The hidden art of the Palouse

What started in a torpedo factory in Alexandria, Va., has morphed into a terrific example of art meeting big dreams in this Whitman County town of about 300 people.

And it came as a total surprise to us on a swing through the southeast corner of the state. The “Stop the van!” moment came when hundreds of well-aged metal wheels along a fence came into view.

The barn behind the fence, empty for 50 years, has been transformed by a determined town into Artisans at the Dahmen Barn.

Manager Leslee Miller had seen a Virginia torpedo factory that was turned into artists’ spaces and took the idea back to Uniontown’s community development association. The association had already restored the 110-year-old Jacobs Building into a Craftsman bakery and cafe, leased by the Sage Baking Co.

When Steve and Junette Dahmen saw the transformation of the Jacobs Building, they donated their dairy barn to the community. More than 1,000 wheels along a fence came with the package, wheels that Steve Dahmen had collected for more than 30 years.

But a dilapidated three-story dairy barn was a completely different challenge than a downtown building.

“Pigeons inhabited the second floor. There was a foot of pigeon droppings. The roof was virtually gone. There was no plumbing or electricity. It was leaning to the north and east, a foot in both directions,” Miller said.

Two engineers couldn’t solve the problem but the third, a structural engineer named Jennifer Anthony from Fearless Engineering in Montana, found the solution.

“Finally she said, ‘I get it. It’s a tent. It moves with the winds. … It’s a beam-and-cable system,’” said Julie Hartwig, manager of the gift shop that sells work from more than 100 area artists.

Miller agreed.

“She nailed it right away. She told us to build a timber frame inside of the structure that would hold it in place.”

The locals overcame every difficulty to create a well-lit, spacious, friendly interior for 19 artists who share nine studios, each artist spending at least eight hours a week on site. The new artisans’ home opened Oct. 1, 2006.

The floor on the ground level has radiant heat, and a new elevator has just been installed.

“It’s our pride and joy. All the work on the barn has been done with grants and private donations,” Miller said.

Portrait work, textile art, screen printing of Palouse country subjects, woodworking, quilting of different styles, handmade clothing, and different techniques in painting and drawing just scratch the surface of the artists’ offerings.

Upstairs, there’s room for studios, dances, concerts, special exhibits and other community events, with loft seating on old church pews. The Hog Heaven Band performs on the fourth Saturday of the month.

Some of the original barn wood has been crafted into pottery display boxes. Creativity is around every corner.

The gift shop offers a wonderful collection of portraits, textiles, ceramics and glazes, watercolor, knitting, weaving and embroidery.

“We were overwhelmed by the response by regional artists to what we were trying to do. … Before we had the second-floor spaces finished, artists signed up. We have a waiting list,” Miller said.

“It’s just been amazing. It was an experiment that we didn’t know would work,” she said.

Sharon Wootton and Maggie Savage are co-authors of “Off the Beaten Path: Washington.”