The Westhaven Center for the Arts — an art gallery, concert hall, classroom and community center — has closed its doors, one more indirect victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. The closure is due to financial hits due to canceled performances, classes and fundraising events. When or if it will ever re-open is still unknown.
"This wasn't just a local club," said Roy King, who served as the center's executive director between 2015 and 2020. "People in the Bay Area knew about it and were amazed that such an innovative venue could flourish in the wilds of rural Northern California."
Jolianne Einem, the most recent acting director, was herself a violinist of world renown, having played with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco, as well as the Portland, Los Angeles and Seattle baroque orchestras. She had also managed the Cuckoo's Nest, a "Gypsy jazz" quintet.
Jazz was heavy on the performance calendar at the WCA. The trio RLL, formerly known as RLA, featuring Tim Randles on the piano, Mike LaBolle on drums and Ken Lawrence on bass, always drew an overflowing crowd to the small performance hall at their bimonthly performances, featuring guest performers such as vocalist Paula Jones and saxophonist Francis Vanek. Einem's husband, violinist Rob Diggins, also performed at the WCA over the years, as did down-home groups such as the Compost Mountain Boys and the Pilot Rock Ramblers.
All this began more 20 years ago when Trinidad couple Barbara and Chuck Snell bought an old grocery store that had been abandoned and boarded up, but they hadn't decided what to do with it. Westhaven resident Carol Wiebe appealed to the Snells, reasoning that every culture has artists, musicians and storytellers within it and what the community needed was a place where ordinary people of all backgrounds could practice, study and celebrate the arts. She asked the Snells if they would consider opening an art studio in the old building and, to her delight, they agreed.
Then the hard work of renovating and organizing began. Volunteers hauled in lumber and buckets of paint, scraped old paint, built a redwood deck and planted redwood trees, rhododendrons, and a maple tree. A vintage piano that had allegedly been shipped around Cape Horn was donated to the center by the Westhaven Ladies Club. Donors paid the substantial costs of getting the building up to code. A board of directors was formed from community volunteers, who presented petitions signed by hundreds of residents to the county Planning Department and the Board of Supervisors, and convinced them to permit the building for public gatherings.
Finally, on May 18, 2001, the center held its grand opening. Nineteen years of art, music and celebration followed.
"The center always had a kind of mystique for me as a place where music was treated as an art form," said Randles. "The first thing I noticed was that people came there to listen. They truly loved jazz and they were very supportive, always showing up for every concert ... . We would back up a different guest artist each show and draw from all the best jazz players and singers in the area. Many of the guests would comment that they could express themselves more fully in the intimate setting there than most other places in the area."
The visual arts also played a prominent role at the WCA. Local artists Marvin Trump, Bea Stanley, Joyce Jonté, Annie Reed and Kathleen Manaktala, along with many others, adorned the walls with their paintings, prints and drawings. The gallery changed its showings monthly, usually with a party to celebrate. Sculptures by Connie Butler and John Wiebe, too large to move, were on permanent display. Butler's giant whale and mermaid eventually went on outdoor display on the streets of Trinidad. Jewelry and small crafted works were displayed in a special case.
Sometimes the center hosted themed shows. Entering the Mystery, sponsored by Hospice of Humboldt, was a show of works done by artists who were facing death from cancer. Naomi Silvertree curated a show on Indigenous arts and crafts. Beverly Zeman showed prints and paintings celebrating the cycle of the Jewish year.
Artists gave classes to both adults and children. Among them, Jeffrey Stanley taught painting, Debbie Dew taught children color and form and Susan Allan taught them crafting. Others taught healing arts or meditative practices, tai-chi and yoga, surrounded by art. Roy King led a weekly meditation on the mysteries of Gaia, the goddess of nature.
The center was also a home for holiday festivals: Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Spring Fling and many others, where people could go to eat, drink, dance, buy raffle tickets and sing along to the music of Jackie Hogan's piano playing. Old movies drew an audience every month at the Fourth Friday Flicks.
Then COVID-19 put an end to the good times. The annual Spring Fling, the center's chief fundraiser, could not be held. Classes could not be offered, concerts weren't possible and the monthly gallery openings were a thing of the past. As these sources of income dried up, paying the monthly bills became an increasing problem.
Then, one day last summer, people were moving stacks of boxes out of the center, which was being converted into a rental residence. Loré Snell, daughter of Barbara and the late Chuck Snell, says she was given the building by her mother after the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020. Loré Snell says she doesn't intend to kick the current tenant out prematurely and she's not opposed to the building returning to its former purpose. "The artisans would have to accept responsibility [for rent and insurance], she says, adding that her mother, who was traveling and unreachable as the Journal went to press, didn't always charge the WCA rent. Loré Snell says she knows it might be difficult to raise the funds right now. "I would recommend that they look into new possibilities. You know how change opens up opportunities that sometimes are better than what you would have imagined."
On June 6, RLL played one last concert on the grounds. When it was over, Einem told the gathered crowd that this was indeed the end. Many were crying.
While some of the artists and musicians who formed the WCA hope to keep its spirit alive in Westhaven or Trinidad, it will not be an easy task. The center is supported by memberships, ranging from $25 to $500, and also by the concerts and classes that it sponsors — or did, until the pandemic. Einem said they always wanted to keep the concerts affordable to everybody, so most admission was on a sliding scale.
Since the death of Nick Frank, there's been no treasurer on the board of directors and Einem feels the need for someone who can organize a better financial plan for the center. "We need more board members," she said. "A treasurer. A secretary. We need people who help with presentations, with promotions, setting up and running a food table at events. Most of all we need money."
Einem hopes to organize a round table where ideas and visions for the future of the center can be explored. (Interested people can contact her at email@example.com.) For now, art exhibits are still online at the center's website at www.westhavencenter.org and she's working on a location for an art exhibit in July in Trinidad. There are also plans for Trinidad Art Night and jazz at the Trinidad Town Hall. "We're keeping that vision of WCA alive for the community."
Elaine Weinreb (she/her) is a freelance journalist. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.