The Barn Show exhibit is scheduled to open Sept. 4 at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner. (Museum of Northwest Art)

The Barn Show exhibit is scheduled to open Sept. 4 at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner. (Museum of Northwest Art)

Exhibit relives annual art bash in the magic Skagit Valley

The Barn Shows on Fir Island are the subject of a new exhibit at the reopened Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner.

LA CONNER — Every November from 1987 to 2003, the artists of Skagit Valley, both the famous and the unknown, gathered in a 1910 barn on Fir Island.

Lavone Newell-Reim had converted the barn at Skagit City — the commercial hub of Skagit County in pioneer days before it was usurped by Mount Vernon upriver — into a two-level art gallery. It proved to be the perfect venue for the second installment of an art show called “Summer Harvest,” organized by noted painter John Simon the previous year in La Conner.

The shows featured work by a who’s-who list of Skagit County artists — Guy Anderson, Phil McCracken, Bill Slater. By all accounts, the shows were also great parties.

“I became MoNA’s, (then the Valley Museum of Northwest Art) executive director in November 1990,” recalled Susan Parke, who guest-curated a new exhibit on the Barn Shows at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner. “Almost immediately I heard talk of an annual fine art show featuring area artists, fantastic food, and interesting people, held annually in a barn on Fir Island.”

The show became a must-see on the valley’s late-autumn social calendar. And not even the catastrophic flood of November 1990, when the dike protecting Fir Island blew out, could stop it.

We couldn’t get there by usual routes and had to take I-5 to the Conway exit to reach Lavone’s property,” Parke said in a news release. I’m glad we persevered. That was the first of many November evenings spent in the company of our region’s art community.”

Some of the artists, such as Anderson, were world-renowned. Others, like Bob Stewart, who was a potter living on Fir Island at the time, were known only to their circle of family and friends. Yet nobody put on airs, Stewart recalled.

“I was honored to be included in a group of such established artists,” said Stewart, who now is a house builder on Vashon Island. “I was the baby of the group, unknown and pretty green. They all, without exception considered me one of their own.”

The camaraderie is captured in photographs by Cathy Pearson Stevens taken at each Barn Show. The pictures include group shots of each show’s featured artists. Everybody’s all smiles, and most have glasses of wine in hand.

Some artists made their way to the shows by skiff from their cabins in the now-gone hamlet of Fishtown at the mouth of the Skagit River’s North Fork.

“Every time I turn around I’m amazed at the strength of the community of the artists in the Skagit Valley,” said Joanna Sikes, MoNA executive director. “There is a long history of it, but there is still an ongoing strong community of artists in the Skagit Valley. And that’s something I wasn’t aware of until I came here, what the value of that is, and just how strongly everyone is still working together. It’s quite wonderful.”

The barn shows are documented in “The Barn Shows — 1987-2003: In Their Own Words” a book published in 2019 by Newell-Reim and Pearson Stevens. It’s available at the museum’s gift shop.

Through photos, images of Skagit artists’ works and the artists’ statements and recollections, the book tells the barn shows’ story from the beginning until the end, when the Skagit County Fire Marshal told Newell-Reim and her husband, Dick Reim, that the barn needed costly changes to comply with fire safety rules.

About 125 artists are featured at the new MoNA show, which originally was scheduled for March until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The shutdown “gave us time to refine a couple of things,” said Maggie Paul, MoNA registrar.

For guest curator Parke, the show represents a full circle.

“I feel particularly honored to bring the Barn Show to MoNA, as a re-creation of this fine community event, albeit without the creaky floors and stairs, and Dick and Lavone’s marvelous gardens, but including all the original artist participants,” she said.

If you go

“The Barn Show,” commemorating the annual art shows held at the Newell-Reims farm on Fir Island starting in 1987, opens Sept. 4 at the Museum of Northwest Art, 121 First St., La Conner. The gallery is open noon to 5 p.m. Sunday and Monday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Only 20 people (25% of the museum’s capacity) will be admitted into the galleries at a time. All visitors must wear masks and keep 6 feet apart. Call 360-466-4446 or go to www.monamuseum.org for more information.

Also: The Museum of Northwest Art is hosting its 28th annual Art Auction online from Sept. 9-13. Registration for the virtual event, titled “Seeing into the Future,” will open soon. The silent and live auction will feature about 250 works by Northwest artists in all mediums. As scheduled, the silent auction is Sept. 9-11, the live auction is Sept. 12, with last call on Sept. 13. A catalog of all auction items will be available on the museum’s website.

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