Defining Portrait Artist Jim Ingwersen

To truly understand renowned portrait artist Jim Ingwersen, he recommends peering around the 80-acre restored farm property he and his wife, Phyllis, call home.

“This place is us,” he says, standing beneath an ivy-covered arbor that connects the couple’s nineteenth-century home to the granary turned studio and gallery. The rustic property, just outside of Sister Bay, is unarguably beautiful: green grass stretches out and meets groupings of trees and tall wildflowers and ferns seem to pop like firecrackers from the sides of the surrounding dusty brown structures.

Inside the studio and gallery, paintings line the dimly lit walls – a white chicken, a blue tea set, a young girl lying across a white wicker chair in a summer garden. Though Ingwersen states that he “makes a living” as a portrait artist, he also enjoys painting landscapes and still life. “They don’t complain about sitting,” he laughs.

A wide hallway covered by bright oriental rugs leads from the gallery to the studio, an addition the couple added after a tragic fire in 1980. A large window, lined with ceramic cups holds a variety of paintbrushes, while on the easel is a self-portrait of Ingwersen, identifiable by the snow-white beard and silver-rimmed glasses.

A tall ceiling, providing plenty of space for Ingwersen to hang his portraits, large and small, complements the studio. A chef, identifiable by the classic white hat and red handkerchief around his neck, smiles slyly from one corner, a nude woman lays over a white sheet, and a black-haired girl gazes directly back to the viewer. Some paintings reveal only faces, while others present whole scenes.

Many of the portraits hanging in Ingwersen’s studio were painted with a sketch group in an old barn, after the fire.

“I really don’t exist before 1980,” Ingwersen says, referring to the fire that consumed his studio, his paintings, and his “wonderful collection of books – my father’s books, my grandfather’s books.”

The Ingwersens began reconstruction immediately and have continued to renovate and decorate their property with what Ingwersen calls an “eclectic collection” of sculptures, tea sets, wooden ship models, vases, and their friends’ artwork.

“Art has always been a part of my life,” states Ingwersen. His father, an art director for an ad agency, was especially encouraging to Ingwersen’s talents.

“I was interested in drawing,” Ingwersen remembers. “I didn’t really paint until college.” Ingwersen began college in 1948 at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. After graduation, Ingwersen began his life-long, successful career as a portrait artist.

“I put ads out in small publications – $15 a pastel head, $35 an oil head. That was in 1954.”

Though the prices may have changed, he continues to approach each portrait with a fresh outlook, personalizing the image to capture the subject’s personality. He begins each portrait by taking a series of photographs.

“I interview them, get to know them, get a feeling for them,” he explains of his method. However, he attempts to steer his subjects away from what he calls “playing art director. The end product is what they get.”

Many of the individuals Ingwersen paints are “doctors, lawyers, merchants, ladies, and children.” He has painted such figures as Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and former Wisconsin Governor John W. Reynolds.

Commissioned paintings may take him to varying locations, Chicago or Milwaukee, but he primarily suggests his clients visit Door County. “They enjoy it up here,” he says, smiling.

Ingwersen’s connection to the Door County area began at an early age.

“My parents brought us up here in the ‘30s. Later, when I was older, I camped with friends in the parks.”

However, Ingwersen remembers that when he brought his wife, Phyllis, to the county “it was the worst day in a February. She said, ‘Get me out of here!’” They resided in Twin Lakes for a time before Ingwersen brought his wife back to Door County.

“It was a spring day,” he recalls. “She glanced at a brochure and saw music and gallery listings and decided this place was great.” Twin Lakes, he states, “was devoid of any cultural activity,” compared to Door County.

The couple moved to their currently owned property in 1970. For the past 38 years, they have worked tirelessly, adding a sunroom, rebuilding after the fire, and restoring and preserving the cedar logs and structures.

“There isn’t a spot we haven’t touched in some way,” Ingwersen says. In fact, the Ingwersens have placed the property in the hands of the Door County Land Trust, ensuring that it will remain a single-resident home.

Defining Ingwersen according to his home seems quite appropriate, as it is very revealing of his character. The self-portrait sitting upon his easel might suggest a simple, unassuming man, yet, against the backdrop of his home, the words “ambitious,” “professional,” and “eclectic” may come to mind.

The Ingwersen Studio is located at 2029 Old Stage Road, Sister Bay. Business hours are Wednesday and Saturday from 2 – 5 pm. For more information call 920.854.4072. Jim Ingwersen also has paintings featured at the La Mere House in Jacksonport. For more information call 920.823.2150.

Sally Slattery, a recent Winona State graduate, currently interns for the Peninsula Pulse Arts and Literature section. A visitor to the Door County area since she was a young girl, this season marks Slattery’s second to reside in the county.

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