Ellison Bay Art Crawl: A Grassroots Movement

The adage “one good turn deserves another” might best describe the beginning, and the reason for the continued growth, of the Ellison Bay Art Crawl.

The Art Crawl began six years ago when Mary Ellen Sisulak and husband Rob Bussler, owners of Turtle Ridge Studio-Gallery, wanted to find a way to thank their neighbors for helping their business recover after it was destroyed by fire in 1996. Reading about the success of a similar event in American Craft Magazine, Mary Ellen felt that by organizing the crawl, she could help promote her friends’ art-centered businesses.

“I wanted it to be a celebration of all the good things Ellison Bay has to offer, including the promotion of it as an art community,” Mary Ellen says. “What makes Ellison Bay unique is the concentration of studio artists within walking distance in a tiny village.”

In addition to Mary Ellen, the first group of Ellison Bay artists/entrepreneurs actively involved in planning the crawl were David and Jeanne Aurelius (Clay Bay Pottery), Larry “Thor” and Judy Thoreson (Gills Rock Stoneware), and John and Diane Dietrich (Ellison Bay Pottery). This group has remained constant throughout the years, with other businesses joining or leaving as they’ve moved in and out of the community.

To be included, businesses interested in being a part of the event must meet criteria other than being located within Ellison Bay. “We want the Art Crawl to be welcoming, but with expectations for a fine experience,” says Thor. “There must be an artistic angle to the business. People are either making their own things to sell, or assembling their own things to sell. Also, the level of quality has to be extremely high. We all take pride in each other’s work.”

In addition to the original members, the organization now includes Jan Jenkins and Carol Lango (Newport House Gallery), Brian and Jeanee Linden (Linden Gallery), Marcy Farber (Cousin’s Walk), Michael and Janice Thomas (Savory Spoon Cooking School) and The Clearing Folk School.

Since the first year, the Art Crawl has grown from a single day in October to two weekend events that bookend the tourist season in the spring and fall. There is also an open house during the Thanksgiving weekend. The dates for this year’s event in the fall are October 25th and 26th.

For the first Ellison Bay Art Crawl, each of the participants provided food, demonstrations of their art and a raffle. Live folk music was also featured at Turtle Ridge. According to Thor, the timing of the event was a huge factor in making it an instant success. “The first weekend after the fall festivals was normally slow,” he says. “People were still around, but there wasn’t a focal point for them to fix on. We wanted to bring people together with businesses. It seemed like a natural fit  – we needed them and they needed us. We wanted to shine a light on Ellison Bay.”

Cousin’s Walk

Mary Ellen is quick to point out that although the crawl was her idea, the event has always been a group effort. “I organized the first year, but can’t take all the credit,” she says. “Everyone was, and has remained, very enthusiastic. After we decided to make it an annual thing, we came together to think about our options – everyone had a lot of input into that.”

In addition to a raffle at every stop, a constant to every crawl is drawing visitors into the creative process. “It’s more than just another day at the shop,” Thor says. “Everyone is either demonstrating or in some way creatively engaging people that come in for that experience. Visitors can go to every shop and share the experience with the rest of the participants – it’s really a wonderful thing.”

This year, a new demonstration will be added to that of making pottery at Gills Rock Stoneware. Visitors are invited to view the baking of pizza and bread in the Thoreson’s new wood-fired, outdoor brick oven. The fresh-baked treats are the refreshments on their stop of the crawl.

True to the artists’ community-minded spirit, the oven is available for others to use, free of charge, one Saturday of every month. “I was thinking of the oven in terms of the Art Crawl,” Thor says. “It just naturally lent itself to being a village oven. It’s all about the community, about being grass roots, homegrown and home-based.”

Mary Ellen included poetry in her entertainment for last spring’s event and will have live folk music this fall. The wine tasting introduced in recent years also will be back, but with a twist. “We’ll be pairing wines with our bags’ imagery,” she says. “For instance, our tote bag that features a ‘tree of life’ will accompany the ‘Wishing Tree Shiraz.’ The bag is the same color as the wine.”

Mary Ellen says Turtle Ridge has a list of 12 items that when purchased the buyer is gifted a bottle of the corresponding wine. She sees this promotion as “literally planting seeds for the future.” She and her husband have planted a vineyard and hope to introduce their own label at some point.

Planning for the future is testament to the spirit of community that is evident for those involved in the Art Crawl. “The growth and acceptance of the Art Crawl has been very gratifying, not just because of its success on a business level, but on an artistic and community level as well,” Thor says. “Since the Pioneer Store explosion [in July of 2006] there has been a revitalization of a sense of community. Everyone is aware of that and proud of it. The reason the Ellison Bay Art Crawl continues to grow is due to this group of artists’ dedication to the community and to each other.”

Linden Gallery

Mary Ellen echoes the common bond. “A lot of people in the organization have made Ellison Bay their home for over 30 years,” she says. “We want to continue our way of life by helping Ellison Bay remain beautiful, simple and welcoming. We’re all the way up here at the very end of the peninsula. If we didn’t reach out to each other, we’d be very isolated.”

Information regarding the Ellison Bay Art Crawl events is available throughout the year at participating artists’ working studios and on their individual websites, including the “About Us” link on the Turtle Ridge website, This information is also available through the Door County Visitor’s Bureau.

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