The Gerhard C.F. Miller Gallery is tucked away on Bay Shore Drive near the waters of Green Bay, amongst tall trees and a history that may not be apparent upon first glance.
The gallery, a small cottage-like structure bearing a sign that simply reads ‘Gallery,’ is rumored to be “the first art gallery in Door County,” says David Utzinger, Gerhard Miller’s grandson. “That my grandfather got the county thinking in [the art] direction. That’s the story,” he smiles.
Residents of the East Coast for the past decade, David and his wife Kathryn gesture toward the large paintings by Miller – a winter landscape, a stone castle, then the antique ducks hanging from the rafters. They radiate a sense of excitement and fulfillment, carrying on the legacy of David’s grandfather.
“Gerhard was born in Door County,” says David. “His father, Adolph Miller, started the Miller Clothing Company.” When Gerhard Miller was 10 years old, he contracted polio and could not leave the house. This was when he began drawing, which he discovered came naturally to him.
A self-taught artist, Miller was “very serious,” according to David, “incredibly driven. He had a crazy work ethic, slept no more than six hours a night. He would get up, run the clothing house, come home and read art books and paint until midnight…get up at six.”
During the Great Depression he built the house that is located beside the gallery “almost entirely by himself,” says David. “He would hire someone to show him how to do what he needed to do, then lay them off, then hire them back for the next part.”
As time passed, Miller’s artwork improved and reached its peak in the ‘70s. (He even had artwork on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)
“Gerhard hung out with Charles Peterson and Jim Ingwersen – they called themselves the ‘Eeksters,’” says David. “In the ‘70s a reporter came up and wrote about how the three artists ‘eeked out a living in Sturgeon Bay.’ They were all doing very well.”
In fact, Miller funded the Miller Art Museum in the Sturgeon Bay Library, which features a permanent collection of his artwork. David’s work also appeared in the museum – artwork he created when he was five years old. “They said ‘I love you, Grandpa,’” David shakes his head laughing, “so embarrassing.”
Miller was also an avid traveler. “He has 10 passports full of stamps,” says David. “He traveled to 80 countries; I think he was 93 driving through the Swiss Alps.”
Miller’s first wife Edna, David’s grandmother, traveled with him. When she passed away in the ‘50s, she reportedly told him on the way to the hospital, “I think if I die, Ruth would be a good wife.”
In 1958, Miller married Ruth, who also accompanied him on his travels, and in the same year, the couple transitioned the Norwegian arts and crafts shop on Bay Shore Drive into a fine art gallery – what is now home to the Gerhard C.F. Miller Gallery.
“He and [Ruth] would get ideas and inspiration. They were local but inspired by the outside world,” adds Kathryn. “Keeping with that, we want to continue the tradition of inspiring. It’s a relatively small community, but there is so much interest in the arts.”
David and Kathryn are also interested in the arts. “We’re creative,” laughs Kathryn, an artist and jeweler who will have her sculpture-like jewelry on display in the gallery. David, a classical composer, will go on to UCLA this September to earn his Ph.D.
“We are going through a weird, crazy, life-thing right now,” David laughs. “The plan is to start this for the summers, run the gallery, and come back.”
This summer, the couple will use the gallery to feature a solo show by Heather Cooper.
“We are going for an aesthetic,” says Kathryn, “a Sturgeon Bay aesthetic, exemplifying characteristics of [Gerhard Miller]. [Cooper] is self-taught, a hard-worker.”
A Canadian artist, Cooper’s artwork has evolved since she was 18 years old. Now in her 60s, she has painted commission portraits of Pope John Paul II and Bobby Orr, and created work for the Toronto International Film Festival and The Smithsonian Institute. Cooper’s work will be for sale.
Ultimately, the gallery seeks to honor the memory of Miller, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 100, an inspiration to the community and the arts.
The Gerhard C.F. Miller Gallery, located at 4239 N. Bay Shore Drive in Sturgeon Bay, will be open Tuesday through Saturday, from 12 – 6 pm or by appointment. For more information visit http://www.gerhardcfmillergallery.com or call 920.743.6365.
To learn more about Heather Cooper and her work visit