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I recently took a trip to Dakota—Dakota Art Pastels, that is, in Washington state. Visiting here is like a holy experience for many of us who remember the “Dark Ages” of pastel when there were only one or two pastel brands available and surfaces were scarce.
Well, we’ve come a long way. With a national magazine, The Pastel Journal, and the proliferation of pastel societies hosting and promoting the medium, pastel can now take its place as a major force of artistic expression. This growth is never more apparent than on a visit to one of the major mail-order/retail pastel businesses in the country. Dakota Art Pastels is an immaculately organized and well-run business that has just about everything a pastel artist would ever want (notice I didn’t say need). Every pastel brand is available—minus one (Henri Roche)—from the smallest boutique handmade pastels to the major makers like Sennelier, Girault and Schmincke. When it comes to surfaces, again just about everything—no matter how obscure—is available. Even if you prefer to make your own surface, they have the ingredients.
And if you’re thinking, “Is he getting paid to say this?” I can tell you that the only money that exchanges hands is from my wallet to theirs! The interest I have is totally self-serving: I want to be able to get what I need when I want it.
Robyn Williamson and Craig Lemley (see photo above) founded Dakota Art Stores Ltd in 1990 with retail stores in Seattle and farther north in Bellingham, Wash. In 1998, they put out their first Dakota Art Pastel mail-order catalog. Shortly after that, a pastel warehouse/distribution center (pictured above) was established in the quaint setting of Mount Vernon, Wash. This has expanded to include a storefront and their latest acquisition, La Conner Art Workshops. Mount Vernon is approximately an hour north of Seattle, set in a beautiful agricultural valley that acts as the gateway to the San Juan Islands. When you visit, you easily see why they decided to build the mail-order business there. Besides the livability, it’s a landscape artist’s paradise. Bring your pastel box and plan an appropriate amount of time. They’ll welcome you into the back (the vault of pastel heaven) and allow you to open your pastel case on a wheeled cart and select as few or as many individual sticks as you wish. The resident dogs, Macy and Sam, will keep you company as you explore—in a dazed state—this pastel paradise.
If you’re not able to visit, be sure to acquire a catalog and visit the website for the stores (www.dakotaartstore.com/) and for the mail-order catalog (www.dakotapastels.com/). When you call, you’ll find the phone/Internet order desks to be staffed with “the Lisa’s” (pictured at left). Everyone is knowledgeable and friendly. It really is like “family,” which is what the pastel community has become.