Top 10 Reasons the San Juan Islands are an Art Lover’s Paradise

The natural beauty, fascinating history and cultural vibrancy of the San Juan Islands attracts and inspired visual artists and performers of all ages and genres, and each island has a wealth of galleries, museums, theaters and studios to explore. From playwrights’ festivals to a gorgeous park with 125 sculptures, avant garde dance, a stainless steel “Whale Tail” and the kinetic sculptures of Anthony Howe, this varied and accomplished community of artists is as eclectic as your tastes. Here are the ten top art activities we recommend for your summer travels.

1. The San Juan Islands Museum of Art (IMA)

Friday Harbor has entered a new world of art opportunity with the premier of its new San Juan Islands Museum of Art (IMA), with a successful first exhibition by renown glass artist, William Morris. A new destination on the San Juan Islands’ art trail, it is also the first major visual arts museum in the Islands, with quarterly exhibits from artists from around the world. Housed in a sleek building of modern glass and steel design, IMA is now showing San Francisco wildlife photographer Susan Middleton’s show, Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, the Backbone of Life. Running through August 21, the exhibit focus on fascinating and beautiful photographs of jellyfish, octopuses and other mysterious marine invertebrates.

2. Orcas Island Artworks


Rising like a Phoenix from the ashes, Orcas Island Artworks re-opened this spring, marking a whole new beginning for the center, damaged by fire in 2013. This artists’ co-op in the hamlet of Olga is celebrating its 35th season—now 45 artists strong—back in the 1938 strawberry barreling plant it calls home. The Catkin Café will take the place of Café Olga, which will stay in Eastsound. James Hardman Gallery will also open in its former home, upstairs in the loft. See a slideshow of the transformation after the fire at

3. Three Islands, Three Theaters

All three islands have thriving performance cultures. On Lopez, the Lopez Center for Community and the Arts is the center of cultural life, hosting musicians, plays and other performances in their beautiful building in Lopez Village. The San Juan Community Theatre produces several plays a year with local actors, as well as traveling theatrical, dance and musical performances. The Orcas Center—a hub of Orcas Island’s theatre and cultural community—will unveil a new 12-piece sculpture garden in July. The 12 new pieces, 7 of which are by renowned Orcas Island kinetic sculptor Anthony Howe, will be dotted around the center’s grounds. The Orcas Center hosts dozens of productions each year, including plays, dance productions, live opera and theatre in HD, the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, TEDx Orcas Island, and more. There are even traveling troups that island hop. Island Stage Left performs Shakespeare Under the Stars each summer on all three islands – a great free (donations appreciated) way to relax, have a glass of wine and delight in the Bard of Avon.

4. San Juan Island Sculpture Park

From dawn to dusk every day, this art park outside of Friday Harbor charms visitors with its 20 acres of outdoor art. With over 150 creations from world-renowned sculptors, five marked trails for wandering and a gorgeous natural pond, this is the perfect place for picnic among the stunning works of art. The art changes from month to month as it is rotated and new pieces become available, so be sure to visit often.

5. Island Studio Tours

See artists in their natural habitats on San Juan (June 6 – 7), Orcas (August 14 – 16) and Lopez (September 5-6). These free, self-guided tours take art lovers through working art studios open to the public for an entire weekend each summer. Artists not only display their artwork, they also share insights into how their art is created and what inspires them—whether it be oil painting, watercolor, sculpture, pottery, fiber art, printmaking or jewelry.

6. Music, Music Everywhere

The strains of all kinds of music can be heard almost every day on these three music-loving islands. The Salish Sea Early Music Festival performs on historic instruments, the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival brings performers from all over the world for this reknown experience that visits Lopez and San Juan as well. Doe Bay Fest at Doe Bay Resort & Retreat on Orcas Island sells out every year, and features some of the Northwest’s top alternative bands. Doe Bay Café also has a long-running open mic night every Thursday, and bands perform most Fridays and Saturdays throughout the summer in the café, the yoga studio – and even in the woods.

