Portland Coffee Shops Art Exhibits Return In Homage To Life Before Pandemic: ‘When Art Seems Trivial, It’s Most Needed’


The coronavirus pandemic couldn’t derail Catherine Freshley’s plan to bring original art to people in the most casual of places, like cafes.

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 curb the spread of COVID-19. When the doors were closed, the art was left out in the cold.

“There was so much uncertainty and regulations were changing frequently,” Freshley said. “Understandably, keeping an art exhibition running made no sense and was definitely not a priority.”

Longstanding traditions that ended abruptly included restaurants in Portland, which served as substitutes for galleries and provided space for artists to display their work for sale. Even after stores reopened for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic, constant surface disinfection left walls bare and shelves clean.

Now that the number of cases has plummeted and mask requirements have been lifted, everyday pleasures like coffee shop art are slowly returning to Portland.

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

The café, which had previously only offered takeaway, has been fully reopened – Art and everything – in March.

“As soon as we came [Freshley’s] Art on the wall, it felt like it used to be,” said Capitola Coffee owner Marv Johnson. “Art brings a lot into our everyday lives.”

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

The first event of loading the pandemic, a Reception for Freshley last Thursday, brought art fans, interior designers and neighbors into the company’s small seating area, with tables for two dotted along sea-foam 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 she attended Lincoln High School in Portland.

The pair — “high school sweethearts,” Freshley said — were rotated many times during the 12 years that Leineweber served as a US Air Force pilot. When he left the service, they wanted to settle down and buy their first home in Portland.

After the retreat, however, the pandemic kept her 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 painting classes online — appeared to be the last resort for many people scared of COVID-19 and trying to limit their spending at a time of financial hardship.

But Freshley, now 34, listened as people confirmed what she already knew: art matters, and it brings a sense of joy and peace, especially in challenging times.

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

Freshley, who first installed a show at a restaurant in Spokane, Washington, in 2011, found that people who happen upon an artwork, say over dinner or coffee, don’t feel pressured to buy or to buy art explain why you like it.

You 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 store’s bare walls prompted Freshley to speak with Johnson and then paint six paintings specifically for the space, inspired by Washington’s Willapa Bay.

Johnson said art draws people in, connects them to the creative process, and gives them an unexpected touch of artistic beauty. Artists also find physical exhibitions more inviting than seeing their work on a screen, he added.

“Catherine’s paintings of one place, from different angles and at different times of day, shown in many layers of color and texture, leave a lot to explore,” he said.

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

Original 3ft by 4ft acrylic paintings in maple frames are $2,900 each. Two of the six have been sold.

“The pandemic isn’t over yet, but things are getting back to normal and people want that so badly,” Freshley said. “An art exhibition is a small thing, but it is a sign of life and normality.”

“Love Letter to the Bay,” a landscape painting show by a Portland artist Catherine Freshley, opening March 1 and hanging through April 30 at Capitola Coffee, 1465 NE Prescott St. Suite B in Portland. The café is open Monday to Friday from 7am to 1pm and Tuesday to Sunday from 7am to 3pm.

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072

[email protected] | @janeteastman

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