Series of pioneer art pieces planned for Oak Harbor

Arts commission sees Barringtons as first of several projects to honor Oak Harbor’s earliest pioneers.

Peggy Darst Townsdin was able to breath easier following the Oak Harbor Arts Commission’s latest meeting Monday night.

A longtime supporter of a sculpture that depicts two of the city’s key early pioneers ­— who also happen to be her great-great grandparents — Darst Townsdin watched the project move closer to reality after it met the approval of the city’s arts commission.

The arts commission voted in favor of recommending the sculpture of “The Barringtons” for placement on Pioneer Way to the city council for consideration at its July meeting.

The decision to move forward with the donated art piece, sculpted by Oak Harbor artist Wayne Lewis, came after nearly an hour of lively discussion following a proposal by Darst Townsdin.

The meeting also came on the heels of Darst Townsdin’s resignation from the arts commission May 29, mostly over the stress created by the project.

For the first time in nearly three years, Darst Townsdin attended the arts commission meeting merely as a member of the public pitching a project dear to her, and not as a commission member.

She was there to express the importance of recognizing the city’s early pioneers and provided facts and testimony from others over why Capt. Edward Barrington and his bride Christina McCrohan Barrington were worthy subjects of a permanent statue downtown.

Part of the proposal included a new request, asking the city to help pay for the bronzing and installment of the sculpture, estimated to be about $12,000.

Darst Townsdin said she had raised roughly $4,000 toward those costs but was asking the city to help with the remainder.

Since the art piece was a donation, arts commission chairman Skip Pohtilla and other commission members spoke about concerns over setting a precedent regarding future artists who might expect similar treatment over donated pieces.

“Getting in the habit of funding donations is something we try to avoid,” he said.

However, it was acknowledged that such a precedent already was set involving the “Island Spirit” art piece donated by Lewis that was installed on Pioneer Way in the summer of 2014. An exception was granted to pay about $6,000 for bronzing and installation of that piece, which depicts a Native American fisherman, in the spirit of mending relations with the Swinomish Tribe following the city’s 2011 downtown construction project downtown that unearthed Native American bones.

The arts commission agreed that it was overdue to start recognizing some of Oak Harbor’s earliest pioneers and ultimately a compromise was reached.

As discussions continued to get hung up on the issue of money, commission member John Pendleton suggested further fundraising on Darst Townsdin’s part and then looking at matching funds.

At that point, Darst Townsdin said she would donate an additional $2,000 of her own money for a total donation of $6,000 toward bronzing and installation, leaving the city to match the remaining $6,000.

The group voted in favor of making that recommendation to the city council as well as suggesting the piece be located along Pioneer Way at a spot on the sidewalk across the street from Indulge Salon near the staircase that leads to the parking lot of the former Mi Pueblo Mexican restaurant.

It is near that site where Oak Harbor’s first business once stood, established by Edward Barrington in the 1850s.

The Barringtons’ impact on early Oak Harbor history was documented in a long list of bullet points provided by Oak Harbor’s Scott Hornung that Darst Townsdin handed to arts commissioners to review.

Hornung helped Darst Townsdin with a picture book she authored about Oak Harbor history published by Arcadia Publishing in 2014.

Barrington was a sea captain from Nova Scotia who came this region in mid 19th century.

Although he wasn’t one of Oak Harbor’s original three founders who took out Donation Land Claims in 1851 — distinctions held by Ulrich Freund, Martin Taftezon and Charles Sumner — Barrington arrived in Oak Harbor a year later and wound up purchasing two of those land claims by the late 1850s and owned 640 acres that allowed him to control development of the town’s waterfront business district until the late 1800s.

He established a boat building business in Oak Harbor, was friend and protector of the Skagit Tribe and served a term in the Legislature of Washington Territory.

For roughly a century, until 1951, the main street through Oak Harbor that is now Pioneer Way was known as Barrington Avenue. The Barrington name was later placed on the road a block away, where it remains.

“They kicked his name off the street,” Darst Townsdin said. “At least now he’s going to get back on there.”

Pohtilla envisions the Barringtons to be the first of a series of art pieces connected to Oak Harbor pioneers to be placed downtown in the coming years.

He said another such project related to the city’s three founders is in the works.

In the spirit of the city’s 100th anniversary this year, Pohtilla said he believes the timing is right to get this series off and running and believes it provides merit for the city to be invested.

“It’s a collaboration of historically significant pieces of art for downtown,” Pohtilla said. “We as a body look to do more of that sort of thing. The Barringtons are the first historically significant pioneers we want to recognize.”

Art projects in Oak Harbor are funded through a 0.25 percent utility tax on water, sewer and garbage.

The arts commission, which is made up of community members, recommends projects for city council approval.

Darst Townsdin stayed for the rest of the nearly three-hour meeting and listened to other projects, including presentation on a steel Garry Oak sculpture that is being considered for Highway 20 near the entrance of the Oak Harbor Farmers Market and another presentation that outlined ideas for uses of sections of the massive Garry Oak that was cut down by the city near the post office last year.

Although no action was taken by the arts commission involving those proposals, the commission did vote in favor of recommending to the city council the purchase of two kinetic art sculptures, totaling $13,400, that are part of a joint project with Skagit Valley College’s Whidbey Island campus.

And there was a reminder that a formal dedication will take place at 3:30 p.m. Thursday on Pioneer Way for the kraken sculpture created by Oregon artist Bill Hunt that was commissioned for $33,000.

What mattered most to Darst Townsdin, however, was a big step toward immortalizing early pioneers and ancestors who she felt were worthy of such consideration.

She felt a huge amount of relief.

“I felt a little like a salmon swimming upstream,” she said.

“Now I can sleep.”