Door County’s Artistic Identity: The Galleries and Artists of the Peninsula

Drive down any highway, street, or back road on the peninsula and you’re likely to notice an uncontested truth about Door County: galleries are everywhere. A quick phonebook count brings up 107 all together, though that number is probably low. Each day, it seems, a new gallery opens its doors, an existing one introduces a second location, or an unknown, well-kept secret makes its way to the forefront of coffee shop chatter.

Figuring out why there are so many galleries isn’t much of a reach. By virtue of its own natural beauty, Door County is an obvious draw for the painters, potters, sculptors, jewelers, wood-workers, blacksmiths, glass blowers, and weavers who come here to set up shop. Most don’t need to look further than the backyard for an inspiring subject, and few can find a more resplendent environment in which to show their wares.

The large number of galleries here is also due to the fact that long ago Door County put its name on the map as an arts destination. The effect, of course, is that people come here to buy art, making a gallery owner’s profession more viable than ever. Art attracts buyers, buyers attract more artists, artists attract other artists, and the circle continues. Galleries, in short, are to Door County what jazz is to New Orleans and what skiing is to Aspen- so much so that the word “art” is the only serious rival to “cherry” when it comes to selecting a catch-all synonym for the area’s identity.

So what are these art galleries like? Their sizes and types present an impressive range. A few of them take after their urban cousins in the art world; they are structures with expansive glass windows, large contemporary sculptures, and the kind of wood or tile flooring that makes your shoes click loudly when you pass through. Most are warmer places, perhaps a renovated log cabin or home, where a gallery owner has assembled an art collection around some particular theme or medium. And then there are those places off the beaten path where a weathered sign reading “Studio – Open” on the side of a barn or shed indicates that an artist is inside working, but you’re welcome to have a look.

While describing all of the county’s galleries would require a long (albeit interesting) encyclopedic volume, the following gives a taste of a few of them and, more importantly, why galleries are at the top of the list of reasons people are so drawn to Door County.

Fine line Designs Gallery

Photo by Dan Eggert.
Photo by Dan Eggert.

Fine Line Designs Gallery, located between Ephraim and Sister Bay, is what owner David Hatch describes as a place to find “higher-end, original artwork.” Walking into the comfortable, two-story gallery you’re pulled into a tasteful mixture of colorful paintings, hand crafted wood pieces, sculpture, and glass of exceptional caliber. The gallery currently represents about 65 artists and hosts about 8 special exhibits each year.

Like many of the more established galleries in the area, the place comes with a story. Originally, the property was home to David’s parents who operated a chicken farm. In his youth, David developed an interest in wood and later spent time working in various cabinet shops, tinkering with boat building, and doing a small amount of free-lance work. In 1981, David opened the first gallery on the site and found success producing “steamer chairs” which, he admits, “had very little to do with art – it was a means to an end.” That end, of course, was developing the space as a first-rate gallery.

In the early ’90s, David and wife Connie reopened the gallery under its current name and in 1998 underwent a “major expansion” to give the building a new look and to make room for new artists’ work.

When asked how artists are selected to show work in the gallery, David responds, “The first question for us is ‘do we like the work and the way it was done?’ – which is not to mean that everything we bring into the gallery we’d put in our home. It means that we respect it as quality art that fits with our gallery. There’s no science to selecting art to represent – it’s more instinctual.”

David also explains that exclusivity is an important aspect of the gallery – meaning that artists who show work with Fine Line Designs don’t show their work elsewhere in the county. “It’s important,” says David, “because it eliminates overlap from one gallery to the next and keeps the artist’s work from being diluted.”

In regard to the county’s reputation as a destination for the arts, David agrees whole-heartedly: “80% of the people, I would imagine, come here to enjoy some form of the arts.” He also adds, “When we do go out, it’s always somehow related to the arts and we’re likely to run into that nucleus, our peers.”

David continues to work with wood in the studio just behind the gallery, building elaborate furniture with inlaid pieces that can be seen throughout the exhibit space. In recent years, he has begun to do larger-scale work with home construction and interior modeling.

Edgewood Orchard Galleries

Photo by Dan Eggert.
The Edgewood Orchard Galleries have been a part of the Door County art scene since 1969. The gallery is owned and run by mother-daughter team Anne Haberland and Nell Emerson. Photo by Dan Eggert.

Spending an afternoon with Anne Haberland and Nell Emerson, the mother-daughter, second and third generation duo that owns and runs Edgewood Orchard Galleries south of Fish Creek, is a delightful experience. The gallery, comprised of an old barn, a couple of adobe handbuilt buildings (built by Anne’s husband Minnow), and a “packing shed,” feels and looks like a hacienda, complete with a stone patio; ivy; tall, stately trees; and delicate stained glass in many of the windows. Currently, Edgewood Orchard Galleries represents over 100 artists in a variety of media – from paintings, to jewelry, to glass and clay.

This place, too, has a story. Anne’s mother Irene opened Edgewood in 1969 in the barn that still houses the majority of the artwork on display. That summer Anne came to help and never left. Anne smiles and laughs as she explains, “We didn’t break even for 8 years.” “We were lucky, though,” she adds. “We just rolled off a log and started. We made our mistakes quietly, but it was exciting and fun.”

