ArtWalk founder keeps a 35 mm close at hand
November 5, 2013
By Evan Pappas
Michael Johnson grew up with a camera in hand. He loved photography, but it wasn’t until college that he realized his passion for the art form.
His roommate’s inability to pay rent was partly responsible for his career in photography.
“My roommate couldn’t pay rent and gave me a 35 mm camera instead. That really kicked it in gear for me,” Johnson said. “That’s when it became art for me.”
Johnson’s contributions to Issaquah are vast and varied, but the Issaquah ArtWalk might be his biggest addition to the community.
When the interstate was built, traffic no longer went through downtown Issaquah, causing tourism and business to slow down. Johnson wanted to help the city in its recovery from that loss and started ArtWalk, an event featuring local artists in local businesses.
When the first event was being planned, there was only one art gallery in Issaquah. To solve that problem, Johnson set up galleries in various businesses.
“A lot of times, people never stepped foot in these businesses,” Johnson said.
Hair salons, banks and even the senior center played host to artists from the area, sparking interest in art as well as the local businesses. Johnson thinks ArtWalk really helped Issaquah recover and now has become a great way to show off the culture and community.
“I feel that the ArtWalks helped us get through the tough economic times we had a couple of years ago. Because it was really tight, there were a lot of vacancies downtown,” Johnson said. “We did it on a super low budget and it’s gotten better and better.”
ArtWalk is now held the first Friday night of each month, May through September, organized by Downtown Issaquah Association. The group expanded the program into Wine Walk events last winter.
The success of the ArtWalk has inspired other cities to get involved and Johnson has been there as mentor.
“Issaquah was kind of becoming a model for the way walks are done in the region,” he said.
Lanice Gillard, chairwoman of the Snoqualmie Arts Commission, told Johnson she would like to see an ArtWalk in Snoqualmie. Johnson walked her through the process and eventually the first Snoqualmie ArtWalk was held. Those ArtWalks have gained popularity so much that the city hired a team to manage them.
“He’s just the type of person who wants to see the success of others,” Gillard said.
The Issaquah ArtWalk also served as the initial spark for the creation of artEAST, a nonprofit organization made up of artists promoting art in Issaquah. Johnson started bringing artists together and after a while they wanted to not only create art but to share it as well. He may be a photographer, but he was able to bring artists from various media together.
“I brought everyone together and asked if we wanted a separate arts organization,” Johnson said.
The organization was formed and Johnson became the founding president of Art Collective Issaquah, now known as artEAST. He was also the president of the Issaquah Downtown Association at the time.
Vicki Hoffman, a glass and ceramic artist and community volunteer, worked with Johnson back when ArtWalk and Art Collective Issaquah were in their early stages. (Hoffman died suddenly Oct. 12 from a brain aneurysm after this article was written.) The growth from grassroots group to an organization has come from support from artists in the area.
“It was always neat to see how Michael could rally the community members,” Hoffman said.
Having a hub to share and sell art has been extremely beneficial to building the artistic community, according to Gillard.
“Artists are givers, and although a lot of artists work independently, when they come together they can make great things happen,” she said.
Johnson’s efforts to tirelessly give back to Issaquah have not gone unnoticed. In 2008, Johnson received the distinguished service award for his work for the area.
“That award was encouragement to keep me going,” Johnson said. “You know that you’ve got something good and you’ve got to stay committed to it.”
Johnson worked as a photographer for the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce and now owns NewEra Photography. Some of his more recent photos are the colorful background for the City of Issaquah’s website.
Participating in the community has become a real passion for him.
“I’m always trying to think of ways to increase tourism in this town,” Johnson said. “I’ve still got that eye of what’s good for this community. I love this town.”