The City of Tacoma's Poet Laureate, Josie Emmons Photo by Melina Gabbard-Shields

It was in 1998 that I first met Josie Emmons.  That was the year she became part of Tacoma’s Department of Economic Development. She brought with her a very impressive portfolio of accomplishments in the business, political and cultural world. Part of her job was to interface with the Arts Commission where I was a member.  Although we worked for common goals, it was only later, after she had become Josie Emmons Turner, that we learned that we were both poets.  We would run into each other at readings and even took the same poetry class at TCC. Finally, as she begins the second half of her tenure as Tacoma’s Poet Laureate, I had the opportunity to become better acquainted with Turner over a cup of tea.

Josie Emmons Turner refers to herself as a “true California girl.”  There is historical basis for that claim:  at the same time that Paul Revere rode his horse into our history on the east coast, Turner’s ancestors moved north out of Mexico, becoming the first settlers in the land later named “California.”  A strong oral tradition kept that history alive over the years (Turner is part of the eighth generation of her family on California soil) so that today it is a rich heritage that Turner brings to her poetry.  She writes especially about those strong, pioneer women.

In addition to that larger family history, Turner’s mother had exemplified, while still single, the modern, post-World War II woman.  At the close of the war, she moved by herself to Hawaii, traveled in China, and defined her own independence.  It is not surprising that Turner finds inspiration in the lives of these strong women who are part of her personal history.

In many respects Turner’s early personal history was the usual mix of imagination and opportunity. She took ballet lessons, memorized poetry, and created an imaginary world in her tree house. She recalls a favorite place in Carmel—a bookstore that also offered a divine cheesecake along with hot chocolate.  One of her favorite books was a small volume called “A Child’s Book of Poetry.” In an interesting turn of fate, one of her favorites of “all these great little poems” was Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”  Poetry came to be part of what her mother read to her at bedtime and often at dinner time the family members were asked to recite the latest poem they had committed to memory.

From early childhood until she was about twelve, Turner was in and out of her convent schools frequently, seeming to catch any cold or illness that was going around.  Sometimes hospitalization was required.  Although she speaks of this very matter-of-factly, it must have required a certain flexibility and resilience.

Turner graduated high school and did her undergraduate work at Seattle University, earning her BA in humanities, concentrating on music (her passion at the time) and journalism (being practical about being able to find a job).  Eventually she also earned her teaching credentials and taught in Europe.  She left the classroom and became a press secretary for high-powered election campaigns, both state and local.  Her resume also includes a stint at a print shop; working for the Philadelphia String Quartet and the Olympic Music Festival; directing the cultural programs in Auburn; and helping, as co-CEO, a youth project designed to help students complete high school and go on for further education.  Turner also went on to earn her MFA at the Rainier Writing Workshop at PLU.

Turner is back in the classroom again.  This time, she is teaching at Clover Park High School as well as serving as Tacoma’s Poet Laureate.  Both in the classroom and in the community, Turner hopes to find ways to create greater accessibility to poetry. In large part this means finding poetry that has a voice that matches that of the reader.  In both instances she hopes to offer educational opportunities (see workshop details below) that give hands-on experience in writing poetry as one way to express  “compassion and to think of ways to make the world a better place,” the same goal that she sets for her own writing.

When asked how she would sum up her life experience so far, Turner offered a statement from her deep-seated faith:  “I am blessed, enormously blessed.”

June Workshop-“The Author vs The Speaker: doing what’s best for the poem”

Description:  How do you maintain an authentic voice in your poems yet have them sing?  We will gently discuss one another’s poems and look at the works of some masters.
Dates: Wednesday, June 6 and Wednesday, June 13.  5:30 -7:30.  (Public reading June 21.)
Place:  William Turner Art Studio, 2926 S. Steel Street, Tacoma.  (facility has stairs)
Space limited to 10 poets.
Cost: $45 for both workshops and participation in reading
Registration and Information: Deadline-June 1.
Contact Submit 3 poems, indicating preferred order of workshopping them.   Payment by Paypal or direct check (details established by e-mail). Payment must be received for registration to be considered complete.

