Yelm Fills New Commission Focused on the Arts

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The city of Yelm approved its new arts commissioners at a recent council meeting, a milestone that has been a long time coming, according to Arts Commissioner Steve Craig.

Craig said he had gone to the city months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and requested they enact an ordinance to create the commission. Though interested and invested in the arts, the city said they didn’t have the staffing available at that time, so Craig said he would staff the initiative.

“I went about, with the blessing of the city, gathering information from other communities and looking at other ordinances elsewhere and then pulling together what I thought would be appropriate for Yelm in the form of a draft ordinance,” Craig said. “And so I submitted that to the city and the city has kind of taken … some variation on that into the existing ordnance. When that came about, the pandemic hit, so at that time, they were already soliciting people who were interested in becoming a member of the commission, but the pandemic sort of precluded it from actually happening.”

The arts commission is now staffed, although a firm date for its first meeting has not yet been decided.

Craig, Rob Corl, Heidi Haslinger-Corl, Deborah Baker and Jane Walker were the commissioners appointed to fulfill the ordinance.

“Personally, I’m pretty excited about … the arts commission, because the potential for the arts in this community is quite high,” Craig said. “There’s a lot of talent here, whether you are talking about theater, or sculpture, or painting or dance, you name it. In the artistic realm, there’s a lot of talent here.”

He said his hopes are high for the arts to blossom in Yelm, which has always invested in arts.

“One of the things I’m hopeful of is we, as a community, make a commitment to public art,” Craig said. “I read a biography of an individual artist who said art should exist in prisons, in factories, in schools, in shopping centers. We should be surrounded by art, especially these days, because art can be a kind of softening tonic to what is going on in society. … Public art is something I’m hopeful about.”

One of the things he wants to do right away with the commission is revitalize the water tower, which he said is “rusting away and forlorn.”

Knowing the tower was registered as a historic icon for the city on the state historic registry and that the city has gathered the funds to paint it, he has made a determination to light up the sky with its presence. 

“Not only will it be a historical icon, but I think it will be kind of an artistic icon as well, because with computerized lighting we’re going to be able to do a variety of lighting scenarios throughout the year and it can be programmed for special occasions, like New Years, Fourth of July, etc.”

Craig owns the building that used to house the triad theater, known as the Wolf Building, which was once the location of the city’s grocery and general store. Recently, he hired an artist to paint the “Gateway to Mount Rainier” mural on the building’s side, marking the sort of thing he would like to see all over Yelm.

He would also like to see the building used as a space for public art again. The theater group “Standing Room Only” is in talks with the occupant of the Wolf Building to hopefully use the space for future performances, Craig said.

“It could be a bridge to something more permanent,” he said. “I support the development of a theater here in town, a performing arts center, if you will. I know that there are a lot of people kind of quietly having a conversation about that subject. Just where it stands at this moment, I don’t know, but I think there’s enough energy in the community that a performing arts center is very much possible.”

Craig said he thinks the arts commission can be instrumental in such a feat.

“See, that’s one of the benefits of an arts commission. It has status, which as a function of the city … we can facilitate contacts with, for example, the state arts commission,” he said. “And I’m hoping that when we meet as an arts commission here in Yelm that we will invite representatives from the state arts commission and get a clear understanding of what the funding possibilities are.”

He said he wants to connect with other arts commissions that have been successful in their own communities so Yelm’s variant doesn’t reinvent the wheel when enacting meaningful initiatives of public art.

Craig takes an annual trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to network with the officers of art there, in a city Craig said boasts the highest concentration of the arts west of New York City.

“I meet very interesting people,” he said. “The last time that I went, which was in June, I met a person who owns a gallery down there, but he also happens to be the president of the Northwest College of Arts and Design in Tacoma. I think that what I can perhaps contribute is making connections to people who can support the arts in a direct way and possibly finically.”

He said he’ll bring all his networking and discovery with him into the arts commission, and is eager to work with the other commissioners to see what they’ll bring with them.

“That’s what I think I can bring to the table, you know, working with the community, other artists, other supporters of the arts — patrons if you will — to promote the arts in every way in our community,” Craig said. “Dance, theater, all forms of artistic expression are fair game. Who knows how that’s going to play out. I look forward to the commission meeting and having that conversation and seeing what kind of traction we get and what priorities there might be in terms of how we engage.”

On a personal note, Craig said he surrounds himself with art. A biologist by trade, he has memories of painting a mural in the hallways of his grade school. Though he didn’t pursue art as a career path, he has great respect for those who do, since art is how humans make themselves known, he said.

“Art is an interesting expression of the human psyche,” Craig said. “I was just thinking about it recently, and even if you go back thousands of years — what have we discovered in caves? Art. Cave men and women were into art and of all the things that were left behind, the most obvious, in many cases, is the art that they left behind where they were living in those caves.”

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