Voices From the Crowd: The Arts in Vernonia

I couldn’t agree more with the intent of Doug Tesdal’s recent editorial on the need to support the arts in our schools.  All of us in the community who support the arts share his frustration with the cuts we’ve had to make over the past ten years.   I’ve been on the Vernonia School District Budget Committee during this same period of time.   It has been extremely painful to have to cut classes in elective subjects such as drama, arts and music in order to retain sufficient funds to offer our required core curriculum, some sports and a few electives.  The loss of our shop facility has also been felt deeply.  In order to save foreign language and shop classes this year, we had to cut the number of school days.  Neither choice presented was attractive or easy to make. We have over one million dollars less per year to work with as a result of the decline in student enrollment that began after the 2007 flood.

I was also involved with the project to rebuild our schools and participated directly in a fund raising effort to retain the building planned for our shop, arts and science classes.  Working with our professional grant writers, Vernonia Hands-on Art dedicated over a hundred hours of volunteer time to seek specific grant funding for that building.  Despite our best efforts, we were unable to secure sufficient capital to erect that center.  We know that the facilities now used for our art and shop classes are inadequate.  Work continues to find solutions to the funding gap.

All of this said I disagree with Mr. Tesdal’s statement that we no longer have an active arts community in Vernonia.  The Vernonia Hands-on Art Board invites him and anyone else passionate about the arts to bring their ideas and energy to supplement our efforts. Until our student population grows sufficiently to provide the funds to support additional staffing for more elective arts, drama, music, and shop classes in the schools, volunteer efforts must continue to bridge the gap.

To illustrate my point that we do have a small but active arts community, I’d like to share what has been done over the past ten years by the small band of Vernonia Hands-on Art community volunteers:

•  A variety show – with both children and adults performing dance, instrumental and vocal music – from 2005 through 2009.

•  Hip Hop Dance classes for youth in the summer of 2005 that culminated in a public performance by the students.  Hip-hop dance classes are once again being offered for youth and adults.

•  Art in the Woods day camp for youth in the summers of 2008 and 2009.  Children from 7 to 18 learned a number of creative skills including instrumental and vocal music, drama, sewing and needlework, collage, watercolor, and other arts and crafts.  Each camp was capped by a project display and musical performance for the public.

•  The Vernonia Community Orchestra was reactivated as “Strings on Fire” from 2007 to 2008.  The orchestra, primarily comprised of stringed instruments, gave several performances and a benefit concert.

•  The Hands-on Art Gallery Project was established in 2007.  Showings have been held periodically in a variety of venues from the Scout Cabin to the Vernonia Grange and at the Salmon Festival. The Gallery displays and sells works of local artists with a percentage of the sales given as a donation to Hands-on Art to support its programs.  Please see the call for artists in this issue of Vernonia’s Voice to participate in a new twist on salmon art planned for this year’s Salmon Festival.

•  In 2009, Hands-on Art collaborated with local artist Dave Anderson to present a special Holocaust exhibit inspired by artworks of children in the Teresenstadt concentration camp.  In 2011, a special project known as Vernonia in the Eye of the Artist presented four artists’ renderings of historic photographs; the art was raffled with half of the proceeds of each piece going to the artist.

•  Vernonia First Friday (2007 through 2011) showcased local artists, crafters, and other performers.  Held each first Friday from May through October, a wide variety of cultural offerings was made available to the public in conjunction with the Vernonia Open Air Market.  Each First Friday also offered an art project for children from painting to sidewalk chalk art to May basket making.  The Maypole Dance custom, absent in Vernonia for over fifty years, was revived as part of the children’s May First Friday celebrations.  Beginning in 2012, these events became periodic offerings held in conjunction with other community events such as Salmon Festival.

•  From 2009 through the present, Hands-on Art has worked with VHS art teacher Linda Allen to produce an event known as the Junior Salmon Auction.  Ms. Allen’s students decorate Masonite salmon in a wide variety of styles and media which are auctioned at an evening gala.  For the past two years, painted furniture pieces also done by students have been added to the auction.   A large percentage of the proceeds, nearly four thousand dollars, have been donated to a special fund to purchase supplies for her classes.  This helps offset the overall budget cuts to teachers’ supplies.

•  In 2010 the Vernonia Community Theater was established under the aegis of Hands-on Art. Youth aged 10 and up put on the first production, Robin Hood, in August 2010. A second production for adults and youth 13 and up, Exposé– Holiday Celebrities Tell All – was presented in three performances in December 2010.  VCT’s third production, Vaudeville’s my Home, was presented in two performances in April 2012.   Students from Mr. Lower’s VHS Digital Arts classes produced the creative advertising posters for the plays.

•  Hands-on Art is the fiscal agent for two Ford Family Foundation community grants that built decorative, Vernonia history-based arches over three downtown pocket parks and constructed a paved courtyard next to the Vernonia Community Learning Center.   Hands-on Art also facilitated a grant and donations to build Vernonia Pride’s logger memorial statue that now stands in front of the Vernonia Pioneer Museum.  The museum itself operates under the Hands-on Art structure.

•  Three new programs have been added under the Hands-on Art umbrella in the last year:  Vernonia Ballet, Vernonia Hands-on Development (a summer program for developmentally challenged children), and the Vernonia Community Garden.


In addition to Hands-on Art’s programs, there have been many other community cultural events including concerts; art, poetry and writing classes; Sally Harrison’s revival of the melodrama at the 2010 Jamboree; the Grey Dawn Gallery’s special showcases; Vernonia Library’s programs for youth and adults; and Kathy Larsen’s Made in Vernonia store that displays and sells local arts, crafts and books by Vernonians.   Our county’s extension of the Oregon Cultural Trust, the Columbia County Cultural Coalition, supports arts and culture through its grants program; please see the June 20th Voice  for the press release about the current grant cycle.  Several programs in Vernonia have received CCCC funding over the past eight years, and there are excellent programs in the other areas of this county also supported in part by CCCC grants.

Since 1997, Hands-on Art has strived to strengthen the art community in Vernonia through collaboration and networking.   The programs, participants and leaders of its programs have changed over the years based on a number of factors.  In each case, however, it has been the work of people with a passion for the arts who gave their time and talent to make things happen.  If you support the arts, please join us!


Tobie Finzel is the Treasurer for both Vernonia Hands-on Art and the Columbia County Cultural Coalition.