Betty Mears

On Sept. 8, 2011, Tacoma lost one of its more colorful residents with the passing of artist Betty M. (Margaret) Bowman Mears.  Her enthusiasm for art was unbounded as fearlessly she explored a variety of mediums, from slumped glass to enameled copper, from oils to water colors, from pottery to photography, to name only a few.  To learn more about this extraordinary, larger-than-life woman who devoted 60 years to teaching others what she had learned, I talked with Pacific Gallery Artists (PGA) artists Pat Ducolon, Mary Schossow Shumaker, Kim Shuckhart Gunns, JoAnn Dorsey-Hayden, and long-time student, Myla Montgomery as we sat around a table at Gallery Three in Puyallup.

Betty Bowman was born in 1919 and grew up on a farm in Buckley, WA during the Depression.  The family moved to Tacoma in time for Betty to attend Stadium High School.  She met and married Nelson (“Nels”) Mears who had served in WWII, one of the soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge.  When he returned home, they began their 50-year life’s journey in art.  Nels graduated from North West School of Art and attended UPS as did Betty.

Betty was eager to learn as much as she could and took classes also at TCC and PLU.  In turn, she began teaching others, hoping to instill in them the practice of laying down a feeling about the subject of a painting rather than trying to faithfully duplicate details—details are for the camera.  Eventually, her students who had heard her often enough began to think in terms of “Bettyisms:”  cool against warm, dark against light, hard against soft; put it down, hit it hard and leave it alone; the rule of nine; there is such a thing as quitting when you’re done! True artistic talent, she thought, was God-given and should be nurtured but anyone’s life can be enhanced by getting involved in some form of art.

In northeast Tacoma, Betty and Nels established a lovely home which became the base for their work, providing inspiring views and plenty of room for studio work and teaching.  In spite of their ideal setting, the Mears worked hard and were out and about, giving lectures, judging shows, traveling and teaching in over 50 countries and on 13 cruises.  In addition, they were part of the Puyallup Fair each year.  Twice a year they opened their home studio for viewing their art for either sale or rent and held seasonal sales. They traveled to different local venues, being participants, for example, in the annual juried art show and sale in Bellevue.  Twice, in 1980 and 81, Betty traveled with students to China.

Betty and Nels belonged to various professional organizations such as PGA where both were past presidents.  Betty also was a member of Women Painters of Washington,  past president of Lakewood Artists, member of Tacoma Art Museum, and National League of American Pen Women, to name a few.  In 2001 she received Pierce County’s Margaret K. Williams Arts Award for Support of the Arts.

Things changed for Betty. Her main supporter and the love of her life, Nels, passed away in 2003.  It became necessary and prudent for her to move from her long-time home to Franke Tobey Jones where she continued to give lessons.  Gradually her output lessened as she could no longer spend a whole day painting; her work day diminished to two hours and then became even shorter as her health deteriorated.  Although still driving at 92, she sadly realized that 2011 would be the first time in many, many years that she would not be putting anything into the show at the Puyallup Fair.
She bequeathed a large number of her works to PGA which is currently authenticating and preparing the work to be sold at silent auction on April 21.  In addition to leaving behind friends, a large number of former and recent students and several who have included her work in their private collections, Betty also leaves a legacy in the form of educational funds to be derived from the proceeds of the auction.

Silent Auction

A silent auction will be held on April 21 to benefit PGA educational projects.  The auction will run from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Franke Tobey Jones, Lillian Pratt Wellness Center, 5340 N. Bristol in Tacoma.  Refreshments will be served.  Up for auction will be many of Mears paintings as well as items from her personal collection.   For more information, contact Kim Gunns (253) 759-9298.

It’s “Americana” for Steve and Kristi Nebel

Steve and Kristi Nebel Photo courtesy of the artists

The year was 1971 and Oct. 4 was the first day of classes for the then-new college, The Evergreen State College.  The opening was a bit premature as there was no campus.  In fact some classes were held in an Olympia tavern where a young, short woman with red shoes met a tall Army veteran. She came to Evergreen as a transfer student with a background that included being an actress and participating in events like talent shows.  She knew how to play a guitar as she sang.  He had no musical background but had an intense desire to write a certain kind of song and was determined to learn whatever was necessary to be able to share his songs with others.  He found a good deal in the Little Nickel want ads and for $25 bought a bass guitar that he realized he didn’t know how to play so he gave it to her.   In 1973 these two, Steve Nebel and Kristi Esvelt, exchanged wedding vows and began their long career as a dynamic musical duo.

