Angela Ridgway remembers push to grow Washougal art scene

Ridgway, who moved to California in September, helped promote area’s artists, build Washougal Arts and Culture Alliance

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Former Washougal resident Angela Ridgway stands with "Millie," one of two metal herons that she created for display at the roundabout on Highway 14 and Washougal River Road. (Contributed photo courtesy of Angela Ridgway)

After moving from California to Washougal in 2014, metal artist Angela Ridgway quickly settled into the Clark County arts community, opening a studio in downtown Vancouver and joining the Washougal Arts and Culture Alliance (WACA), helping the nonprofit organization to put on its annual Washougal Art Festival.

But as she became more familiar with other Washougal-based artists and their work, she came to the conclusion that they weren’t being exhibited as well as they could be.

“When I (participated in) the Clark County Open Studios Tour, I noticed there wasn’t anybody from Washougal,” she said. “I talked to some people from (WACA) about it, and they said, ‘If you can get six or so artists from Washougal for a studio tour, go for it.’ I started to search for local artists and I wasn’t disappointed.”

Those conversations led to the creation of the Washougal Studio Artists Tour, which debuted in May 2018 with 18 artists from a variety of mediums, including clay, wood, ceramics, acrylics and watercolors, fused glass, colored pencils and pens, jewelry and tattoo art. Nineteen artists participated in the second tour in May 2019.

“I wanted to show what kind of art community there is in Washougal,” Ridgway said. “I also wanted to see Washougal community members come out and support an event like that. We had a wonderful response the first year, and an even better response the second year, almost to the point that, as we started getting more and more artists wanting to be part of it for the third year, the question became, ‘How big do we want to get?’ It was a good problem to have.”

Now, the Washougal art community will have to solve problems without Ridgway around to help. The artist moved to California in September with her husband, John Poterack, who recently retired from his job at Hewlett-Packard.

Washougal resident Rene Carroll, a member of WACA, said Ridgway’s “impact and legacy are significant in the art world of Washougal and Camas.”

“She not only created art here, but created the infrastructure and events to promote other artists,” Carroll said. “That is what makes her so special — she’s not only interested (promoting) her own art, but the art of fellow artists.”

Ridgeway originally cancelled the 2020 studio tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but then decided to organize a “virtual” version. Thirteen artists produced videos of their work, which was displayed on the studio tour’s website and social media channels on Mother’s Day weekend.

“For a last-minute virtual tour, I think it went well,” said Washougal resident Anni Furniss, one of the participating artists. Angela did 99 percent of the work. She’s a powerhouse of ideas, and I’m glad she came up with the idea to do it virtually.”

WACA named Ridgway as its “Honored Artist” for 2020 earlier this year in recognition of her contributions to the organization.

“Angela is extremely hardworking. She takes on challenges and completes them,” Carroll said. “She doesn’t just come up with ideas — she sees them through. She has a great combination of creativity and organization, and is able to communicate well. She first came to us as a volunteer, and she took on a very pivotal role in organizing and implementing a successful first art festival, and pushed to keep improving and changing as went forward. She set the template for us.”

Ridgway said that while she and her husband loved a lot of things about Clark County, they were eager to return to northern California, where they lived for more than two decades before relocating to Washougal.

“We had deep roots in this area, and we wanted to get back to those roots,” Ridgway said. “We’re California people, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t like the Pacific Northwest.”

Finding success with a unique style

Ridgway grew up in Virginia and attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, Virginia, where she received a degree in industrial engineering before moving to California in 1991.

“Traditional industrial engineering has a lot to do with manufacturing processes, metal processes,” she said. “When I was in college, I learned about sand-casting, molten metal, welding and lots of other things. I got hooked on the process of metal welding and (working with) molten metal. That’s what drew me (to metal artwork) at first.”

Ridgway worked for many years as an engineer and project manager for Hewlett-Packard and business consultant for the state of California, and began to create metal artwork in 2007, mostly as a hobby.

