OCSA takes art to the old school

What was once W.F. Jewett Middle School in Gardiner is now the Oregon Coast School of Art. Emily Free Wilson, along with her husband Matt, are the founders of the school of art, which they opened in 2020.

Exciting things happening in Gardiner, Ore.

June 4, 2022 — People around the central Oregon coast have been wondering what was to become of the W.F. Jewett Middle School building that sits overlooking the town of Gardiner, about 20 miles south of Florence. 

Once the middle school for children from south of Tahkenitch Lake to north of Lakeside, the Reedsport School District had completely left the building by around 2003 and it sat relatively empty for almost 20 years. 

A few years ago, a couple from Montana, Matt and Emily Free Wilson, were on a fishing trip in the area when they spotted the large “FOR SALE” sign that had been affixed to the Jewett building for some sixteen years.

The Frees had been visiting, and slowly falling in love, with the area for years as Emily’s father had a fishing boat in Winchester Bay. The two knew they would like to settle down in the area someday. 

The vacant Jewett building was especially appealing to the Frees as they are uniquely qualified at taking large unconventional spaces and turning them into something special.

“When we spotted the for sale sign, we had just gotten into our fifth or sixth year running an art center out of an old funeral home in Helena, Mont.,” remembered Emily. “We had already remodeled a big building with old wiring and all kinds of weird spaces.”

Looking up at the 45,000 square foot building the Frees started to imagine something special behind all those windows that lined all sides of the school.

“We could just see the building being an art school and a place for our pottery business and for the community to use,” said Emily. “We started looking into it and little by little we decided we’re going to go for it.”

Go for it they did.

In November 2019 the Frees, along with their children Clayton and Elsbeth, made the purchase and went to work turning the old middle school into something new, the Oregon Coast College of Art (OCSA).

Along with the art school the Frees would also use some of the building’s space for their pottery business, Free Ceramics. 

Soon after their purchase a worldwide pandemic hit giving them more time that expected to get the ball rolling on their project. 

The Frees went to work and over the last two and a half years have converted the old middle school to a beacon of creative energy that the family hopes will shine far enough to bring artists from all over to the little town of Gardiner on the Oregon coast. 

The OCSA is a continuation of the Frees lifelong passion to support artists and the arts. 

Matt has over 20 years of experience in construction and is very capable of helping artists with the technical challenges they face. 

Emily has a background in gallery work and exhibitions, and as an organizer thrives bringing artists and a community together. She has over ten years of experience as a gallery director which gave her a foundation of experience that continues to be a positive force in the art world.

When you enter the front door of the OCSA you see the reception area which sits in the “Cafetorium”, a large open space used a gallery space at times and also suitable for classes, dances, performances and gatherings of all sorts. 

Last week the Cafetorium welcomed a large group that came to listen to Native American storyteller Mark Pullam who told of clamming, rainbows and origin stories for Seal Rock and some of Oregon’s mountains.

Walk through the Cafetorium and into the heart of the old school. Many of classrooms have been converted into studio space. Some are being used for classrooms again as adults and kids alike from Reedsport and Florence have come to learn new art skills in classes taught by the Frees and local instructors. 

The OCSA is only in its early days and the Frees are very excited about its potential. Most of the building’s rooms are like an empty canvas waiting for whatever the Frees, their students or the community can think of to create within.

Eventually the OCSA would like to offer art classes of all types. Jan Lavelle just started teaching a beginning acrylics class. There are plans for drawing, painting, jewelry and fiber arts studios and classes. There is theatre space for music, plays, movies, documentaries or slide shows.

“I met a lady at the Rhododendron Festival who wants to teach improv classes,” said Emily. “There are just so many possibilities.”

There is a regulation indoor basketball court that the Frees would love to see the community use. 

Currently, some of the spring sports teams from Reedsport have used the gym when rain prevents them from practicing outside but the Frees are excited to see what ideas the community has for the space.

Somewhere in the depths of the large building you will also find KDUN, an AM radio station that broadcasts classic oldies to Reedsport and surrounding communities. 

In other developments, the OCSA just completed an exciting fund raising project in hopes of getting an artist residency program off the ground.

Resident artists would live on site for weeks to years.  Studio and Living space is combined in one “classroom” which is proximately 900 square feet. Rent for a “classroom” will be $700/month and include all utilities and Wi-Fi. Artists will have access to private communal bathroom and laundry facilities as well as a communal cafeteria for preparing meals.

Artists will be asked to teach, in some capacity, and share in the cleaning responsibilities of the communal living space. 

The fundraiser, which raised over $30,000, will be for turning classrooms into living spaces for the residency.

“Thank you to the 145 people and local businesses that made this happen,” said the Frees on the OCSA Facebook page.

Though that fund raiser has ended, there are still many ways for the community to get involved.

“We need people to just get involved; volunteer, donate, take classes, teach classes, buy pottery, there’s so many ways,” said Free.

The Oregon Coast School of Art is located at 325 High Street in Gardiner. To find out how to get involved, or for more information go to oregoncoastschoolofart.org/.

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