As is true for most beginning musicians, they faced a big learning curve.  In order to do what they loved, making music, they had to find daytime jobs.  Both found work at the Bremerton shipyards, Steve as a pipe installation inspector and Kristi as a secretary and then as a draftsperson.   To hone their musical talents, they spent their weekends playing anywhere and everywhere.  Along the way they were also learning the hard stuff:  how to find gigs, how to promote their music, how to develop meaningful contacts.  In 1985, their professional and personal lives took a dramatic turn that would influence the rest of their careers.

Their agent booked them for a five-month stint in Nome, Alaska.  The only problem was that they had to leave right away.  Seeing this as an outstanding opportunity for adventure and professional development, they accepted the offer.  Steve had already left the job at the shipyards so he could devote his time to song writing, and they even found a friend who could box up all their belongings in their Seattle rental and store them, so they were free to go.

The Nebels found Alaska to be a mother lode of stories, ideas and characters that Steve turned into songs.  They played at taverns and little watering holes, soaking in the local idiom. Kristi found it easy to hop up on a bar stool and in essence say to the person sitting next to her, “Tell me your story.”

It was hard work but good work.  They used local phone directories, making cold calls, selling themselves and their music to total strangers.  They got the hang of it, and when they were done in Nome, they moved on to other venues, going from Nome to Ketchikan, and from Dawson City to Prince George.  All the while Steve was writing songs and a 1990 album was the product of that effort.

Their music was not easy to pigeon hole.  They would take a little bit of country, stir in some bluegrass sounds, sprinkle in some rock and roll, give it a dance beat all the while singing a personal narrative that sounded like a folksong.  It was a crossover of two or three genres at any given time.  Whatever it was, it was something their audiences liked.  It was not until around 1995 that the term “Americana” was officially established by the AMA (American Music Association) as its own genre.  To Steve, the song writer, this was good.  “I didn’t know who I was until they invented the term.”

Their dream was to eventually travel to the United Kingdom, bringing their original music to a place that celebrated original music.  But it was a matter of finances – that is until they found an old world atlas in an estate sale.  They bought the atlas for $2 and sold it for enough to travel to Europe.  (It happened that during their first trip to the UK in 2001 they were in London during the Twin Towers disaster.)  Since that time they have made six more trips to the UK, the last having been just this last September and the next will be in January 2013.

The Nebels are versatile musicians, but for Steve, Americana music allows him to do what he really loves doing, and it has been featured in those dream trips to the UK.  For Kristi, the joy is using the music to make connections, to see in audience faces that they are moved by the music or really understanding it.  She is also hoping for success for her newly-formed band, Cowgirl’s Dream, which backed her up on her solo album, Detour.   Their recent CD is Tandem and they are planning a release party soon at Rhapsody in Bloom. For samples of their music and more information, go to  and

Not only is their music rooted in American soil but Steve and Kristi Nebel are also rooted in the American ethos with their contributions of time and money to various social justice and peace organizations.

On rolling, green grounds near Point Defiance Park, Franke Tobey Jones, a 20-acre retirement community, has been a part of Tacoma since 1924.  During that time, this not-for-profit entity has proved itself to be a good neighbor and an asset for the entire city community.  Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than does its Senior University program.

Senior University exists because staff members seriously addressed the premise on which Franke Tobey Jones operates:  “to enrich and expand the quality of life.”  As the staff explored the ramifications of what they wished to accomplish, they realized that the community they wanted to serve included not just the 62+ age resident community but also the 55 and better community at large.

In 2007 the first steps were taken.  The staff wanted to offer education and activities that had substance to them.  They networked with faculty from the local academic communities.  The first cooperative effort was with the University of Puget Sound, which was later joined by Tacoma Community College, University of Washington/Tacoma, Clover Park Schools and Pacific Lutheran.  One staff member was quite active in the arts community, which proved to be a valuable resource.  Senior University has also collaborated with the Elder Hostel program, a fee-based curriculum, and usually, therefore the only Senior University offering that has a fee attached to it. In these first five years of operation, Senior University knows it has touched the lives of at least 600 individuals.

