Categories: Artist in Residence

Summit Arts Center’s creativity stems from a desire to preserve history in Government Camp

written by Catie Joyce-Bulay

photography by Daniel Stark

Most people head to Mount Hood for the epic skiing and hiking, but there’s also a vibrant art community keeping traditions of craftsmanship alive. The story of Summit Arts Center, formerly known as Cascadia Center for Arts and Crafts, began in the 1930s when the cabins housing its studios were first built for U.S. Forest Service personnel. In 1936, construction began on nearby Timberline Lodge as a Works Progress Administration project, providing employment during the Great Depression. As the lodge flourished as a popular tourist destination and historic landmark, the original Forest Service cabins fell into disrepair.

Fast forward more than sixty years—the cabins were slated for demolition for lack of funds to repair them. Enter Betsy Valian, a nearby Government Camp resident and glass artist who couldn’t bear to see such an important part of the region’s history disappear. It was perfect timing when she discovered the buildings, since she had been looking for a space for an arts program she was working on.

“We need art on the mountain,” said Valian, who before this project was an integral part of starting the Mt. Hood Cultural Center & Museum. Valian grew up in Newport, where her mother was an artist, and spent winters skiing at the mountain. She moved to Government Camp in 1982 for both the ski scene and artistic inspiration.

It took two years of dedication to prevent the cabins from being demolished, and then another two years of repairs to bring them up to a functional condition. Since the buildings are designated historic, any repairs by the center, which holds a special use permit, must be in line with the original design, making their upkeep and preservation a necessary top priority.

The cabins and Timberline Lodge exemplify the Cascadian design the region is now known for. The style is quintessential PNW rustic, with handcrafted elements, log construction, pitched roofs and gables, and stone chimneys, according to architect and board member Blane Skohede.

“Many of the larger and more substantial buildings of this style have been lost to fire,” said Skohede, who was enlisted by Valian to design an accessibility ramp, then got hooked on the whole project. “This alone is reason for me to try to preserve the buildings that are left, especially since very few structures completely true to the style are being constructed today.”

The arts program began with blacksmithing and glasswork that stemmed from the preservation of Timberline Lodge—the staff was commissioned to restore the stunning glasswork that makes the lodge so unique. Programming grew from there, and now three cabins house a blacksmith studio, a glass studio and a studio for visual arts classes and presentations, with artist-in-residence space in the works.

The biggest event of the year is Blacksmith Week in August, which draws both professional blacksmiths from around the country and interested spectators. Headed by renowned master blacksmith Darryl Nelson, of Washington’s Meridian Forge, events include beginner and advanced workshops, demonstrations and a collaborative sculpture project.

New to the center this year is a log building and design program, headed by master log builder and timber framer David Rodgers. Classes teach the fundamentals and history of log-building and also serve the practical purpose of restoring and repairing the buildings. “It’s a win-win—they’re saving history and at the same time people are learning the old techniques,” Valian said. She noted the center is working on starting a Friends of Summit Arts organization so staff can focus more on programming and big restoration projects and less on small maintenance tasks.

Throughout the year, focusing on the shoulder season to bring off-season revenue to Government Camp, the center offers a variety of classes, attracting teachers and students from around the globe for the opportunity to make art in this idyllic setting deep in the Cascadian forest. At 4,000 feet elevation, gazing out windows overlooking the elegant Douglas firs of Mt. Hood National Forest, framed by 4-foot icicles, creativity comes alive in classes that range from journaling to jewelry-making.

“People see a picture of Mount Hood and start Googling and the next thing you know they’re here for three days taking a painting class,” said Valian, who directs the glass studio. “The studios are warm and inviting with great lighting in the dead of winter—a perfect space for painting the winter and summer environment or taking other classes. We are not a sleek, modern arts institution. Summit Arts is rustic and welcoming in a peaceful alpine environment, a respite from today’s 24/7 lifestyle.”

“Mount Hood is all about outdoor recreation. People come up to ski and bring people with them who don’t ski and end up in our art classes,” Valian continued. “It’s a more equitable way of using the National Forest, which should be used by all, but not everyone is able to access it. In the studios people can enjoy the natural beauty around them in a different way.”

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