In 1985, Ruth Offen said goodbye to San Francisco’s fast paced city life. Leaving her big city gallery job, she moved to a place where people lived a bit slower. She came to San Juan Island – a droplet of island heaven where the roads were lined with fences (when they were lined at all) and the views from the shoreline were filled with Mother Nature’s beauty.
On a leap of faith, she opened WaterWorks Gallery in Friday Harbor. Thirty years later, her island gallery still showcases some of the best local and regional talent.
In an industry with a turnover rate that rivals restaurants, we wanted to find out what makes Ruth’s gallery so unique. So I stopped by for a visit and a chat on a lovely April afternoon. Here is a bit of what Ruth had to say.
Why San Juan Island? Why did you come here and open a gallery?
In a city, the art world’s different. The clientele is particular about art being art. I’d been in that world. I’d seen that. I got that. I still do. But there’s something special about seeing a piece and just loving it for the sake of loving it.
That’s what you get around here. The people who come in are down to earth. To them, the latest trend isn’t as important as whether or not they like the piece. It’s one of the things I love most about having an island gallery.
Why in the world did you name your gallery WaterWorks?
If I’d opened in a big city, I’d have picked something a bit more professional/city like Offen Gallery. Being on the island, I needed something a bit different. When I opened, I was really into Monopoly.
That first year, the gallery was located next to a tavern called The Electric Company. If you ask anyone who’s been around Friday Harbor since the old days, they’ll know The Electric Company. It was an awesome spot that had great dancing.
Anyway, the two utilities have always been an important move in Monopoly. So, I named the gallery after the other utility.
What makes WaterWorks Gallery so unique?
I showcase regional artists, but it’s more than that. I’ve worked really hard to ensure the gallery remains a place where art is approachable. Not just in how the piece looks – which is incredibly important because if you don’t like something you’re not going to put it in your home – but in how I talk about the art.
When you come in here, I’m not going to throw around a bunch of art terms and expect you to know what I’m talking about. I spend as much time as necessary with everyone who comes through the door, explaining the artists’ techniques, sharing the artists’ stories and showing the different mediums we feature.
You have a big event coming up. The gallery’s turning 30. How do you feel about it?
The island is home. There are few places in the world that are this beautiful and this in touch with nature. Art and artists thrive here. It’s been an incredible place to put down roots. I just feel so lucky to be a part of the community. And for the gallery to still be thriving 30 years later, that’s a testament to all the wonderful people here.
May 16, we’re holding a huge celebration right here in the gallery. I hope everyone joins us.
315 Argyle St.,
Friday Harbor, WA 98250