Ever visited with an artist during a Third Thursday Artwalk? Stopped to study the mural painting at Fifth and Main Street? If so, you’ve been touched by the artistic and civic presence of Edmonds business owners Manya Vee and Jeff Stilwell, who in the past decade have made a significant mark on Edmonds’ art scene.
Nine years ago, Vee and Stilwell were running Manya Vee Selects art gallery in downtown Edmonds. At the time, “there was no art scene in Edmonds to speak of, no place where you could buy art,” recalled Vee, herself a designer of jewelry art. Always a big fan of the Artwalk in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, Vee and Stilwell had a vision of creating “a populist art walk,” in which artists would do more than simply display their work — they would be on hand to answer questions about it.
Convincing artists to take part in the monthly artwalk was a challenge, Stilwell recalled. “Artists are by nature introverts,” he said. Equally challenging was getting Edmonds merchants to buy into the idea of displaying artwork in their shops.
“We started with the conviction that it had to be a win-win scenario for everyone,” Stilwell said. “Merchants needed to provide exhibition space for free but might take a commission.” Over time, businesses saw the value of a monthly artwalk — now one of the largest in Washington state — that attracts an average of 600 visitors monthly to downtown Edmonds.
Bringing more artwork and artists into the community also had a side benefit: “A whole generation of artists sprung up in Edmonds,” Stilwell said.
Expanding the city’s artistic side is all in a day’s work for this husband and wife. In addition to founding the artwalk, they created the Edmonds Mural Society, with a mission of celebrating “the beauty, history and people of Edmonds with artscapes throughout the city.” The first project, completed in September 2009 next to SoundStyles at 5th and Main, features Edmonds artist Pat Brier’s image, “A Day in Edmonds,”
The inspiration for the Mural Society came from Vee’s childhood in the Yakima Valley. Merchants in the nearby town of Toppenish began installing murals in an effort to draw visitors, and the town now attracts 35,000 people annually to visit the 72 murals on display.
Funding for the first mural came from 100-plus supporters who donated $20 each. The mural society now has plans to install six additional artscapes this summer, and is hosting a silent and live auction fundraiser at 6:30 p.m. May 22 to raise money for their installation. More information on that event can be found here.
“There are at least 38 blank walls in the downtown, and we hope to extend the project to neighborhoods as well,” Stilwell said. “It has the potential to become quite huge for years to come.”
For Stilwell, the mural fundraiser also provides him with an opportunity to showcase his skills as a playwright, actor and director (he has had 14 plays produced so far, including his most recent, “Teacup Tipsy,” at Edmonds’ Driftwood Theater). Highlighting the Edmonds Mural Society event is a live action comedy performance of “Mural Mania,” which Stilwell wrote and will direct.
Vee also partners with Stilwell on some of his productions. “I started doing costumes a few plays ago and really enjoyed it,” she said. “The overall concept is that costumes should enhance the storyline of the play.”For “Teacup Tipsy,” Vee expanded her role to take on both costume and set design.
It’s that approach to partnership that has served the couple well in their relationship. “Whenever one of us goes into a project, the other one is the support,” Stilwell said. “Now we are such a team.”
Even though they both had attended college in the U.S. (Vee in Seattle and Stilwell in Wisconsin) the couple actually met in Taiwan. Vee had moved there after college to study Asian art and Stilwell happened to visit Taiwan following his college graduation.) They were engaged in Indonesia in 1994, were married and eventually moved to Edmonds.
While Vee was learning her art jewelry craft and establishing her gallery in Edmonds, Stilwell worked as a software designer for a law firm to pay the bills. After three years, the gallery business was strong and it was Stilwell’s turn to pursue his artistic side. He wrote his first two-act play and staged his first show, discovering along the way that he had a flair for comedy writing.
As if they didn’t have enough on their respective plates, Vee and Stilwell also offer classes and weekend workshops aimed at helping artists and craftspeople avoid the “starving artist” stereotype and learn how to successfully operate their own businesses. “We are committed to mentoring others,” Vee said.