Katrina Lyon has made a living as a freelance graphic designer for over 20 years, teaming up with Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, Ocean Kayak, City of Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department, and other area businesses. Recently, she also turned her eye to the creation of Little Free Art Gallery Bham, an unusual attraction in her neighborhood that has captured imaginations and sparked creativity.

Outside of work, Lyon enjoys taking small human figures, about one inch in height, out into natural settings. There, she arranges them in scenes, photographs them, and shares them on her Instagram page. She’s made a few stickers and produced a 2020 calendar, which she sent to clients and friends. “It’s just a fun side project,” she says. “An inspiration to get outside and play, and to see things from a different perspective—a ‘micro’ one.”

That sideline soon led to bigger—yet still quite small—things. “Because of my ‘micro’ hobby, friends often send me ‘little world’ type links,” Lyon says. She has also shared with friends that she would love to one day open a gallery of her own. “My friend Patti Rowlson, of Bellingham PR & Communications, saw the Free Little Art Gallery started by Stacy Milrany in Seattle in the news. She forwarded it to me and said, ‘You should do this in Bellingham.’ She’s always an advocate for making your dreams reality.”

Housed in what was intended to be a Little Free Library, the gallery offers free artistic diversions to passers-by. Photo courtesy Katrina Lyon

Lyon was already familiar with the small, freestanding curbside ‘libraries’ that have long popped up around town, where residents drop off their own books and pick up those left by others. “I’m not a builder, but I did a bunch of research, and downloaded some plans for Little Free Libraries,” Lyon says. “And then I found a site where I could order a pre-made, unpainted Little Free Library online, and that was that.”

After it arrived, Lyon remodeled the library into an art gallery. “I painted it inside and out, installed the gallery “railings” and the rechargeable light, and my husband Sean dug the post hole and set it up on the side of the house,” Lyon says. And there, at the intersection of West Street and Eldridge Avenue, Bellingham’s first tiny arts space came to life. “We opened on May 2, 2021.”

Lyon describes the response and support for the gallery as “really amazing,” even though she hasn’t put out much publicity. “It’s just been word of mouth, people walking by, and my small following on the Instagram account. A few neighbors have shared it on Facebook,” she says. “A few times a week, a car pulls up and people get out just to visit the gallery, and people have told me that they’ve adjusted their route so they can walk by it on their way home from work, or with their dogs, friends or kids.”

Visitors are invited to take art home with them, as well as bring a creation of their own to share with whom-ever passes by. Photo courtesy Katrina Lyon

The same magic that attracts the youngsters also seems to speak to the adults that visit. “There have been some very happy little kids who have collected from, and contributed to, the collection. One woman recently told me her daughter has wanted to visit the space every day since they discovered it, and that it has inspired her—the mom—to make things again,” Lyon says. “I feel the same: Having the gallery inspires and motivates me to take time to make art more regularly, too.”

More inspiration comes from following other tiny galleries as well. “I follow FLAG—the Free Little Art Gallery—in Seattle, and found a bunch of others: Portland, Oakland, San Diego, Fort Collins, Houston, Phoenix, Albuquerque, D.C., Rhode Island and what may be the original one in Edmonton, B.C., which has been running since 2018,” says Lyon. “There’s even another one that just opened in Bellingham in the Broadway Park neighborhood. Maybe someday we can have a gallery walk.”

Taking a cue from other galleries, Lyon includes miniature patrons that inhabit the gallery. “I have six-inch figures that I swap out almost daily, so that there are new people looking at the art all the time. I like to arrange the gallery and swap out who is visiting, but when people bring or take art, they often re-organize things too,” she says. “A couple of times now someone has put in some kind of bed or couch, and I will find one of the ‘people’ laying down inside the gallery. I recently put a little cat figure in the gallery, and the next day someone added a table and put the cat on it, and I saw someone on social media say, ‘Of course the cat is on the table!’”

Bellingham has joined a list of cities across North America that are home to similar delightful attractions. Photo courtesy Katrina Lyon

One day, the cat went missing. “I put up a missing poster, and then someone did this creative, hilarious ransom note on Instagram. We paid the ransom—jellybeans—and the cat got put back,” says Lyon. “There’s an overall sense of play within the space. It’s anonymous and often silly, and that’s really fun. As adults, with bills and jobs, we can forget how much fun it is to play. But being playful is one way to spark your creativity, and with the gallery there’s an outlet for all of it.”

Apart from its size, there aren’t a lot of rules involved with showing at the gallery, and all sorts of media have already come through. “Embroidery, crochet, stickers, paintings on canvas, prints on paper, watercolors, photos, woven baskets, miniature driftwood landscapes, painted rocks, dollhouse furniture, resin and more,” Lyon says. “Professional and amateur artists, all ages, everyone can share their art with the community—and anyone can be a collector. If you see a piece of art that you like, it’s yours. And the art keeps coming because creative people keep creating and sharing and inspiring others.”

A couple of ‘patrons’ enjoy the offerings at the Columbia neighborhood’s Little Free Art Gallery. Photo cour-tesy Katrina Lyon

Featured photo by Steven Arbuckle

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