Kahnaway: Gem of the Gorge

December 4, 2011

by Martha Martin

Nell Warren and Greg Misarti, Owners of Kahnaway Art and Ecology Center ---photo by Martha Martin

This fall, Nell Warren and Greg Misarti welcomed me inside their beautiful home perched on their property off of Southeast Gibson Road. Sitting on their soft sofa, sipping herbal tea, and caressing their orange tabby, they talked in detail about themselves and their life project “Kahnaway” Art and Ecology Center, just outside of the city limits of Washougal, and inside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

The Creators of Kahnaway

Nell Warren grew up in Portland and on Prune Hill in Camas, and spent time with her family on the Columbia River in Skamania County.  She describes her life as that of a “river rat”, with memories of feeling like she was in a “magic play land”.  “I could never imagine living anywhere else but the Gorge” she tells me, which became her focus when searching for the property on which she would eventually set up her life with Greg.

Greg Misarti, on the other hand, had a different experience.  Born in Italy, he lived there until age three, moving to Connecticut until he was eight, and then once again back to Italy until age fourteen.  He lived in Milan, and went to an American School that had both Americans and “wealthy” Italians.  He said it was a small school, and he spent “all my time skate boarding”. One additional move brought him back to high school in Connecticut.  The move back to the states was a culture shock, but Greg said he made lots of great friends.  He recalls meeting “good people in Connecticut” who influenced his interest in Art and music.

His father still lives in Italy, and both he and Nell have taken the opportunity to visit him.

A quiet moment ---photo by Martha Martin

The first time Nell met Greg was eleven years ago when she lived in a warehouse in Olneyville, a neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island.  Former warehouses and mill buildings in Olneyville were home to a number of artist collectives.  At the time, she was attending Rhode Island School of Design.  As it happened, Greg was best friends with Nell’s best friend and roommate in college.  She met her best friend’s best friend, and their relationship began.

Nell says she warned Greg of her need to live on the west coast.  Originally, they had made an agreement for her to move to Boston, but only lived there for four months.  They relocated back here to west coast, and now both thirty four years old, have lived here for ten years.

Nell mentions that her cousins and uncle died in plane crash, leaving no boys to carry on with her family name of Warren.  Because of this, she made the decision to keep her own last name when she married Greg.  Greg and Nell joke that he could have taken her name, but he wanted to have some semblance of independence.

Greg says he is still getting used to rain, but he loves sunny days with blue sky.  Every now and then, he mentions something about “California”, but says he really loves it here.

Early in their relationship, Nell remembers telling Greg she originally wanted to start a place called Kanipsha, which was an idea that had “sprung up” from her teen years.  The place would be an island and have an ideal community.  Greg said he was attracted to this idea, which sounded like an artist community where you would not “have to deal with the real world”.  The seeds of their project Kahnaway started to form.

As they got older and it morphed into Kahnaway, it became a real project that is rooted in the community, rooted in their environmental ideals, joining their artistic forces together.

The Iconic Kahnaway Green Barn ---photo by Martha Martin

The Property 

The original condition of their current 5.6 acre property was “pretty decimated”, but they had lived in little apartments in cities for so long, that having space was wonderful for them.  The old barn had no doors, so they “were able to walk in”.  They both loved the idea of being in the country.

When they took their first tour of the acreage, they were unaware that the property actually ran up the hill, until walking around with the salesperson.  The property was a bank repossession with the house left half remodeled.  They knew it could be a risk to purchase because some things had been done by the previous owner without proper permits.

They both realized, however, that the property and barn alone were “worth more” than what the bank was asking, so they said “let’s do it”.  Greg said they were ready to stop paying rent and get a “real place” on their own. “We were with our family that summer, and we drove around on a day tour and this was the place we saw, which ruined every other place they saw after it”.

Originally, there was massive blackberry infestation.  The previous owner had knocked out a pond, ripped out all the gardens, and had been fined for illegal logging.

The owners before this were much kinder to the property. The Randalls, which Nell and Greg described as “an amazing old couples here since the 1940’s”,  had drying sheds for fruits and vegetables, and watered their garden from the pond which is fed from a riparian stream.

Early on, when they were clearing the property, Greg and Nell used Round up and Cross Bow, “not knowing any better”.  They were just taking the local farmers advice.  This was the way it had always been done, and they were trying to do things “status quo”.

They tried spraying these chemical just once on the hill side.  They noticed newts and snakes “writhing” after they used it, and saw as this as unacceptable.  Nell also got a rash “from head to toe”.

Seeing the obvious harm to wildlife and water, they tackled things naturally.  They now keep those areas that they can “mow” in check, making slow but steady new progress.