The new Director of Senior University, Kitty Custer says she anticipates being able to continue building on the curriculum that Cherilyn Williams had developed.  She hopes the word will get out into the community so that Senior University might be able to serve an ever-larger number of people.
In addition to a core curriculum on health and wellness issues such as chronic conditions, Senior University offers a variety of courses that appeal to the creative mind and enhance knowledge and experiences in visual arts, literature and music.  Some classes require pre-registration in order to keep the class size a workable one within the constraints of the classroom size.

An example of this is the creative writing class, “What I Have to Say about My Life Journey” with Jan Lawry.  This ongoing class provides an opportunity to discuss the development and use of one’s core values, then see how they apply to making important decisions.  Each month, a different aspect is covered; for Feb. 3 and Feb. 17 the work will center on “Who is your family?” and March will cover work history and education.  The class size is limited to eight, so registration by calling 253-752-6621 is required.

Another class that requires pre-registration because of space limitation is “Poetry Workshop:  Writing Deeply.” Participants will have an opportunity to examine, discuss, write and receive gentle critique.   Tammy Robacker, former Poet Laureate of Tacoma leads this two-hour, Tuesday workshop beginning on Feb. 7.

Oil Pastels with Lia Cravens (one day, two hours) and Acrylic Collage with Roxanne Everett (two days, 4hrs. each) require a small fee.
For more information about these and any other offerings, check out the Franke Tobey Jones web site at and click on “community programs.”  This will give you some choices, so click on “Senior University.”  Then click on “Feb 2012 Description of Courses.” Check the calendar page often to see if additional courses are being offered. The web site also offers a map and set of directions on how to find the campus.  A rule of thumb regarding the role of weather in determining if classes will be held:  if Tacoma Schools are closed, there will be no university classes.

If you have any questions or have an idea for an additional course to be added, you can contact:  Kitty Custer, Director of Senior University  at  or by mail at the address below.  A brief announcement of all courses appears as an ad in the Tacoma News Tribune.  (If you have trouble accessing information via computer, you might consider taking one of Senior University’s computer courses.)

A Crazy Lady has an anniversary

Eclectic, funky, colorful, appealing to the senses—lotions, candy, creatures furry—acrylics, oils, pencil art—portraits, carvings, found-object art—bling and retro and great photographs. These are some ways of describing what you’ll find at A Crazy Lady on 4th Street Gallery.

Shelly Wilkerson is the “Crazy Lady,” so-named by her partner/husband Glen Wilkerson.  Glen told his wife that opening a new gallery in this economic climate in the town of Bremerton was “a crazy thing to do,” but he nevertheless joined the venture, becoming one of its artists.  So far so good—the gallery and retail shop just celebrated its one-year anniversary.

In this first year, Wilkerson has gathered together 23 diverse artists and artisans.  The central principle is not so much determining what defines “art” or “fine art” but rather a question of where is the “heart.” You can find it in the moss and bark collected and turned into birdhouses. You can sense it in a wooden, carved rabbit.  Perhaps you can “read” the unwritten messages in the intense, heart-felt paintings that focus on the environment.  Your heart might be touched by the notecards done by school children or the effort that goes into Jeremy Hannaford’s welded pieces, accomplishments of a quadriplegic. Or, you might recognize yourself in one of Wilkerson’s paintings (such as the one above).

Wilkerson jokingly refers to herself as “the dictator,” but she is the central person who interviews prospective artists, rents out space to them, and calls for their bimonthly meetings.  Her personal story is as compelling as her presence.  Originally from New York, Wilkerson was a closet artist for a number of years until the fateful events around 9/11 and being laid off from her long-time job as a contractor for Boeing.  She turned to her art to find solace and eventually founded Cat Companions, LLC, of which the gallery is a division.

The gallery, combined with a retail shop, is housed in the 4th Pacific Arts Building adjacent to the older Amy Burnett Gallery.  They both participate in Bremerton’s First Friday Artwalk. Each month the resident “CEO” (the gallery cat) relinquishes some attention and allows a different artist to be spotlighted for the Artwalk.