“A Slow Sip to Fully Savor”: The Art of Bonnie Paruch

On the back wall of Bonnie Paruch’s Sister Bay studio, about 20 oil and pastel paintings hang, lovingly framed in gold, full of shapes big and small, of colors bold and subdued. They are of streets and landscapes, café scenes and still lifes – and they look like they are ready to go out to a gallery show. When I compliment Paruch on this inventory of completed work, she tells me that most of them are actually unfinished pieces. She says that she will often work on several paintings at a time – sometimes for days, weeks, and months – and will never continuously work on the same painting.

When I wondered aloud why the unfinished paintings were framed, Paruch smiles and says that she likes to live with her paintings for a bit. “If I find that I’m unsatisfied with a painting, I live with it, study it and when I know what direction to take, I change and finish it,” she says. “It is very important to me that my paintings are fresh and vital. It is for this reason that I work on several paintings at a time. Each painting that I’m working on often adds to the other,” she says. “If you live with a painting, you can see if it needs to be tweaked or not.”

“Autumn Remembrances” by Bonnie Paruch.

And even when Paruch finishes a painting, its story continues. “When a collector finds the painting and makes it their own, it then becomes part of their story,” she says. As an example, Paruch discusses “Soho Afternoon,” an oil painting she created a few years ago. “I eventually met the woman who purchased the painting and, as it turns out, the scene I painted was almost exactly what her wedding day in Soho had looked like,” she says. “She brought a photograph of the wedding to me, and it was uncanny how similar it looked. These are the kinds of things that give you connections to people. This is how communication happens through art.”

Connection and communication are two words that can best describe Bonnie Paruch’s artistic career. Although she says she’s been a professional artist for over 20 years, she has, in fact, been telling stories through her art since she was a little girl. “I was five years old when I began selling my horse paintings for an extra chocolate milk at lunchtime, so I like to say that I’ve been a professional artist since then!” she laughs.

“Beach Babes” by Bonnie Paruch.

Paruch’s Door County connection began when she and her husband Vern started vacationing on the peninsula with their sons. The family fell in love with the peninsula instantly. Soon after her initial visits to Door County, Paruch began to show her work at the Birchstone Gallery in Egg Harbor. The Birchstone closed in the fall of 1998, and Paruch started to show her work at Edgewood Orchard Galleries in Fish Creek, where she still shows to this day. Around this same time, she was also invited to teach at the Peninsula School of Art in Fish Creek.

Spending a week or so at a time was wonderful, but after a while the Paruch family began to talk about moving to the place they loved so much. “We actually would come up during the quiet season as well as during the summer months, and started to think that we ought to have a place here,” she says. Paruch already recognized that the artist community in Door County trumped that of West Bend, Wisconsin, where she and Vern lived. “The Door County art community is so wonderful,” she says. “When I told people in West Bend that I was a painter, they would ask me if I did interiors or exteriors!”

Paruch and her husband located a piece of property on County ZZ in Sister Bay (“It was a plowed field – nothing on it!” Paruch laughs), and kept it vacant for a few years. They eventually built a home on the property in 2004, and commuted back and forth until Vern’s frame shop business and their West Bend home sold. In 2006, the move to Door County was made permanent, with Paruch’s studio being built on the property that same year.

“Book and Blooms” by Bonnie Paruch.

A friend and art professor of Paruch’s once commented that her best paintings were “martini paintings” – meaning they required a slow sip to fully savor. Known for her bold brushwork and color sense, Paruch’s favorite mediums have long been oils and pastels. She has distinct reasons for loving both mediums. “Pastels are more immediate – I don’t have to wait for paint to dry, and they don’t allow for a lot of changes, so I have to be sure of what I’m doing,” she says. “Oils, on the other hand, are more fluid. You can adjust colors, and I love the brushwork and colors that can be attained,” she smiles. “I still get excited when I lay out my paint colors.”

She finds that the excitement about her particular mediums translates into the work itself. “The best part of creating art is what I like to call ‘moving into the zone’ – that wonderful feeling of not knowing how much time has passed, of not knowing exactly how a part of a painting was created.”

The process of finding a subject for a painting is of a similar excitement. Paruch paints outside en plein air as much as she can during the warmer months – and she also takes copious amounts of photographs and pencils smaller sketches to work from. “I only use photographs as a reference, and then I put them away as soon as I can,” she says. “In recent years I’ve found that I enjoy painting from memory much more than painting from a particular photograph.

“I admire the art of a group of American Post-Impressionists known as ‘The Eight’ or ‘The Ashcan School.’ The artists in this group worked from life and memory. They found beauty in ordinary life, and that made them very bold and contemporary for their time,” she relates.

“Downpour” by Bonnie Paruch.

Paruch goes on to say that she wants her current work to move toward this desire of showing more with less. “Some of my more recent paintings, such as ‘A Night on the Town’ (a nightclub interior scene) and ‘The Old Village’ (a landscape) have been a personal challenge. The stimulation in creating art that is between abstract and representational is that it’s more about needing to know what should be taken out of a painting than what needs to be put in.”

Besides having her own studio and gallery, Paruch also teaches at a trio of art schools around Door County. She teaches two classes a year at the Peninsula School of Art, two or three classes a year at The Clearing Folk School, and in fall 2008 was asked to be part of the faculty at the Kewaunee Academy of Art. Paruch says she loves teaching equally at all three because of the different ages and skill levels involved. She also helps mentor Gibraltar High School students as part of the Francis Hardy Center for the Arts’ Exposure to Creativity Program. “When I was growing up, no one ever told me that artists could actually make a living off of their art,” Paruch says, and goes on to say that it’s great that students are being shown that art is a viable option for making a living.

“I find that the longer I paint, the more thoughtful I am regarding the value, placement, and meaning of each brushstroke,” says Paruch. “My goal as an artist is to continue to develop sophisticated paintings that celebrate life and which invite the viewer to finish on their own terms. I hope to continue to be honest and self aware with my work, and also hope that my work presents more than the eye can see.”

“The Jazz Club” by Bonnie Paruch.

Bonnie Paruch is a signature member of the Pastel Society of America, and has been published in many art magazines, including International Pastel Artist, International Artist, and American Artist. Paruch’s studio and gallery is open by appointment and located at 11249 County Road ZZ, Sister Bay. She is also represented by Edgewood Orchard Galleries in Fish Creek. For more information about Bonnie Paruch, please visit her website at or call (920) 421-1616.