When asked how the artists in their gallery are chosen, Anne and Nell’s comments echo those of David Hatch, though the process is a bit more involved. Anne says, “We just use our eyes. I was lucky to have a mom that taught me to use instincts. You don’t need a Ph.D. to know what moves you. I’ve tried to pass that on to Nell.” Every winter, Anne, Nell, and their staff review slides from hundreds of artists. “First, we make cuts according to quality and need,” says Nell. “Then we have a slide show with the top 30, and eventually select 3 to 5 new artists.”

Anne also comments, “We only want to represent as many people as we can represent well. It’s a several-month process to find a few people, but we feel it’s exceedingly important to do that.” Such attention to the artwork is obvious with even a quick glance around the gallery. Every corner, wall area, and side room throughout the gallery- not to mention Anne’s home down the path from the main gallery– holds a perfect balance of elements.

Although neither Anne nor Nell are artists in the sense that they use canvas or hold paintbrushes, both consider the gallery itself to be a form of art. “The gallery is a living organ that needs to breathe and change and grow,” says Anne. “Being creative and developing genuine friendships with people is more important than business or money – after 34 years, a bottom line wouldn’t keep your interest.”

Jack Anderson Gallery

Photo by Dan Eggert.
The Jack Anderson Gallery’s walls display the work of 13 artists. Photo by Dan Eggert.

Jack Anderson Gallery’s beginnings trace back to 1957, when Jack Anderson first came to Door County as a visitor and discovered an affinity for the area. While in service in Japan, a friend purchased land in Gills Rock in his name– sight unseen – for $900. Then, in the 1970s, Jack began displaying his paintings nearby in what was then a fishing shack and is now the Shoreline Restaurant. By 1976, Jack and his wife Sue had purchased the property next to the gallery’s current location on Highway 42 in Sister Bay and were well on their way to becoming one of Door County’s most well known galleries.

“We’ve always carried traditional art,” says Sue, “and we’re comfortable with that because it complements Jack’s art.” Inside the gallery, most of the paintings are watercolors, but some oil paintings and pottery can be found as well. About 90% of the artwork is original but, adds Sue, “no reproductions are carried unless the artist is here with original work.” Currently, Jack Anderson Gallery represents 13 artists, many of whom have shown work at the gallery for more than 25 years.

In speaking about the community of galleries on the peninsula, Sue comments, “It’s not possible for there to be too many galleries in Door County; the more diversity the better. The more good art galleries we have, the more good art patrons we draw.” Sue estimates that somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand people come through the gallery each year.

Sue handles the day-to-day workings of the gallery by interacting with customers and coordinating the staff and shipping. She also volunteers a great deal of time to the arts community by developing arts maps and databases. Jack, meanwhile, still produces about 75 – 100 paintings each year and makes the artistic decisions in the gallery, including viewing artists’ work and finding those that fit with the gallery’s niche. In running a gallery for so long, Jack and Sue seem to have found a wonderful balance of their talents.

Woodwalk Gallery

Photo by Dan Eggert.
Woodwalk Gallery in Juddville occupies an old one-room schoolhouse. Photo by Dan Eggert.

Woodwalk Gallery, opened in 1994, is located in an historic schoolhouse in Juddville. Outside the gallery, wildflowers invite you with a soft, pastoral charm, while inside beautiful windows along the south side of the building allow sunlight to fill the high-ceilinged, one-room gallery. Owner Margaret Lockwood, an artist who creates on site inside the gallery, describes her own work as “Atmospheric — not totally abstract, though my pieces can be. My paintings are responses to where I live; I paint my memories, what I soak up.”

Alongside her own paintings in the gallery are the works of roughly 25 artists, most of whom are from the region and two of whom are from St. Louis (Margaret’s home town). Finding other artists, says Margaret, “is a two-way street; sometimes artists come here and sometimes I find them. I represent them mainly if they touch something in me, if they have a vision that comes through, if they have the same struggles as myself.” With a smile, Margaret adds, “I never got in the trap of representing people who sell, but rather people I believe in, and I remember that when I paint. I hope to keep that attitude of purity. Who knows? Maybe it’s a harder sell, but I’m doing ok.”

Margaret also notices an evolution in Door County’s art scene over the 10 years she’s been here, namely that there’s a wider range of things to be found. “There’s really something for all tastes. Now that artists have chosen to live here and form this community, we don’t have to be in a city anymore. In years past, you had to fold up and travel.”

Margaret’s response to the idea that Door County is an arts destination is that art is just one of many layers – the water, theaters, golf, and the people together make it a place visitors seek. But, she says, ” I hope that Door County continues to be a place where you can find working artists, laborers of love.” Woodwalk is open seasonally, although Margaret can be found painting at the gallery-turned-studio most days in the winter, as well.

Although there are many reasons why Door County draws visitors, galleries are without a doubt a large part of what keeps them returning year after year. As Tom Lyons of the Door County Chamber of Commerce notes, “The arts are a huge part of what attracts people to Door County, right behind the natural beauty — but they go hand in hand; together they make it a special place.” For more information, see one of the many gallery guides available throughout the county or contact the Chamber of Commerce at (920) 743.4456.

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