Art Education Vacations

Painters converge on beautiful Whidbey Island to participate in the Plein Aire outdoor painting competition and exhibit.
Photo Courtesy: Sherrye Wyatt

From All Over the World

It still catches some by surprise that people come from all over to teach and learn art on Whidbey and Camano Islands. But, if they met world-class traveler, teacher, and photographer, Jack Graham, they might get a better understanding of how this happens. Graham travels more than 200 days a year taking photographs and teaching photography. Often, you’ll find him as far away as Iceland or Norway, teaching small cadres of students how to be more thoughtful about the images they take and become consistently better photographers.

However, since he lives in the Seattle area, he has anywhere from four to six classes at Coupeville’s Pacific Northwest Arts School, which for 30 years has played host to art students and teachers from all over the world.

Art School

The school, hidden away on a Coupeville side street, plays host to 80 to100 workshops and 500 students each year. About 400 of them come from off the island and spend part of the time enjoying the area’s natural beauty. Many stay in nearby bed-and-breakfasts and walk to class. Lisa Bernhardt, the school’s executive director, says it all began when several Whidbey Islanders recognized that there should be some higher-caliber art training on the island.

Besides photography, the school offers classes in painting, fiber arts, mixed-media, and more. Current workshops can be found at the school’s website.

A combination of quality teachers and a beautiful island escape has made the school more popular than ever. The school currently enjoys three consecutive years of double-digit growth.

The school is able to attract high-caliber teachers like Graham because, as he notes, teaching here is “like a vacation, because these guys handle everything.”

Graham competes with online photography courses by limiting class size and emphasizing one-on-one work. Plus, he says, “We go to really cool places like Whidbey Island.”

He explains, “Typically I’ll draw people from the Midwest, the South, who know that this beautiful place exists, but they want to be in the location where it’s part vacation, part travel.”

Hands-on Outside Experience

Graham says about 65% of the coursework in his class takes place outside the classroom. He points out that, “There’s nothing like going out in the field for two or three hours, taking photographs, working on different things like making a panorama, and then coming back into a classroom situation, and evaluating your work.”

Graham doesn’t critique student photos, explaining, “Critique is kind of a negative word.” He prefers to just talk about photos and sometimes have the student go out and re-shoot the image, re-imagining it as a better photograph.

The days in Graham’s class can be long, starting before sunrise and ending after sunset, when light is perfect for some wonderful images. While the classes are serious and Graham hopes for good work from his students, one of the things he stresses is slowing down and relaxing.

“For me,” says Graham about getting out and taking photographs, “The hunt is more interesting than the kill. I like being where I go, and enjoy where I am. If I make a couple of good images so be it, but being in a good area, that’s what it’s all about.”

Searching for new experiences, creating some art, and spending time in a beautiful place. That’s just another way to describe a Whidbey and Camano Islands experience.