Art at the Watershed

After a long career in psychotherapy and philosophy, Amy Isler Gibson switched gears in April 2012 and opened The Gallery at the Watershed, which features some of the most important contemporary art in Lane County. Gibson’s artist roster is full of seasoned pros like Bill Brewer, Abbas Darabi, Wesley Hurd and sculptor Randy Ortiz. Now, she and a board of directors have started a nonprofit foundation to educate the community about engaging with the arts with classes such as “Composition Through the Eyes of an Artist” and “The Powers of Visual Art.

EW caught up with Gibson to discuss the role of galleries and her goals for the visual arts in Eugene. To read the extended interview, visit

Eugene has not been an easy place for art galleries to survive — several have opened and closed, and the economic downturn hit the arts especially hard. What is the role of an art gallery in the 21st century?

We would like to see galleries become teaching spaces. What I want my gallery to be is a place where people can come and learn about art. Not just look at it, but learn about it. I want it to be lively. I don’t want it just to be this static place with art on the walls where it feels uncomfortable for people to walk in. We work really hard to have both high-end, great art, elegant art on the walls, and yet be really warm and friendly.

In the distracting, screen-filled world we live in today, what do 2D and 3D art have to offer society?

You can learn things from a piece of art. A piece of art can make you think. It can give you all kinds of feelings; it might make you feel happy or peaceful, it might be disturbing — I don’t think disturbing is necessarily a bad word in art. In a world in which community is more difficult, life is more frantic, church and spirituality and temple — all of that is just not a regular part of life for people — art, to me, really accesses the spirit. It comes from really deep inside good artists.

What are the triumphs of running a gallery?

We have not had a single show that I haven’t been really proud of. I have to thank my curator [Robert Canaga] and my artists who trust me for that. Artists are trusting me with their livelihood. It’s a big deal, both to have the trust of an artist and a really good curator and my own self-trust to do all that. The second thing is that we have built a community around this gallery that is really gorgeous to me.

And the challenges?

The really big challenge — I just have to be upfront about this and it really shouldn’t surprise people — is financially it’s really hard to keep a gallery going in this city. It’s really hard to pay the bills. My own belief is that a gallery in these times, at least in a city this size, is not going to exist on sales alone. That’s one of the reasons that we built out the nonprofit [Watershed Arts Foundation] so people have a way to donate. It’s not the primary reason but it’s one of them.

What is the Watershed Arts Foundation?

It’s a nonprofit that grew out of the gallery, in part because we were seeing that people come into the gallery with a huge range of questions about art. Our board, which I think is a group of unusual people, is incredibly passionate about art. We really wanted to share that passion in a way that you can’t do just in a commercial gallery. We wanted to be able to teach. We have access to incredible people, from UO and LCC faculty who are teaching for us, to great artists in the city who are teaching for us. I think when you learn more about art you just get bigger as a person.

In a commercial gallery, you are still limited by what will sell and so in an area like Eugene, where people aren’t huge buyers, sometimes you have to be kind of cautious about what you put on the wall. And there’s really nothing wrong with that except sometimes I want to be more provocative in what we put on the walls. That is one of the reasons that we ended up wanting to build out a nonprofit, so that we could do shows that were funded in other ways besides sales, so that we can put up art that’s a bit riskier, edgier.

What are your goals with the foundation?

The overarching goal is that we really want to raise a dialogue about visual arts in the community that is compelling, educating. We have some great educators and artists who can share what they know in an informal, comfortable setting where people are not afraid to talk and bring their own experience, whether they’re beginners or experts.

It’s this dialogue we want Eugene to have that we’re not really having outside of the university. The university is great but it’s just not accessible to everyone. … We have a whole generation now of people who grew up without the arts and now they’re going into business and starting to run our cities and they don’t have that in their background, but what they show us all the time is that they’re interested, they care.

After a long career in psychotherapy and philosophy, why did you decided to start an art gallery?

Some years ago, life was pretty steady and then there were suddenly some pretty dramatic losses in my life. Through that and after that there was also a series of caretaking of family members with major illnesses. …When it got hard for me, I finally realized I needed to do something special for myself and I finally gave myself permission to do what I had wanted to do as a kid; As teenager what I wanted to do was go to art school. I didn’t the have guts or self-confidence to do that.

I went to LCC and took a full on year of foundation art classes — drawing, color theory, composition. That experience at LCC was transformational for me. I went from depression to joy, really for a year. I had pulled back from my practice in order to do that training. … I knew that I wasn’t going to make a living as artist because I’m still too new at it. … It’s not easy to start an art gallery in this city by any means. We have built a great reputation really fast thanks to a number of people in including my curator Robert Conega.

Has your history in therapy informed how you work in the art world?

I think both my history in philosophy and therapy have hugely, hugely informed how I work. First of all, I don’t have the luxury of a degree in art history, but art history overlaps with the history of philosophy so I do bring that to it. As a therapist, there’s a number of ways that it helps. Everywhere from looking at artwork and thinking about what might be going on there. We all bring our objective training and what we know about art to a piece of art. We also bring our subjective selves. Being a therapist is just a part of who I am, even if I’m not practicing. …

There’s how I look at a work of art; I’m really interested in — how does the unconscious show up in artwork? In a way, I can’t help thinking that way. I’m not trying to read the whole world into every piece of art. I am very attracted to art that is not only about beauty. The way I like to put it is, beauty is a virtue. I mean, every art lover cares about beauty, right? But it’s not the only virtue. So I’m really drawn to what’s interesting and provocative in art, which is one of the reasons we ended up with the foundation because it’s letting us do more with that.

When you went into this, how did you decide how to curate your art? What were you looking for?

I knew that I wanted to do very contemporary art to begin with. Having a good curator is what really made that possible at first because he had longtime relationships up and down the coast and across the country with great artists who trusted him. At first, I relied on that trust. The longer I’m in the business, I can participate in that because people know me too now and trust me. So now we’re much more of a team in that way. We tend to find our artists rather than taking submissions, which I know is hard on artists. We look for our artists ourselves. Now we both do that. [Robert Canaga] was able to bring in great artists right away. He took me immediately to visit artists all around the state and locally. Over time I ended up building relationships with those artists and many many more.

Is there anything specific you look for in an artwork or an artist?

With the gallery, we’re looking for, first of all, art that we think is great art, which I think I probably shouldn’t explain because that’s going to be different for every curator and every owner — strong technical ability, great composition, all those classical things. Also, what’s the work of art saying? Is there something coherent about it? It could be just saying this is a really beautiful scene, it could be something much more interesting like… I really like abstract work; not everybody does. We’re open to a lot of things. We’re looking for what we call great art. I’m looking for a really strong artist resume because that helps me be able, this is just honest, to charge the kind of prices we have to charge to both pay our bills and mark our identity has a high quality gallery. I really care about the kind of person the artist is. I don’t know if every gallerist does, but I want to work with people I believe in. When I end up signing an artist, I go through a talk with them about … what kind of person they are? I’m looking for people with integrity, people I like working with, people I want to support. Great art, great people.

For more information and a class schedule, visit Q&A edited for length and clarity.