Celebrating Water with Artist Johanna Axelrod

Watch a few Door County sunsets, with their constantly changing light and colors, and you’re sure to understand the bewitching effect of water. Lakewood, Wisconsin artist Johanna Axelrod represents the beauty of those ephemeral moments where water becomes art in a medium perfectly befitting of the subject matter: watercolor.

Axelrod’s particular interest in water-related subject matter is one that complements Door County’s natural geography. With lakes, harbors and bays dotting the peninsula, bodies of water are something residents and visitors encounter daily. Axelrod’s watercolor paintings depict the wide variety of color and light that can be found in the natural world and particularly in this essential element. Her art will be featured in an exhibit at Mr. Helsinki Restaurant in June and July titled Lakes – from Pond to Superior. To see more of Axelrod’s work, visit

"Purple Linings III" by Johanna Axelrod.

“Purple Linings III” by Johanna Axelrod.

Andrea Nelson (AN): Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Johanna Axelrod (JA): I grew up in Cambridge, Minnesota, north of the Twin Cities. I graduated from the University of Minnesota.


AN: What has been your experience of Door County?

JA: Door County, and the Peninsula Art School in particular, have been very important to me over the years. I have been coming here for about 20 years to take classes from their top-level teachers. The past few years I have enjoyed working with fellow artists in open studio. I continue to take classes and look forward to another one this year. Of course their fine restaurants and galleries have made my time in Door County most enjoyable.


AN: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

JA: I have wanted to be an artist as long as I can remember. I worked in many different media over the years, and finally tried my hand at painting, which is what I always wanted to do.


AN: Where do you find your inspiration?

JA: When I began painting, my garden and surrounding wild flowers were my inspiration. Watercolor proved to be the perfect media. Lately, I have been particularly interested in painting water in various forms.

"Boats Tangled In Milfoil" by Johanna Axelrod.

“Boats Tangled In Milfoil” by Johanna Axelrod.

AN: What is it about lakes in particular that inspire you?

JA: I live on beautiful Winslow Lake in Lakewood and spend a lot of time paddling. From my kayak I get a close-up view of the turtles, fish, otters and plants around the shore and in the lake. While traveling I spend time on the water as well. Paddling or hiking along lakes and streams is always a highlight of vacations.


AN: How do you experiment with different media in your work?

JA: I have experimented with various media since working as a milliner at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Making hats introduced me to fiber sculpture. Weaving and basketry followed. Painting is my media now, primarily watercolor. However, I enjoy working with acrylics and collage, occasionally combining all three in a single painting. I use the technique best suited for the painting.


AN: What do you enjoy about working with watercolor?

JA: While I enjoy working in various media, I keep coming back to watercolor. I frequently pour the paint, allowing the colors to blend on the paper. The results are exciting, revealing layers of transparent color I could not get with a brush. As I enjoy painting water, watercolor is a perfect medium.


AN: Do you have a favorite spot where you enjoy painting?

JA: I most often paint in my studio from photos I have taken while paddling or traveling. I enjoy the weeks I spend at Peninsula Art School painting with my friends here in Door County. Recently, a friend and I have been finding places around Lakewood to paint on location. Plein air – a new venture.

"Purple Linings I" by Johanna Axelrod.

“Purple Linings I” by Johanna Axelrod.

AN: You have also spent time as a teacher in various settings, including at a private Christian school, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, and as an instructor for homeschooled students. What differences did you see among the students you worked with?

JA: I think the biggest difference I found in teaching elementary students through retired individuals is that the younger the student the more relaxed they are about their art – less judgmental of themselves. The best part of teaching all ages is seeing the joy that students experience when they have created something.


AN: What role does art play in your life?

JA: Recently I was discussing why we make art with someone. My answer was ‘It’s what I do.’ In other words, it is the primary activity of my life; making, viewing and discussing art. To me, paddling, biking, gardening and traveling as well as painting are all part of making and viewing art.

Mr. Helsinki is located at 4164 Main St. in Fish Creek. For hours visit To contact the artist, email [email protected].

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