in Seattle,” said TJ Anderson, wood artist, Chimera office manager and board member. TJ makes wood bowls, so he goes through a tremendous amount of wood, with pulp and wood chips as his by product. He regularly deposits truckloads of wood chips at Susie and Nick Teague’s labyrinth on the north end of Lopez.

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TJ Anderson next to his wood bowls at Chimera Gallery

Chimera board chair, Maxine Bronstein and her partner, Debbie Hayward, who own Island Fibers, create art and textile products using wool from Lopez sheep. This gives Lopez farmers another crop to sell. “We’re rich in wool,” said Maxine, who told me she and Debbie use as much as 1000 pounds of Lopez wool a year.

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Maxine Bronstein next to her handspun, hand dyed yarn, weavings and knitting

Self-taught blacksmith, Craig Withrow, reinvented himself from ferrier to ornamental iron artist in the late 90s, when he moved to Lopez. He makes his living almost exclusively off of custom work he does for Lopez clients.

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Craig Withrow next to his ornamental iron

Though the gallery is full of tourists during the summer, more than 50% of Chimera’s clientele are Lopezians. “These [artists] are their friends and neighbors,” said Iris as she described the overwhelming support the gallery receives from the local community. “We always have a packed house here.” Many Lopez customers become collectors of their favorite artist’s work – anxiously awaiting new pieces to show up in the gallery.

So how is Chimera doing since its 90s business reinvention? The gallery has done amazingly well. According to the board, 2015 is shaping up to be the best year in the gallery’s 29-year history. This may be due, in part, to the fact that Chimera – as the board describes it – is part art gallery, part gift shop. It’s a popular place for buying wedding presents or high school graduation gifts. It’s also a great place to do holiday shopping.

As with so many Lopez organizations, community is paramount for Chimera, which is why the gallery regularly gives back to Lopez. The most recent example is this month’s raffle to fund the Lopez High School Art Program. Chimera artists have donated various works of art to be raffled off at the Holiday Group Show on Saturday, December 12th from 5:00 to 7:00 pm at the gallery.

Whether you’re looking for a holiday gift for someone, or you need to be inspired to reinvent yourself, I encourage you to stop by Chimera. If you’ve been there, I guarantee it won’t be the same as the last time you visited.

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The art on display shows the diversity of artists who live on Lopez Island

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3 thoughts on “The Reinvention Studio

  1. Pingback: The Top 10 Things I Learned Living on Lopez Island | Project 468

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