But after she lost the vast majority of her consulting work as a result of the Great Recession of 2008, she turned to her artwork as more of a full-time job. She enrolled in classes at a local community college to sharpen her welding skills and metal art techniques, and was invited to participate in her first show at a gallery in Loomis, California, in 2009.

“I made more art and found places to sell it,” she said. “The economy had tanked, but people were still buying artwork, which was nice. So I continued on.”

Ridgeway’s unique style quickly developed a following.

“Not a lot of metal artists were creating what I was creating,” she said. “People who weren’t always drawn to metal art liked my art. People associate metal art as being cold or modern-looking, but for some of my pieces I used bent metal or warped metal and added warm colors, and people felt like they were warmer than some of the other metal art. It was a different style that I hadn’t seen anyone else doing.”

“(Her art is) very industrial and rugged looking, but also very beautiful and endearing,” said Carroll, who owns several of Ridgeway’s pieces. “How she does that with metal is impressive to me. Her skill as a welder, and her ability to get the most out of a piece of metal, to bring it to life, is exciting. That’s part of the beauty of her work. She lets the raw material tell her what it should become.”

Often, Ridgway’s primary inspiration came from the metal itself.

“I would use the basic patterns from the rust to create the artwork,” she said. “There’s beautiful rust patterns on metal, and I felt that I couldn’t improve on the beauty that was already there. I used the rust outlines to paint different colors within the patterns. I love finding and using scrap metal because there’s so much beauty in a piece of metal already that’s been used for something. Some people look at it and see a piece of trash. I look at it and see a piece of art.”

Even though Ridgway doesn’t live in Washougal anymore, her work remains visible in east Clark County. Two metal herons that she created in 2019 are prominently displayed in the center of a roundabout on State Route 14 and Washougal River Road, and her pieces are displayed in several galleries in the Portland metropolitan area, including The Attic Gallery in Camas.

“I met Angela at the Washougal Art Festival in 2016 and started representing her right away,” said Maria Gonser, co-owner of The Attic Gallery. “We put her in local shows and have her (work) on our website, and it always does really well. She’s super friendly, and got the community involved in the arts. She took it to another level. She made a wave here, that’s for sure. She’s amazing, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.”

Embracing new artistic endeavors

Ridgway’s career as a metal artist is finished now.

While living in Washougal, she underwent four surgeries to repair her right shoulder, which she first injured about 30 years ago. The final operation, performed in January, “only partially took,” according to Ridgway, who at that point decided that performing the tasks required to create her art with a compromised arm wouldn’t be in her best interests.

“Rotator cuff issues are not fun. The rehabilitation process is long and hard,” she said. “It was difficult for me to get words out of my mouth that I would not be doing any more metal art. It’s been my livelihood, my passion, for the last 10, 11 years. To go to a doctor and hear those words, that it was probably all over, was an emotional blow.”

“I’ve always known that creating metal art is very physical work, and that as I got older I’d have to think about working into something else,” she continued. “But I didn’t think I’d have to (face that reality) when I was 55. When I look back on those six years (in Washougal), I’m amazed at how much I got done. I produced quite a bit of artwork when I wasn’t recuperating.”

Ridgway is still creating art, however. After her final surgery, she started to draw — with her left hand, at first, while her right arm was incapacitated.

“During quarantine, I drew people wearing masks in common environments,” she said. “I did drawings of baristas and customers at Caf? Piccolo. I drew my husband sitting at Nuestra Mesa. Now I’m drawing almost every day. I’ve gone from not drawing at all to being at the point where people want to buy my drawings. It’s blown me away a little bit.”

She hasn’t forgotten the legacy she left behind in Washougal, however, and hopes that the studio tour can continue in future years despite her absence. Before leaving for California, she gave a “detailed plan” to a group of local artists and community members who have already begun conversing about the possibility of putting on a studio tour in 2021.

“I really want it to continue,” Ridgway said. “I told them if they need help from me, I’ll do as much as I can do from here. I hope that even if they have to do something to modify it (next year) that it won’t go away, and that it can come back again in full force when people are able to be out and about in close proximity with artists and studios.”