Art Seen: the Vision of Claire Erickson

Door County imports artists. They come from across the country to participate in events such as the Peninsula School of Art’s Plein Air Festival or to develop their craft at local art institutions. They paint Door County sunsets, a bustling Wilson’s and cracked bluffs. Their art is steeped in Door County, and it is at home here.

Claire Erickson calls Door County home, but her art has much wider horizons. She draws on the world and her personal experience within it. She is among a group of young local artists who use Door County as their quiet studio to drill toward the core of complex social issues that are often far beyond Door County’s shore. Her work can provoke a thoughtful discomfort in those who would rather ignore social conflict, which is exactly what she wants it to do.

“Untitled” by Claire Erickson.

“With this younger group of artists, our art might be politically driven or for a social cause, social justice,” Erickson said. “There is a place for that up here.”

Erickson grew up in Door County, having moved from the Chicago suburbs with her family when she was eight. She remembers flipping through her dad’s sketchbook, in which he drew the people he saw on the trains around Chicago. 

“My dad is one of the best artists I know,” she said. “He has a beautiful way of capturing faces and people. So I was always intrigued with drawing faces. It’s normal for me to stare at someone and break apart how I would draw them in my head.”

But there is more to it than following in her father’s footsteps.

“It’s my own family,” Erickson said. “We’re all adopted, so none of us look the same.” Her parents are white, her brother Asian, and Erickson and her two sisters are Black. “We all look different, so I was seeing different faces every day. That’s something I really like about the world in general. It’s like snowflakes. The possibilities are endless.”

Claire Erickson. Photo by Saoirse Artemis.

Erickson was involved in after-school art programs from a young age and participated in an art-mentor program through the Gibraltar School District as often as she could. Much of the art around her was quintessential Door County: watercolors of boats, birds, beaches and barns.

She credits the late Tom Smith, her art teacher at Gibraltar, with encouraging her to do more. 

“He was always challenging me to be more than Door County art,” Erickson said. “I was rebellious about Door County art growing up. It felt like I had to either move somewhere else or make my art similar to what is going on up here.”

Since then, Erickson has come to appreciate the more traditional Door County art scene. She values the way in which 20 artists can all create different interpretations of these places that have been the landscape of her own life. But that doesn’t mean she has to fall in step with them.

From her Sturgeon Bay studio, Erickson and her art wrestle with race and identity. Her latest project centers on Black men and police violence. It’s far from Cave Point in watercolor, but that’s the point. 

Erickson and her studio partner, Meg Lionel Murphy — whose work explores trauma informed by domestic violence — talk about how their work will be received in Door County.

“I was kind of afraid to show my art,” Erickson said. “When we’ve talked about different shows, we’ve thought, ‘Is this OK for Door County?’” She quickly offered the answer: “Door County needs to see it. It’s not always sunsets and seagulls.”

Erickson is not alone. Her contemporaries in Door County often do not fit the traditional mold. Katie Roth and Mary Spittell are among those whom Erickson credits with helping her to see that there is space on the peninsula for all types of artists.

“Gemini” by Claire Erickson.

“Claire has really homed in on using her creative practice and how that can be her road forward,” Spittell said. “In the last year especially, all her activism with her art has helped.”

Erickson’s spirit of inclusivity extends beyond the canvas. She views art not as a zero-sum game, but rather, as a realm of infinite creativity that only grows stronger as more get involved. 

“She is the reason I met artists up here,” Spittell said. “She’s a connector. She wants everyone to succeed and is so welcoming to new artists.”

Like Tom Smith, Erickson wants Door County’s artists to do more and be more. She does so by building bridges between people and ideas. Those bridges reach far beyond the county’s shore, bringing in the joy, conflict and beauty of a complex world, and sending out canvases that make a little more sense of it all.

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