Greg and Nell have currently utilized their water with French drains, and continue to learn how to restore the property.  The old barn, which is over 100 years old, was redone, using materials from another structure, and has space for displaying art, a kitchen for cooking meals for visiting artists, and a large work space with natural lighting.

Kahnaway White Oak -----photo courtesy Greg Misarti

Choosing a Name

Nell said it took a long time to find the right name.  She saw the process as an emergence, and it was “hard for us to agree”.  She said it actually took about two years before they finally found it.

Originally, they had wanted to use the word Oak, but saw so much of this name already in use.  Nell wanted to replicate the type of names that were given to “the amazing places” with “specific individual names” that were part of her own family history.

She wanted a name that would be more than a title, but would become the “place”.  She said they had looked online at some Chinook “jargon” and with a Chinook dictionary, saw the name and “it just hit us”.  Nell considered most Chinook names hard sounding or too long, and saw this as the exception.

Kahnaway (pronounced con-away), is Chinook for acorns.   It was surprising and beautiful, and both loved it.  Nell said it “sounds a little Celtic”.

Working with the Gorge Commission 

Kahnaway lies within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, and is subject to the rules and regulations that are over seen by the Gorge Commission.

For Kahnaway to become an art and ecology center, the couple had to petition the Columbia Gorge Commission for a zoning change from residential to agricultural.

What have they told the Gorge Commission about “their plan”?  Greg says they laid this out “very clearly” in the pre-application, with assistance from a land use Lawyer, in presenting to Gorge Commission.   They have matched Gorge top mission points with their plan, and they fit well under the educational-research facility category.

The follow through has been difficult.  Nell says she thinks they have not been able to even look at their plan.  The Commission staff does not have time with their smaller staff, plus currently a moratorium is in effect, stopping any planning reviews and amendments. .  The strained economy is to be blamed for this constraint on getting their project reviewed.  Both Nell and Greg would like to see the Commission give them a chance.

Nell says “there is nobody else asking for this…we were the only ones asking”, even with the moratorium.  When the moratorium is removed, there could be more projects lined up for review.

The old Green Barn ---photo by Martha Martin

Their original time line has been additionally altered by the changes to the federally mandated Gorge plan review. This larger review is required to be conducted every seven years, and was supposed to happen in 2011.   Current consideration to do one may not happen until 2014, which could put them in the position of waiting again.

Executive Director Jill Arens, who recently resigned from Gorge Commission, was supportive of Kahnaway.  She took time out to talk with them and explain what the barriers were to their getting a conditional zone change, which would allow them the uses they have planned.  She communicated with them, keeping them up to date.

Nell says “it’s been an enlightening process about how things get done”.

Both Nell and Greg are waiting for Kahnaway to “take off”.  They need the Gorge Commission to review their permit.  There is, however, local support for Kahnaway, which is viewed as being an important part of economic development.  Local supporters are actively working to find solutions.

Greg says that he has spoken with Bill Barron, the Clark County Administrator. Bill’s suggestion was to “bring this back to the county” and perhaps direct it away from Gorge Commission.  Greg does not see this as possible.  Nell says Bill indicated that he wanted to look at small projects that are not being looked at within Gorge.  He would like to increase the Clark County Commissioners awareness of constituents who are not getting the attention they need, which is slowing down economic development.  According to Greg, Bill suggested that perhaps some pressure could be placed on them.

Becoming a 501(c)3: A Big Step Forward

Kahnaway recently became a 501(c)3 non-profit.  Nell describes this as a “big process, lots of paper work, with everything cross referenced”.  For a non-profit, it was a challenge to list all that they wanted to do, plus everything they might want to do.  Greg recalls that “the reason for this is to stay with your original intention, or if you shift away, then taxes could change”.  It took almost two years for the whole process, which for them was quicker then they had anticipated.

Nell and Greg sought legal advice in writing up the required paperwork.  This has challenged their budget, with costs for dealing with the Gorge Commission, getting a zone change, and then the 501(c)3 process.

They came away with mixed feelings about the investment of their hard earned money.  They saw lawyers as a major expense, but necessary to obtain their non-profit status.  However, they saw it as a waste when working with the Gorge Commission, since they could not do anything anyway.

Their new non-profit status provides the opportunity for people to make tax deductible donations.  Nell and Greg have plans to host small fund raisers, such as art auctions, and dinners, that utilize the uniqueness of Kahnaway.  They are also considering a membership program.  Adding to their budget will allow them to continue to develop their programs.

Kahnaway Garden ----photo courtesy Greg Misarti

Supporting Kahnaway as it Develops

Nell and Greg have had to be creative in order to cover their costs.  Nell says that in the past, they had supported themselves with a business that offered web designs, event photography, and graphic design.

