PORT ANGELES — Cathy Haight remembers the day she turned the corner.
She and her husband David were running a graphic design business in Southern California: Haight & Haight Communicating Arts. Both were wildly creative types who had started out working for other firms, then opened their own company.
Yet on this day, Haight realized that running the business had left scarce space for her own art.
“All of a sudden, it wasn’t about being creative anymore . . . it was all about accounting,” Haight recalled, sitting in her light- and art-filled living room above Port Angeles.
She remembered how the stress was brutal.
“I was beside myself,” Haight said.
Her daughter Laura was in third grade at the time. So, “just on a whim, one day, I said, ‘If the principal ever needs an art teacher, I would so love to do that.’”
The Carden School of Fountain Valley, a private elementary and middle school, phoned her the next day. “When can you start?” the principal asked.
Kids and art
And so began Haight’s illustrious career pursuing her dual passion: making art with kids.
She holds a degree from the California Institute of the Arts, along with an implacable belief in the value of art in a child’s life. Learning to express oneself, to paint outside the lines — these are as crucial as learning to read and write; removing the arts from public school curricula, Haight said, is one of the “most damaging things that could be done to our civilization.”
The Carden School was committed to providing art instruction for all of its students, so in Haight plunged. She taught art classes for kindergartners up through eighth-graders for four years.
She then became a volunteer coordinator for the Girl Scouts of America and trained scout leaders for a good 15 years, until she and David decided they were ready to start a new chapter in their lives.
They had lived in Irvine, Calif., long enough — and Laura was all grown up, with her own career as an artist and teacher — so Haight made it her job to find the setting for this new era.
“My office was filled with maps of places we could go,” she recalls.
It was 2007, and Haight was talking with Realtors in Georgia, Colorado — and Port Angeles. She found out that the former Dry Creek School was for sale, so she and David came out to visit.
They envisioned turning the old school into live-work spaces for artists. And as they explored the community, they met people who also saw Port Angeles becoming a place where artists and lovers of art could, together, create a lively scene.
The Haights found kindred spirits in Port Angeles Fine Arts Center director Jake Seniuk and Studio Bob gallery owner Bob Stokes, among others. They were enchanted by their surroundings — and by the possibility of “living in one of the most beautiful places on the planet,” as Cathy puts it.
But the restoration of the old Dry Creek School “was not to be,” she said. The permits required, along with the need for a new septic system, made the purchase prohibitive.
But then the Haights’ house in Irvine sold. And they still wanted to move to the Olympic Peninsula. Despite the way their first plans had fallen through, they came and found a house off Old Mill Road that they could afford.
While David, who continued to work as a graphic artist, could be anywhere thanks to the Internet, Cathy decided to try something altogether new. It was a family-oriented business, a place where kids and their folks could come, and where she envisioned displaying local artists’ work. She took on the Pizza Factory franchise in Sequim in May 2008, on the same day that David, her husband of 35 years, was diagnosed with stage four cancer of the tonsils and tongue.
“It would have been a viable business,” Cathy said of the Pizza Factory. “But we were paying hospital bills,” and driving back and forth to Seattle for treatments.
The Pizza Factory closed, and the Haights have since contended with more than their share of trials. David has undergone radiation and repeated surgeries, suffered a lung infection and, in January 2011, had radical neck surgery to remove diseased vein, muscle and nerve tissue.
He now lives on a liquid diet and still makes frequent trips to Seattle for continued treatments.
“I’ll put it this way: I am not out of the woods,” he said last week.
“We have had many soul-searching conversations, about quality of life,” amid the long and difficult process, adds his wife.
Through it all, she says, “you put one foot in front of the other. There is no alternative.”
Yet Cathy Haight is doing much more than that.
While both she and David continue to work on their own art — he on sculptures and graphics, she on watercolors and whimsically painted Barbie dolls — Cathy also finds joy, daily, in her job.
