Coast Life

We often think of down-sizing as shifting from a larger home to a smaller one. But what if down-sizing means leaving the big city for a small town? We asked artist and gallery owner J. Scott Wilson to tell us what it's been like to leave metropolitan life behind and settle in Manzanita, Oregon.

I was raised in Chicago, and my family enjoyed time on Lake Michigan, so I became used to having a large body of water nearby. Later, I moved in Boston, and summered on Cape Cod.

I relocated to Portland in 1992 and soon discovered the North Coast area, Manzanita, Cannon Beach and Astoria. In 2012, after city living for so many years, coastal life was too inviting to ignore. And there’s always parking. 

I was living in Portland and after four years of looking for a weekend place to rent, I luckily found an apartment in Manzanita where I could paint and write on weekends. The coast light reminded me of back east on the cape. And it was quiet. After my first weekend there, I knew I couldn’t go back to the city, so I moved.

Soon after, I was walking down Laneda Avenue and there was a FOR RENT sign for a 300 square foot space, which I thought would be a perfect springboard for my first gallery. Five years later, I’m still here.

I was pretty much resigned to the fact that I would be the old man by the sea with his beloved paintings, so I never thought, that at my age, at this time in my life and in a town of 750 people, I would find love, marriage and a home. Over the past 10 years, Bart and I had separately been rotating through Manzanita knowing the same circle of friends. He would visit his mother, and I would come for weekends for a supper club I was involved with. We happened to meet at an outdoor concert, both of us each carrying a bottle of wine and a glass. We talked until 2am, and we’ve been together ever since. It’s a Cinderfella kind of story.

We found our home when we weren’t even looking for one. A realtor friend of ours was listing a new house and Bart, who works at home, happened to be walking by when she invited him to look with her. The property had an easy indoor space with meandering and mysterious outdoor spaces—all with a nautical vibe. It had been neglected and the lot was very overgrown, but he fell in love with it.

Coming from the city, I had hoped for something that would be less of a project, but it had magic and charm, lots of trees, bushes and plants in a garden setting conveniently toward the middle of town. We knew we had to have it. It turns out that I’m a third generation artist to live there and it’s worked out perfect for Bart’s home indoor/outdoor work-space.

It’s 1,500 square feet, with 2 renovations already to its history—you really can’t describe it easily as a ranch-style or a mid-century or a contemporary. It’s basically an L-shaped cottage style house on 2.5 lots. With treats.

Being from the city, I’m not a gardener, but I’m a home chef, so I’m attempting raised beds and lots of gardening for next spring.  We have a new deck and patio, and are working on the interior during the winter. There’s always a project.

I’m not a plein air painter. For me, the beach is too windy, too sandy, and the in the summer, filled with locals and vacationers asking what you are painting. I’m lucky enough to have studio space to paint in—as well as being available to talk and meet visitors. No matter how I may excel at painting clowns on velvet, people are drawn to land and seascapes and want a painting to remember their visits.

I change color palettes seasonally, and occasionally subject matter to also keep locals looking in my windows interested. Homeowners in Manzanita have been very supportive. Similar to most resort towns, you are intensely busy with tourists and vacationers for the three summer months, then it’s quiet for nine. The off-season is the best time to recharge at the coast.

Two winters ago I researched book art, and then I began creating paper sculpture by folding, ripping, tearing, creasing, hanging, glueing, and shredding 60,000 pages of old books that weren’t able to be sold or recycled for an installation to benefit the local library. It was a six month project, but a way to be creative in a sculptural discipline, which I had never done before. And thanks to local residents and art and book lovers, most all the pieces sold to help raise funds to assist the local library with its renovations. I also painted a few paintings of books.

Being raised in the city, you can be fairly anonymous. I’m still adjusting to the culture of the small town. For me, you find your tribe(s) and fall into line. Be kind—because everybody knows everybody and many times they can be related. Excel at what you do, give back to the community and support local businesses.  And of course, support the arts!

My advice to artists or retailers is that there are many FOR RENT signs in small towns along the Oregon Coast. Do your research, create it, build it, market it, and they will come.


D. Larson, Editor