Bring the Color Back: Sarah Koehler

Photography by Sarah Koehler

“I love making you feel like you are there, like you can put your feet in the water,” Sarah Koehler comments on her painting and photography sitting at a bar table in the Baileys Harbor Cornerstone Pub.

The pub shows a number of Koehler’s food photographs, saturated with realism while hinting at dashes of abstract expressionism. It’s not the kiwi itself, but the tiny hairs on its skin. It’s not the swing in the front yard, but the way the rope is tangled so as to set the swing at a strange angle.

Koehler has always enjoyed dragging two mediums and techniques through the artistic mud, setting them together to create something new, yet her path to art was an uncommon one.

Growing up in Wilmington, Ill., Koehler spent summers with her grandparents on Washington Island working odd jobs – everything from bussing at Karly’s Bar to being the golf course beer cart girl. Since settling into life along the peninsula, she does not hold back from citing the difference between the island and the peninsula.

Artwork by Sarah Koehler

“[The island is] more of a retreat. You can’t just go back when you want, you’re on the ferry’s time,” she explains. Despite the seclusion that many would believe a haven for an artist, working multiple jobs made it hard to continue her art in the summer months. Even so, her beginning in art blossomed just in time for her to pursue it in college.

A slightly embarrassed smile stretches across Koehler’s face as she recalls her high school years where she took just one art class. She attended Parkland College on a softball scholarship, and that one inspirational art class helped her decide to pursue art classes, receiving her Associate’s Degree. After the always-present personal struggle on where to go to school next, she found herself at Millikin in Decatur, Illinois on a full scholarship for her art.

Early in her art career, Koehler was drawn to the realism of charcoal and figure drawing, aiming to make her figures as realistic as possible. Through her time at Millikin, her works were black and white.

“I loved charcoal. I knew how to get exactly what I wanted out of it,” she says. It wasn’t until her last semester at Millikin that she was forced to tap into a different medium.

Her professor told her that she feared using colors, therefore, for her final project she was to produce something steeped in deep, rich colors. Hating the project at first, she created a unique and original medium of art by mixing chalk pastel and polycrylic, a material often used as protective sealant for wood. She had found a new artistic love and has not returned to charcoal realism since.

Charcoal figure drawing by Sarah Koehler

From her beginning with charcoal realism, Koehler’s art has developed into what she would categorize as abstract impressionism. This change brought her roots along with it.

“You can still see my charcoal lines in my painting and even in my photography,” she says. Although she has never returned to charcoal since finding her love for colors, she is interested to see how her original style has changed in the near future as she plans to make a slight return to charcoal.

Another prominent aspect of her portfolio is her photography. Having no preference between painting and photography, she uses her camera as an escape from the often-stressful rut of painting.

“When I’m stuck on a painting and don’t know where to go, I can just grab my camera and go take photos,” Koehler says. She finds that unlike painting, when you press the shutter on a camera, the whole piece of art is there instantly. It is a means of filtering out other artistic passions on a day when a painting is in progress.

Submersed in the Door County art scene, Koehler is looking to explore showing her work at area galleries in the next few years. When asked whether the level of talent here makes the process competitive, she explains, “I wouldn’t say it is competitive. Everyone is so different. You could look at someone’s work and think it is interesting and beautiful, but know that you would never do it yourself.”

Artwork by Sarah Koehler

Koehler finds that the art community is supportive, creating more of a workshop atmosphere, where artists strive to see each other succeed.

“I’ve met so many people that have welcomed me with open arms,” she says.

Despite nearly selling out her first art show in college and currently working on an extended project for a Colorado resident, Koehler finds her greatest achievement to be her ability to tap in to her artistic side despite a full-time job as a bank teller.

“It keeps you sane,” she jokes.

Koehler has joined the healthy ranks of talented artists in the Door County area and looks forward to the progression and promotion of her art throughout the county, but she understands the importance of doing art for what it means to the individual, as the artist statement from her first art show states: “I don’t create to influence. I willingly confess.”

For more information or to view Koehler’s work, visit or stop by The Cornerstone Pub, located on Highway 57 in the heart of Baileys Harbor.