In nod to pre-pandemic life, Portland coffee shop art shows return: ‘When art seems trivial is when it’s most needed’

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The coronavirus pandemic failed to defeat Catherine Freshley’s plan to bring original art to people in the most casual of places, like coffee shops.

She just had to be patient.

The artist and art seller returned to Portland just before stay-at-home orders were issued in March 2020 to reduce the spread of COVID-19. As doors closed, art was left out in the cold.

“There was so much uncertainty, and regulations were changing frequently,” Freshley said. “Understandably, having an art show going didn’t really make sense and definitely wasn’t a priority.”

Among the long traditions that ceased abruptly were Portland eateries serving as gallery stand-ins, offering artists space to install their work for sale. Even after businesses first reopened during the COVID-19 pandemic, constant surface sanitizing left walls bare and shelves stripped clean.

Now, with case counts greatly diminished and masking requirements lifted, everyday joys like coffee shop art are slowly returning to Portland.

Freshley’s show, “Love Letter to the Bay,” with six contemporary landscapes, can be seen on the walls of Capitola Coffee in Northeast Portland’s Sabin neighborhood.

The coffee shop, which had been offering only takeout, fully reopened — art and all — in March.

“As soon as we got [Freshley’s] art on the wall, it felt like before,” Capitola Coffee owner Marv Johnson said. “Art brings a lot to our day-to-day life.”

Artist Catherine Freshley's acrylic paintings of Washington's Willapa Bay can be seen online .catherinefreshleyart.com and are available for viewing and purchase at Capitola Coffee, 1465 NE Prescott St Ste B in Portland, from 7 am to 1 pm on Mondays and from 7 am to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays through April 30, 2022.

Art is back on the walls of Capitola Coffee in Northeast Portland.Tom Leineweber

The shop’s first event of the pandemic, a reception for Freshley this past Thursday, brought art fans, interior designers and neighbors to the business’ small seating area with tables for two spaced out against seafoam-green walls.

The event “felt like the reason we moved back home, to be part of a community,” said Freshley, who met her husband, Tom Leineweber while attending Portland’s Lincoln High School.

The couple — “high school sweethearts,” Freshley said — were transferred often during the 12 years Leineweber served as a US Air Force pilot. When he separated from the service, they wanted to settle down and buy their first home in Portland.

After moving back, however, the pandemic kept them cooped up in a Portland apartment for 20 months.

Leineweber, now 35, lost his post-military job because of the pandemic. And Freshley’s sources of income — selling art and teaching online painting lessons — seemed like the last choice of many people who were fearful of COVID-19 and tried to limit their spending during a time of financial difficulty.

But Freshley, now 34, listened when people confirmed what she already knew: Art is important, and it brings a sense of joy and peace, especially in challenging times.

“When art seems trivial is when it’s most needed,” she said.

Freshley, who first installed a show in a Spokane, Washington, restaurant in 2011, found that people who casually encounter a piece of art, such as when they’re enjoying dinner or coffee, don’t feel pressured to buy art or explain why they like it.

They can just react to it, she said.

She and her spouse moved into their first home in November 2021. The next morning, they discovered their neighborhood coffee shop, Capitola Coffee.

The business’ bare walls stirred Freshley to talk to Johnson and then create six paintings, inspired by Washington’s Willapa Bay, specifically for the space.

Johnson said art draws people in, connects them to the creative process and gives them an unexpected brush with artistic beauty. Artists also find physical shows more inviting than seeing their works displayed on a screen, he added.

“Catherine’s paintings of one place from different vantage points and times of day, and shown in many layers of color and texture, leaves a lot to examine,” he said.

Fans of Freshley’s work can purchase fine art prints of her paintings at Capitola Coffee. They cost $30 for an 8-inch-by-10-inch print and $50 for an 11-inch-by-14 inch print.

Original 3-foot-by-4-foot acrylic paintings in maple frames cost $2,900 each. Two of the six have sold.

“The pandemic is not over, but things are returning to normal, and people want that so much,” Freshley said. “An art show is a small thing, but it’s a sign of life and normalcy.”

“Love Letter to the Bay,” a landscape painting show by Portland artist Catherine Freshley, opened March 1 and will hang through April 30 at Capitola Coffee, 1465 NE Prescott St. Suite B in Portland. The coffee shop is open from 7 am to 1 pm on Mondays and from 7 am to 3 pm Tuesdays through Sundays.

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072

[email protected] | @janeteastman

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