7. Film Festival Fun

In recent years, Friday Harbor and Orcas Island have started two very different film festivals, with something for everyone. The Orcas Island Film Festival “Off the Edge” (October 9 – 12, 2015) focuses on avant-garde, art house, trans-media and emerging edge film culture from around the world. There is also a film competition, where contestants are asked to “use the magic of the San Juan Archipelago as a canvas.” The Friday Harbor Film Festival (November 9 – 11, 2015) features documentary films with a connection to the Pacific Rim. This festival includes discussions with filmmakers and a youth film project. Each festival has its own flavor, and are a great way to visit the islands in the fall.

8. History and Pottery

The history of ceramics in the Northwest owes part of its story to the San Juan Islands. In 1945, Joe and Marclay Sherman opened Orcas Island Pottery, establishing it as the oldest pottery in the Pacific Northwest. They traded a local farmer a set of 4 plates and 4 bowls for the now 150-year-old trapper’s log cabin of old-growth fir, dismantled it and moved it to the property to become the showroom that it still is today. Three generations of potters have created a favorite destination for nature and art lovers visiting Orcas Island. Opened in 1959 in an 1866 log cabin, Crow Valley Pottery continues to focus on artists creating original works in a variety of media. Potters Jeffri Coleman and Michael Rivkin anchor an exciting gallery known for its breadth of artists, and an ever-changing collection of works in diverse media. Their shop in Eastsound features art by many island and regional artists.

9. Summer Arts Fair

This 20-year Friday Harbor tradition is held on the historic San Juan County Courthouse lawn from July 11-12. With local live music all day, you’ll enjoy perusing the 50 local and regional artists selling their works. From jewelry and textile arts to natural beauty products and crafts, there is something for everyone here. Don’t miss the Creative Center for the little ones, and make sure to stop and see the sidewalk chalk art before you go.

10. Friday Harbor Art Market

Now in it’s fourth season, the Friday Harbor Art Market is held in Brickworks Plaza each week from June to the beginning of September. Both kids and adults are encouraged to sneak in some hands-on activities at the interactive art station, Creation Station, and we suggest indulging in seasonal food from Cynthia’s Of Course between checking out the pottery, photography, baskets, clothing, woodwork, soaps, lotions, paintings and more.

If you go:

San Juan Island

During the weekend of June 6-7, 15 studios and over 40 participants will be participating in the San Juan Island Studio Tour. Stop by the Spirit Bear Studio to see bronze sculptures, furniture and home décor items, and make sure to visit Belle Terre Ceramics to see Lauren Jawer’s pottery using a surface design technique she calls “clay printmaking”. Visit for more details on the studio tours and participating artists.

Orcas Island

Orcas Island is a great spot to visit for those interested in ceramics. Sharing and selling art is a way of life for many living on this charming island. From August 14-16, 32 premier Orcas Island artists will open their working studios for the public to meet the artists and purchase their latest works—from forging an encaustics to stone cutting and woodwork. Steve and Lynn Emmes make stunningly unique custom wood furniture, and Kim Middleton’s oil paintings of birds are something to see. Visit for more information.

Lopez Island

Experience first hand the quality and craftsmanship of the many artists on Lopez Island during their 19th annual self-guided studio tours on September 5-6. Strike up conversations with artists at studios all over the island and choose the perfect painting to hang on your wall at home. 41 artists and 28 studios will be open to show the public where the art happens. Check out Nancy Bingham’s functional stoneware with images of Northwest wildlife, or try on one of Linda Ann Vorobik’s silk scarves hand-painted with botanical art illustrations. Mary Bywater Cross’ woolen quilts would make a great gift to take home to friends and family. Full color brochures are available at the Lopez Island Chamber of Commerce, local galleries and shops, or are available for download at

Whatever kind of art you are looking for, the San Juan Islands will have it and you’ll enjoy taking it all in as you explore the islands.