Charles L. Peterson: An Artist’s Life Work

by Elizabeth Meissner-Gigstead, Executive Director, Miller Art Museum

There are many venues – museums, galleries or a more informal venue like your living room – to experience the work of Charles L. Peterson. The celebrated Door County artist known widely for The Memories Series, 60 complex watercolor paintings depicting classic Americana, is having a retrospective at the Miller Art Museum in downtown Sturgeon Bay, on view in the main gallery of the museum through Sept. 5, 2017.

This milestone retrospective exhibition is the culmination of more than a year’s worth of work that included a close collaboration between Miller Art Museum Curator Deborah Rosenthal and Mr. Peterson. A sampling of their work included developing the most essential piece, an artwork inventory list, assessment of the present state of the work (did it need re-matting or framing?), preparing the works for exhibition along with regular communications with the framers, writing and gathering text (to accompany the work and create context for the exhibition), assembling biographical information, writing and developing text for the accompanying catalog, and so on. Planning for a retrospective exhibit of this level is an extensive and involved process, to say the least.

So then, why a retrospective exhibit?

Retrospective, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “an exhibition or compilation showing the development of an artist’s work over a period of time” (OED, n.1.). A retrospective exhibit affords the public a rare opportunity to enjoy a comprehensive overview of an artist’s life work. In some instances, it is a time of great introspection for the artist as he carefully reviews a life’s work and surveys decisions made throughout the years. For museum visitors, this finished exhibit provides an unparalleled viewing experience chronicling the life and work of one of the peninsula’s most celebrated artists – beloved for his work that depicts life of everyday, and in this day and age what seems a bygone era – and also the meticulous execution of his paintings, highlighting the artist’s skilled proficiency in the watercolor medium.

“Eve and Beth, 1964-65” oil by Charles L. Peterson. Depicted here are two of Chick’s three daughters, Eve and Beth (part of the prominent center wall as mentioned in the article). Quote from the artist on this specific piece: “Continuing my series of family portraits while we were living in Marietta, Ohio. After getting them composed as a pair, I generally had the girls pose individually, to spare each of them the tedium of sitting patiently with her sister.”

Charles L. Peterson is among those pivotal peninsula artists who, with the likes of other forward thinking contemporaries such as Gerhard Miller, Jack Anderson, Louis Smolak, Jim Ingwersen, Joe Cook and so many others, pursued their artistic endeavors as full-time artists. Chick, as the artist has been known since childhood, writes, “When I was a young man it was a fantasy to think of living from one’s painting. It seemed like a hopeless dream.”

In Chick’s case, this hopeless dream turned to a reality in 1973. After his early years of schooling, service in the Navy during the 1940s, attending the American Academy of Art in Chicago and Marietta College in Ohio (earning his MFA in painting from Ohio University) followed by a 20-year career as a college professor at Concord College and later at his Alma Mater (Marietta), Peterson made the quaint village of Ephraim in the northern part of Door County his home.

Modifications were made to the existing home to accommodate a studio as well as a gallery where his wife Sue would oversee the sale of his paintings. During these years of the artist’s life, he developed his career as a nationally and internationally recognized maritime artist. Accolades include a Distinguished Alumni award from Marietta College (1985), an honorary Doctorate of Humanities (1988), recognition as a Modern Marine Master, twice recipient of the Hoyne award (through the Maritime Gallery at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut; the award is given in memory of Thomas M. Hoyne III’s dedication and contributions to accurate-historical representation of the great Gloucester fishing schooners and the men who sailed them. The judges annually recognize a work that best documents an aspect of the marine fisheries industry of today or yesterday), and was honored as Marietta College’s first professor inducted into the Emeritus Chamber (1997).

Anyone who knows Chick knows that lucky is a word he uses often. I stood to his left as he addressed a sizeable crowd at the opening reception July 22 where he, not surprisingly, recited once again that he’s “had a lucky life.” It was in this moment that I found myself thinking (again) about this amazing art community, the artists and individuals who have taken part in shaping it (Chick included), reflecting on their role and the significant contributions they have gifted to iconic Door County organizations such as the Miller Art Museum, and how it is so rapidly evolving.

In all honesty, I feel we are the lucky individuals – the peninsula’s residents as well as its seasonal transient population – to be in the midst of this artist and so many like artists. It is our great privilege to share this retrospective exhibition with the community so you may find a heightened understanding of the artist and his work, a deeper appreciation, and inspiration; all can appreciate the simple beauty of his subject matter and his mastery of his chosen medium.

Charles L. Peterson, An Artist’s Life Work brings together more than 40 works from the Petersons’ private collections and offers a glimpse at the rarely exhibited work from his early years of study, commercial art projects, teaching and seven decades of work as a studio artist. The prominent center wall features a small collection of oil paintings, mainly of family. These works, coupled with the remaining works comprising the chosen body of work, undoubtedly echo the powerful significance of ever-present family. It offers the viewer an intimate look at the development of Chick’s art career – a not-to-be missed exhibit.

I close with the words of the late tenacious Door County art historian Lorraine Mengert on the writing of Door County’s Art History:

“I have become increasingly aware that we are living in history… May you find yourself eager to share in this history.”

The exhibition will be on display through Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017.


The museum is located in the Sturgeon Bay Library and is open Monday 10am – 8pm, Tuesday through Saturday 10am – 5pm. Admission is free and the facility is fully accessible.

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