MILTON-FREEWATER — When Jessica Lesko visits the Harvest Festival Student Art Show on Saturday at Central Middle School, she doesn’t know what she will see.

The school year was nearly over when Marianne Smith, the art teacher at McLoughlin High School, selected student pieces for a free exhibition from 9 a.m.-8 p.m. in the cafeteria as part of the community’s all-day Harvest Festival.

“I have no idea which of my projects will be at the show,” Jessica said. But she knows some of the various artwork she crafted during her senior year will be on display. And she’s pretty excited.

“I’ve thought about entering some of my art in shows before, but I just never have,” the 18-year-old twin who graduated from Mac-Hi in June said during an interview last week. Her sister, Kasey, will also have art on exhibit Saturday.

Helping students get excited about art is at the top of Smith’s list as the new Mac-Hi art teacher. She’s been at the job a full year now, and she was thrilled when Harvest Festival organizers contacted her about doing a student art show this year.

“To have their projects be seen by the whole community will be pretty huge for these kids,” Smith said. “My whole hope is that students get so interested in art that they take classes later in college and beyond.”

Smith spent her first year of art instruction at Mac-Hi focusing on the foundations of art. 

The work on display was originally created for classes not for exhibition, she said, so visitors will see reflected in the various paintings, drawings and 3D creations all the fundamental principles of art.

“In all the classes from Art 1 to advanced, I’m trying to get the students as much exposure to as many varieties of art as I can give them,” Smith said.

Visitors may vote for their favorite works of art, and the resulting “People’s Choice” awards will be presented at a 7:30 p.m. artists’ reception Saturday.

In this first year at Mac-Hi, Smith said, students learned about shading and perspective and had a chance to work with a variety of media. 

One exciting project for students this year, she said, was a “head mount,” but students weren’t allowed to do a deer or an elk — too obvious.

“I wanted them to create an animal you wouldn’t normally see as a head mount,” Smith said. “And they just knocked it out of the park. Their pieces are really, really cool looking.”

Lynne Burnham, who taught art at the high school for several years and now teaches the subject at Central Middle School, also took part in selecting student artwork for display.

Student show — this year

JeanAnn Mitchell, a local artist who’s had a hand in organizing the community art show since it began in 1999, said the annual exhibition has typically been open for all community members to enter artwork.

“It’s always been about keeping art alive and encouraging artists in our community,” she said.

But last year the show came close to extinction. The annual August community event — Muddy Frogwater Festival for many years and then Milton-Freewater Rocks! in 2016 and 2017 — has been in “necessary” transition, Mitchell said. Which put the longtime art show in jeopardy.

So last year, when the Rocks! festival was canceled, community organizers rallied around the christening of Milton-Freewater’s new Gib Olinger Elementary School as a reason to celebrate and had a GO Week of festivities, including a student art show.

“That’s when we realized that showcasing students was a great way to bring a lot of people to the art exhibition,” Mitchell said. “Our biggest openings at the Arts Portal Gallery (currently without a permanent location in Milton-Freewater, she said) have been when we focused on kids. Not just parents but the whole community has turned out to say ‘thank you’ for featuring our youth.”

With the annual community festival still in “transition,” Mitchell said, the art show council decided to focus on students again. Since the show is only for one day this year, that makes it difficult for community members anyway, she said.

“We did contact the adult artists in the community, though, to make sure they knew we still supported them and that the show wouldn’t always be just for students,” Mitchell said. “We want them to keep on doing art, and we’ll be back to showcase them again.”

Festival in flux

Jennifer Konrad, executive director of the Milton-Freewater Chamber of Commerce, said the metamorphosis of the annual festival represents a wider shift happening in the community.

“Our whole town has been undergoing a lot of transition the last couple years,” she said. “We hope the Milton-Freewater Harvest Festival will be what it’s known as going forward for the foreseeable future.”

The Harvest Festival, hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, Milton-Freewater Rotary Club and Blue Mountain Cider Company, will take place Saturday at Yantis Park from 7 a.m. with a fun run and breakfast to 9 a.m. with various games and bands. 

The festival’s brand might be different, and the timeline has been shortened, Konrad said, but people should recognize most of the activities.

“A separate festival committee was put together two years ago to oversee the planning and organization of the future festival,” she said. “They were the body that decided to take a year by year (approach) in order to plan better.”

Professional consultants told the committee they didn’t have enough time to prepare a new festival, Konrad said. “But the committee disagreed and moved forward with planning.”

The Chamber remains the administrative body overseeing the event, she said, but is no longer the organization running the whole event.

“Nearly all the activities happening have been part of the festival in previous years,” Konrad said. “A lot of the traditional activities aren’t present this year due to a lack of people to help run and organize those separate activities.”

A few of the bigger differences, she said, are having food trucks as opposed to a salmon dinner and reducing the event from three days to one day.

Dian Ver Valen can be reached at or 509-526-8320.

Dian is U-B news editor and editor of Lifestyles magazine. She has worked in local journalism since receiving her bachelor's in journalism from Western Washington University in 2003. She received her master's in communication and leadership from Gonzaga.

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