Door County Art News: “The Art of Letting Go”

Having interviewed many artists over my year with the Pulse, I often find that the question I ask the most of artists is “Why do you create art?”

It’s a curiosity, really. Some art lovers are content to look at paintings or sculpture or metal work and admire its beauty, color, and form. But me – I’m engrossed in the process and the impetus behind it. In all actuality, “Why do you create art?” is an odd question – partly because I’ve found that there is no one reason why a person creates art. Many times I’ll ask an artist this and will feel like I’ve backed them into an invisible corner, wanting them to reveal the complete reasoning behind their creations.

Donna Brown

Door County artist Donna Brown didn’t hesitate to answer the question honestly and pointedly. “Because I have to,” she said. “It’s how I find my focus, how I make sense of the world.”

Art interested Brown from an early age, but when it came time to think about how she was going to make a living, art – and specifically drawing, which she had done from an early age – did not figure into her early plans.

“I loved art, and I wanted to do it, but I wanted to be self-sustaining. I think it was the era I grew up in, but I was very interested in ‘learning how to live’ and also learning how to make a living. I just didn’t think that could happen with drawing.” Instead, Brown turned to weaving, which she felt had a more practical use, and worked in that medium for several years.

In time, Brown noticed that she missed the immediacy of drawing, so she decided to take a life drawing class. “It was an ungraded class, but my drawing teacher was very serious about it. She would tell us, ‘If you’re not serious about this class, don’t come.’ And that was the nudge I needed. I realized that if I wanted to really do this for a living, I needed to be serious about it. So I took the plunge,” she says.

Brown immediately fell in love with watercolor shortly after, although she admits she learned how to paint “the long and hard way.”

“Composition, depth – I didn’t pay attention to those things at first. So I started to ask myself, ‘what is it that I don’t know that I need to find out?’ Learning about materials, equipment, and the process has made me a much more patient and enlightened person!” she laughs.

In recent years, Brown has been exploring the medium of printmaking, which she says has tested her threshold for learning about materials and equipment. “I work primarily with two elements of printmaking – monotype and etching. Monotype is a one-of-a-kind print that is made by painting on the surface of a plate, and then transferred by hand or with a press. It’s a very painterly style. I can add or subtract paint on the plate before I transfer it onto the paper, create white space, layer colors. After the print has been transferred, I can also add things to the piece. I use cold wax often in my finishing process. It makes the ink buttery, and it adds a lot of texture to things,” she says.

Because of the process of painting on the plate and then transferring it to the paper, Brown says that sometimes she has problems giving herself permission to “play” with a finished print. “I constantly have to keep telling myself, ‘It’s okay for you to paint more on this piece, Donna. You are allowed to add things.’”

The etching method is a little different. Traditionally, a metal plate is covered with an acid resist, with the desired image being exposed through the resist. The plate is then submerged in an acid bath, creating depressed lines that are later inked for printing. The image can be used in a variety of manners, and with different ink, colors, and paper. “It’s very similar to woodcut printmaking, which I’d also like to get into at a point,” says Brown.

Historically, printmaking was used to reproduce work of the Master’s, and has now become its own art form. Brown says that printmaking is evolving into a very popular art medium because it can utilize new technologies. “Many printmakers are transferring digital photos on to monotypes,” she says. “You can use Photoshop to make prints! It’s so fun to see the medium expand.” Although she is experimenting with some of these “new” ways of printmaking, Brown says she “still wants her hands in ink as much as possible.”

Art appreciators with an interest in printmaking have an opportunity to see this kind of work first-hand, both at Brown’s White Barn Gallery on Highway 57 in Baileys Harbor, as well as through an exhibit of her work at Mr. Helsinki Restaurant and Wine Bar in Fish Creek. The exhibit at Mr. Helsinki’s runs through Friday, June 27. Titled “Door County Impressions,” the exhibit deals with both specific and non-specific subjects in Door County.

“The light and colors on this peninsula are just fantastic,” Brown says. “When I travel somewhere else, it always takes me a day or two to get used to the light of another place because I am so used to the tremendous light Door County has to offer. It’s wonderful.”

With both the mediums of watercolor and printmaking, Brown says the biggest lesson she’s learned has to do with control. “It took me a long time to get to this point, but I’ve realized that I don’t always have control over a piece of art. It’s important for me to let the painting or the print evolve, to get the inspiration and just go with it. Not having control has taught me to be open and always keep working, through both the good and the bad. Through my art, I’ve learned to let go a little.”

Brown’s artistic philosophy and her own “art of letting go” might encourage even the least artistic person to embrace their inner visual artist, writer, or musician.

“Art is what gives me a purpose, what gives me the ability to rejoice. It’s about embracing the creativity that is endless in all of us,” she says.

Brown teaches occasional classes at the Peninsula Art School in Fish Creek, and finds it interesting when students tell her that they aren’t artists. “I always say to them, ‘you might not be a visual artist, but everyone has the ability to be creative.’ The definition of an artist is much broader than people realize – it’s not just about being able to paint, or sculpt, or weave. Anyone who is able to be open to their medium and put forth the effort – for me, that is the true definition of an artist.”

Donna Brown’s White Barn Gallery is located on 2496 Meadow Road, just off of Highway 57, in between Baileys Harbor and Sister Bay. White Barn Gallery is open from 10 am – 4 pm, and is closed on Tuesdays. For more information, please call 920.839.2883.

Mr. Helsinki Restaurant and Wine Bar features Donna Brown’s exhibit, “Door County Impressions” through Friday, June 27 and is located above the Fish Creek Market on Highway 42 in Fish Creek. For more information, please call 920.868.9898 or visit