The Great Camano Chamber Coup: How artists took over a business group and changed their island
This story originally aired on January 25, 2020.
The Rev. Chumleigh wasn’t exactly a regular at meetings of the Camano Island Chamber of Commerce.
He’s a vaudeville entertainer who, at various times, has been known to walk tightropes, eat fire and get shot out of cannons. He’s also an irascible political lefty — in short, an odd fit for the business group.
“The meeting was only attended by a couple of people,” said Chumleigh, whose given name is Michael Mielnik. “This chamber was largely consisting of people with little businesses that wanted to make themselves feel relevant to Camano.”
So Chumleigh dropped in on a friend, artist Jack Gunter, with an idea.
“He said, ‘I bet if we got a bunch of artists, we could take over the chamber and have it run by the artist community,’” Gunter said from his studio and gallery at the south end of the island.
This was the 1990s, and there were only a handful of artists on Camano. But a small group of them began attending meetings.
“So we went to the meeting and these three gals said, 'oh thank god some young people are here,'” said Gunter. “And within a month, they left. And we became the chamber.”
The Camano Island Chamber of Commerce Coup unfolded over several years in the late 1990s. The changes came fast.
“The first thing that we decided was that we wanted no new businesses. And that seem counterproductive for the chamber,” Gunter said.
And the meetings took on a whole different tenor.
"The meetings were great!” Chumleigh recalled. “There were only artists there. And we drank wine, and I’m not going to say we smoked pot, but I’m not going to say we didn’t.”
But this new chamber wasn’t all play and no work. After all, artists and gallery owners are small businesses, too. Before long the purists, like Chumleigh, started to lose interest.
“So they immediately stopped smoking pot. They started drinking wine at the end of the meeting. And the business people who were at the business end of things who started joining up back then weren’t very fun. And I’m the one who restarted it, but I bailed on it soon,” Chumleigh said.
But meanwhile, Gunter and crew set about doing what chambers of commerce do: marketing their community. Only in their case, it was all about branding Camano as an art town.
“We started slowly suggesting that Camano Island was a place where artists live. And it was sort of like ‘Field of Dreams’ because there were only six of us now. And we called it ‘A Northwest Masterpiece.’ That’s how we branded the island,” Gunter said.
But the question remained: Could this bunch of irreverent artists impersonating a chamber of commerce actually get significant things done? That would be put to the test when their eyes wandered over to a hunk of land at the island’s gateway, which at the time was anything but a masterpiece.
“I’ll explain the island. It’s about 17 miles long, sort of shaped like a pickle. And you drive over a bridge from Stanwood, and you’re faced with a split in the road … which is called Terry’s Corner,” Gunter said. “Now Terry’s Corner when I moved onto the island was a big sandpit. Just a big eyesore.”
The chamber owned a sliver of the land, where they had placed a small kiosk to hold brochures and the like. But the artists envisioned something grander: a new art-focused welcome center to showcase the island, and eventually, turn the larger derelict property into a sculpture park.
“It was just a dumping ground, a place to stop and get rid of your empty bottles and take a whizz and head on down the island. It was pretty grim,” said Jack Archibald, a Camano glass artist. “We would go up here and just fantasize what it would be like to get a little bit of this.”
Gunter and crew managed to convince the owners of the property to cede a portion of it to the people of Camano. The artists scraped together donated materials and built a small, modern-construction welcome center. Jack Archibald donated a large, colorful stained glass window.
“It wasn’t particularly well received,” said Archibald, surveying the window on a crisp fall afternoon. “You can see a bullet hole there and a bullet hole there. They threw bottles at it. We had a lot of vandalism, and I don’t get that very often.”
But plenty of people did like it. Slowly they tamed the neglected land and added sculptures. Later the community would pitch in and add a playground.
AN ARTISTS’ GATEWAY
The formerly shabby property now boasts about a dozen sculptures, along with other amenities. It has become a prominent, art-centered gateway to Camano Island.
More than that, Camano has become a true art destination. Its annual Mother’s Day studio tour features more than 30 studios and galleries and draws visitors in the thousands.
The great Camano Chamber Coup had arguably accomplished its goals. One by one, most of the artists dropped out of the chamber, and let it revert back to the island’s business community.
And to the troublemakers involved, the most lasting legacy may be the spirit of community that emerged from this chapter of Camano history.
“I’m proud of a lot of things I’ve done. I’m proud of a lot of things I’ve created. But I think that I’m most proud in the whole world of my role in building a beautiful entry to Camano Island,” Gunter said. “We just wanted to accomplish something and I can’t believe that a bunch of yahoos from South Camano pulled this whole thing off.”