A few of Turner’s favorite poets to check out

Robinson Jeffers, Natasha Trethewey, Norman Dubie, Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall, Oliver de la Paz, Kathleen Flenniken, Alan Braden, Terrance Hayes, Quincy Trope, Elizabeth Bishop, Lola Haskins, William Kupinse, Rick Bardot, Kelli Russell Agodon, Michael Magee, Robert Lowell

Apollo Sunflower God, Fab-5 graffiti on the Rialto in Tacoma. Photo courtesy of Fab-5

Graffiti.  What is the first thing that comes to mind when you see or hear that word?  Probably for most people, whatever comes to mind is something negative, with corresponding words such as “defacing” and “vandalism.”  Private structures and public buildings, everything from dumpsters to boxcars, have been targets.

But picture this: A brick wall that faces an alley just off 6th Avenue is defaced by graffiti.  The owner of the building feels disadvantaged because every time he responds to the city’s requirement to get rid of the graffiti, the brick wall is again a target.  The owner contacts Fab-5, an urban art group he has heard of.  They have some artists ready, willing and able to turn that wall into a work of art.  They successfully meet the challenge and since that time six years ago, the art changes twice a year, but only within certain artistic bounds.

Picture this: Five years later, the west-facing wall of the Rialto Theater, 9th and Market, is painted.  A colorful mural/graffiti has a huge, stylized flower centered at the top and the rest of the painted wall is anchored by expressive graffiti.  This seven-day wonder, named “Apollo the Sunflower God” and created in August of 2010, is a spectacular result of the work and training of Fab-5.  That is, its Leadership Strategy Team and teaching artists gave local youth the tools needed for their graffiti to evolve into an urban art form by working within certain boundaries. One of the boundaries established here was that of detailed planning before beginning the project.  In this case, the planning and designing alone took 40 hours of the 107 hours spent on this project in only seven days.

Picture this:  School is out for the summer months.  Fabitat, the new Hilltop home of Fab-5, opens its doors to a diverse group of students who are looking to find and refine their creative voices. Those who choose graffiti as their focus learn how to channel their rebellious outlook and need for self-expression through “scribing” their names, often in an abstract way.  Through drafting and designing they begin to develop an individual style.  They learn through hard work to respect each other’s work.  For example, on Sundays the work that exists on the Graffiti Garages at Broadway and So. 7th can be painted over.  However, the new painter must observe two rules: the resulting new art must be clearly superior to what is there, and out of respect, the new painting must totally cover the old work.

Picture this:  I am hosted by Kenji Stoll, a teaching artist and member of Fab-5’s leadership team. We are seated in Fab-5’s new headquarters at Fabitat.  He has just given me my first assignment: he points to the graffiti design on the wall and asks me, “What does this say?”  He had just explained to me that a name is the central part of the design and I feel clever in calling out the first three letters, but hesitated until it dawned on me that it spelled “Fabitat.”  Fab-5’s current location, Fabitat, grew out of the City of Tacoma’s Spaceworks initiative to invigorate the city through building occupancy.

The teaching artists in Fab-5, whether helping to design and execute a graffiti project, or working with students in the other urban arts (hip hop, break dancing, Djing [being a disc jockey], spoken word, rap, screen printing, recording) have worked with their Leadership Strategy Team to help young people (ages 12-24) of diverse backgrounds create community through the arts.  Their community-building power began on the PLU campus and today, 12 years later, is recognized in a recent press release.  According to David Fisher of the Broadway Center who announced the second round of Voices of the City, “New to the team of teaching artists are members of Tacoma’s, Fab-5 who focus on engaging youth in creative expression and community engagement. Fab-5 has been doing amazing community-based art work since the year 2000.”

The FABITAT Expressive Art Center

1316 South Martin Luther King Ave

Tacoma WA 98405

Free, open art resource

Tuesday – Friday, 4-10 p.m.

On-going donor program is at   website:

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.