Last May, when graduating senior and artist-photographer Lhamu Konrad received the first annual art scholarship award from the newly incorporated nonprofit Vashon Island Art Studio Tour, the significance of the gift went far beyond the generous financial assistance.
“By giving this award they are saying art is important, not just for me, but for the culture and community,” Konrad said. “It also acknowledged my dedication as well as my learning from mentors like Christine Beck and Ray Pfortner. I so appreciate how these artists share their skill and knowledge and then contribute financial support.”
Konrad said she’ll use the award money to fund more photography classes or put it toward her education at The Evergreen State College, where she is studying different art forms, including theater and possibly film. Her plans are a perfect match for the scholarship mission of Vashon Island Art Studio Tour (VIAST): to support emerging artists “who have shown exceptional effort, talent, creativity and promise in any medium of the visual arts and who intend to pursue further study and/or a career in the visual arts.”
VIAST expanded the scope of its commitment to support island artists after receiving its nonprofit status in 2015 by creating the scholarship for youth artists. Last year, the organization handed out three scholarships to Konrad, Megan Crom and Laurel Pratt. This year, it will recognize four students with the unique arts award. Konrad remarked that while there are always awards for academic achievements, awards for the visual arts are less common.
Christine Beck, treasurer of VIAST, agrees.
“Ours is the only scholarship dedicated to the visual arts on the island,” she said.
And Beck would know. As a longtime island resident, artist and pioneer planner of programs at Vashon Allied Arts (now Vashon Center for the Arts), she wrote the grant to secure VIAST its 501(c)(3) status, which allows the nonprofit to grant scholarships and sponsor public workshops in an official capacity for the first time. The original organization, which began in 1979 as the Vashon Pottery Tour and then morphed into the Art Studio Tour in the late 1990s, worked as a collective and, therefore, was never able to extend its full support to island artists.
“Giving back is something that’s important to us,” Beck said.
Last year, the Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation matched VIAST’s $250 contribution. This year, VIAST hopes the foundation will again offer its matching grant, but if not, it will seek a donor to help reach its goal of $500 per scholarship. That task, among others, is the domain of the newly formed scholarship committee, chaired by Eric Heffelfinger, former co-owner of Silverwood Gallery, a jeweler and high school jewelry teacher. In addition to Heffelfinger, the VIAST scholarship committee includes island artists Morgan Brig and Kristen Reitz-Green. They will read the student notebooks and determine who should receive the awards.
Heffelfinger hopes the award will indeed help inspire students to develop their artistic passion into a career, much as he did beginning with an introduction to art in high school, pursuing a post-high school art education, establishing a career in art complemented by continuing arts education.
“I got my teaching certificate at age 55,” he added with a laugh. “A lot of arts education for people in general stops in high school. They never pursue it afterwards; they are too busy. Our hope is that you give these students a chance for ongoing education in the arts though it’s not necessarily that they get a fine arts degree. We want to give students who are interested in pursuing the arts a chance to do so.”
He lamented that at the public school level, the arts are not supported nearly enough.
“They have a good arts program at the high school with Terry Swift and a good one at elementary level because of Carolyn Buehl, but they are not growing. They are waning,” he said.
Heffelfinger remarked that the arts program is generally part of the school’s vocational program, which includes woodworking, art and jewelry making, but that these skills are slowly being lost “because you can get more students into a computerized class than into an art class. They are going in that direction. I think it is really necessary that high schools have a hands-on program — photography, art, jewelry making, woodworking, ceramics — as much as possible.”
“That’s also why we wanted to do the scholarships and community education so that people can come to things — maybe learn about arts and social media or photographing one’s own art — that are not just the studio tour,” she said.
For Konrad, the scholarship translates into an acknowledgement of the value of visual artists. It’s a gratifying honor, she said, because unlike performance artists, visual artists don’t always get the immediate feedback from an audience.
“Artists provide a different lens to the world, helping people see things in new ways, making people value things they may never have considered or creating something beautiful and precious that reminds them of people and things they love. Art can and does change the world,” she said.