She’s the art teacher again, this time at the Olympic Peninsula YMCA. She started out as a group leader in the Y-Kids child care program; her 2011 projects included teaching the grade-schoolers how to sew and making sundresses for Project Hope. The nonprofit ( www.ProjectHOPEart.org ) sent the dresses to children in Haiti in time for Christmas.
In January, when the YMCA began After the Bell, an after-school program blending fitness, tutoring, sports and art, Haight was hired as enrichment coordinator.
The best part about this, Haight says, is that she’s fulfilling her purpose in life: to help kids discover that they are artists, and show them how in the world of art, anything is possible.
In Haight’s projects, there’s always a whole backstory, a context that turns each activity into a mind expander.
Recently, she led her students on an odyssey, via Google Earth’s maps and graphics, to Egypt. They crossed the Nile on the Y’s computers, visited the pyramids, learned about mummies —and then went for the hands-on segment.
“We mummified hot dogs,” Haight said.
She and the kids learned how to make the “mummy juice” of salt and spices, and they built sarcophagi for the wieners, which Haight hears are now on display in students’ homes.
To cap this unit of study, Haight plans a field trip to Seattle’s Pacific Science Center to see the King Tut exhibition. “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs,” with scores of artifacts from the boy king’s tomb and from 2,000 years of Egyptian history, will be on display at the center from May 24 through Jan. 6.
As for the activities Haight orchestrates here at home, they’re big hits.
“I always want to do her classes,” said Michell Gentry, the YMCA’s youth development director.
Her own daughter Maya, 6, is in After the Bell and comes home gushing about what Haight had the kids doing that day. One recent afternoon, “we made green,” Maya told her mom, referring to the jungle painting created by the art crowd.
As Haight shepherded her students through this jungle, she taught them how to mix acrylic paint colors; about foreground, background and middle ground; and about Henri Rousseau, the turn-of-the-20th-century painter who, having never been to an actual jungle, painted many lush, green scenes.
“We learned how, because you’re an artist, you can make your own jungle,” said Haight.
This past week, she had the After the Bell students sculpting metal, and invited local artist Clark Mundy, known for his copper sea creatures, in for demonstrations.
After the Bell’s art program filled up right away, Gentry said. The Y started a waiting list — and then the Veterans Center next door donated space so more children could enroll, and Sarah Tucker, another Port Angeles artist, could be hired as Haight’s assistant.
Tucker has gotten to know Haight while the two women have volunteered at the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center and with the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts. Together with arts advocate Sandy Long and the Port Angeles Arts Council, they organized Young at Art, a show that got hundreds of children’s works into downtown windows last May.
Haight helped plan this spring’s show, along with taking on the volunteer job of running the Juan de Fuca Festival street fair. That gathering of Pacific Northwest artists will take place beside the Vern Burton Community Center during the festival from May 25-28.
On a regular basis, Haight amazes Tucker.
“She is so even-keeled, while so many things are happening all the time,” Tucker said.
Haight has continued working, continued volunteering and continued caring for her husband — all while coping with financial struggles, Tucker added. She moves through it all with grace.
David Haight marvels, too, at his wife’s skill when it comes to balancing volunteer work with her paying job. She is a multifaceted woman who, he knows, is not afraid to learn by doing.
For example, David remembers, Cathy once bought a bright red Alfa Romeo sports car, even though it had a stick shift and she didn’t know how to drive with one.
She learned, he says, by driving it from the seller’s place in the San Fernando Valley all the way down Sepulveda Boulevard, to her home in Marina del Rey, in rush-hour traffic.
And though Haight no longer drives an Alfa Romeo, she still knows how to get out and have fun.
She and David attend the art nights at Studio Bob on many Thursdays, and dress up for the Second Weekend opening receptions at Port Angeles’ downtown galleries on the second Saturday night of each month. During these events, the Haights are immersed in local art, and surrounded by friends.
Not surprisingly, Haight hasn’t a lot of time for her own painting these days. There is, however, another medium into which she pours her whole heart.
“My art is children’s classes: How can I teach this?” she said.“That I get to do that every day,” the artist added, “is fabulous.”