When they first got out of school, they painted kids room murals, as well as houses.  They did a three year project faux finishing of a train that could have been a career, but instead ended up being a learning experience for different kinds of painting.  Greg says it was very difficult work, with sixteen hour days for four months in a row.   

They did this for seven years, and Nell was aware that she was asking herself “what is it I really want to be doing?”  She was drawn to once again put energy into her painting career, which had been sidelined.  She made the decision to use her savings, which “is there for that”, and focused on her painting career.

Nell was able to get into a gallery six months later, which was one of the best galleries in Portland.  She has been there four years, and she continues having shows.

Over the past four years, they have been really “serious” about Kahnaway.  Greg still does some part-time graphic design work, finding the rest of his time is spent enjoying working the grounds on Kahnaway.

Nell has hopes for Greg, and wants to see him inspired to evolve and continue his art.  He sees this as a risk, so he struggles with allowing himself to “focus on himself”.

He knows he will need to make the transition, and allow others to help with property so he can be creative. Nell has hopes he too will have his own show.

It Takes a Village 

Nell and Greg remind themselves that they will need help from the community to get their beloved Kahnaway to thrive.  They are grateful to people like Larry Keister who is a west Gorge resident, the Clark County Commissioners, who wrote letters of support for Kahnaway to the Gorge Commissioners, as well as a supportive letter from Nathan at the Jack Will & Rob Center.  Jack, Will & Rob were Nell’s Cousins, and Nell mentioned that she would like to help support that center and programming.

Carlo Abbruzzese, the Natural Areas Manager for the Department of Natural Resources, came to their property to help identify plants for them.  With his guidance, they started an oak restoration project for the White Oaks on their property.  This project is one that is separate from Kahnaway, but is part of what is shared with those who visit.

Nell says her family, particularly her mother and sisters, also lent a hand in getting everything up and running.

Nell says “It does take a village” and it is slowly happening.

Barn Stage for Lectures ----photo courtesy Greg Misarti


This past year, Kahnaway was the site for several events.

In August, to help celebrate the 25 year anniversary of the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Act, Kahnaway Art and Ecology exhibited work by several artists.  The New American Landscape Group Show explored the idea of our changing landscape.  The event included an artist reception, gallery hours for public viewing, and a barbeque with music.

Another event, held in June, included a Department of Natural Resources nature walk, and print making using the various plants from the property.  Earlier in March, they hosted a lecture by Randall Koch, who discussed the importance of place and why it is integral to how we live and the choices we make.

What future events are they planning? Nell says that there will be nothing very soon, but they have plans for next year.   Their executive director, Jenny, now has a full-time job and a ten year old child to raise.  They had previously held meetings once per week, but currently communicate by email.  Nell admits that this makes it more difficult to plan events.

Some of the events that may happen include a collaboration with “some fabulous ladies” who want to have an environmental journaling workshop for educators in Clark County this winter.

Another idea is to continue the lecture series that they started in March of 2010. They would like to have Spencer Beebe, who started Ecotrust in Portland, be a lecturer.  Ecotrust co-founded the world’s first environmental bank.   Beebe has worked since the 1970’s in the environmental movement, and recently completed a book called “Cache: Creating Natural Economies”.

Greg says that he would like to find out what workshops would interest people most.  And he says that music is not out of the question, as long as they respect their neighbors and not disturb them, and even include them.

Winter events will most likely not happen since Nell has three shows of her own.  She and Greg have a show at the Pendleton Art center in March, which they describe as being “somewhat like the Crow Shadow center, a print making residency for children on the reservation; a Master Printer studio”.

They both see spring as the time when they will once again start to host events at Kahnaway.

Misty Day at Kahnaway ---photo courtesy Greg Misarti

Nell and Greg’s Vision for Kahnaway 

Being five minutes away from the city limits, Kahnaway puts people “into another world”. Greg sees this experience as increasing people’s awareness of  nature, the Gorge, and of art.

Nell sees Kahnaway as “a center, a place to gather, and a place to learn about where local people live or where they are visiting”.  She thinks that it will help people appreciate the Gorge in a different way that will inspire.  She describes a kind of energy that is created with the openness and “this make all things possible”. 

Greg says he is “concerned about the dwindling number of art schools”.  He would like to have more places that offer valuable experiences with art, especially for schools.  He sees this as particularly important for high school students, and would like to assist in the development of programs.  His hope is to inspire students to go on to art school just as he was inspired by a school program to continue with his art career.

Greg and Nell want to offer workshops that assist students with their work in the arts.  They plan to expose them to visiting artists, and give them a chance to see the process of going forward with art careers.  They see themselves assisting with putting portfolios together, and having a “Portfolio day”, which can help students with the process of getting into art schools.  Nell says that “eventually we could help to organize that for students here in Washougal”.

Print Studio upstairs in Barn ---photo courtesy Greg Misarti

Along with workshops and after school classes, Nell and Greg want be to part of the community.  Their hope is that people will give themselves the opportunity to slow down and take in the natural beauty of Kahnaway.  They both want to have this be a place where many creative things are possible, and that Kahnaway can be a valuable local resource.

Partnering with other groups is also a desire.  They have both talked with several groups and organizations in the community, and their next steps are to follow-up with groups like Friends of the Gorge, or the Renaissance School in Portland who both have indicated an interest in doing a program at Kahnaway.   

With each step they take, and each plan or project they envision, they must always keep in mind the Gorge regulations, since they both indicate wanting to stay within those limits.  Currently, for them to hold workshops they can put out a materials list, but would be unable to pay teachers, only being able to accept donations.  They will eventually need the workshops to be able to support any residency programs.

They both admit that it is still “fuzzy” as to what will be allowed, and communication with the Gorge Commission will continue to be necessary.  Their plan is to limit events to no more than 60 people, and they can obtain permits for any gatherings.  They want to do everything above board, but they do not want to wait forever to start Kahnaway.  They intend to continue growing connections in the community, advertising their events, and sending out mailers with a schedule of future events.

On the Kahnaway property ----photo courtesy Greg Misarti

The Kahnaway Experience 

According to their brochure, Kahnaway will offer many programs, such as:  school art and ecology programs, weekend workshops, community lecture series, and residency art shows all with a focus on environmental responsibility. 

A Residency program will be part of their core programming, with: three artists per term who will be chosen by a juried application process.  They will live in yurts, work in the barn’s studios and offer workshops and lectures to the community.

Greg and Nell agree that they want people to understand the connection between art and ecology; they describe it as a new hybrid of science and art working hand and hand to further each field, helping each to understand what is being attempted or created.

Nell talks about her own experience of art and ecology. “What I like about merging the two, being an artist, is the kinds of materials, and how I use them, and the waste that’s left over.  I become very aware of what I put down my sink, and what I throw away.  This has moved my work into a kind of cyclical process of collecting.  There’s almost no part of my studio work that does not get represented, kept, and catalogued, and that’s been rewarding.  And also working in a space like this and having an environmental purpose, creating what you want to create, but being aware of what it is that you are using and how that will impact the birds and fields, and life around you.  That makes a lot of sense to me”.

She says that it’s hard to deny that artists take their inspiration from their surroundings, and when your surroundings are beautiful, the more the inspiration.

Kitchen and Library in Barn ---photo courtesy Greg Misarti

Greg describes his philosophy about the importance of art and ecology. “Everything should be business and ecology, and sports and ecology, and everything right now should be an ecological mind set, because that’s what we need to look at or the planet’s not going to make it.  We just happen to be artists, so we are going to combine art and ecology.  I think everyone’s mind frame should be about ecology.  To us, it’s just a logical progression”.

Nell says she sees art as “such a wonderful way of showing people” how this can work in a way that all can understand.  Greg agrees, adding that “art is like a universal language.  Scientists can write up a paper and explain things, but if you don’t speak the language, you won’t get any thing from that.  Anyone can look at a piece of art and understand and get something from it”.

They both see art as beneficial in promoting new ways of looking at something.  Artists tend to look at things from a different prospective, so they will take information from scientists, and the hope is that they have a cross discipline dialogue, with both seeing things in a whole different manner.

Greg offers an example of the power of art to persuade and change thinking.  “It is artists who direct the world; with marketing campaigns…they are the quickest way to shift the market mentality.  Look at the Green movement.  Artists and creative people put that out into the market and now everyone is talking about it”.

Nell adds to this with her own thought.  “Images are powerful, and then they are articulated, which is a good way to get the message out”.

Describing what Kahnaway has to offer is not a simple task.  Nell puts it succinctly. “We are still trying for that simple tag line to explain what we do here.”

They do offer their own vision of what Kahnaway has in store for those who visit.  It is “the perfect bridge” with it’s location in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, and the place for artists, students, and visitors to discover the blend of art and ecology.

Greg and Nell want Kahnaway to be preserved for future generations to experience and enjoy, and plan to state this in their wills.  Their dream made reality will forever be shared; a special place in the Gorge that will inspire creativity and responsible stewardship.

For more information about Kahnaway, visit the website at: www.kahnaway.org
or call 350-835-8798.

The View at Kahnaway ---photo Greg Misarti

The editor wishes to thank  Nell Warren and Greg Misarti.  I appreciate the quality time spent with you.   People make a place special, and you are special people.  Your warmth, creativity, respect for nature, community spirit, and persistence are what make Kahnaway the gem of the Gorge.