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In Memoriam: Phyllis Ingwersen

by Karen Davidson Seward

Family, friends and the Door County art community mourn the loss of Phyllis Ingwersen, wife of artist James J. Ingwersen, who died May 1 at age 89.  

Phyllis was a journalist, actor and painter. In spite of a 1962 sell-out exhibit of her whimsical watercolors of concert halls and cityscapes, Phyllis chose to channel her professional and interpersonal skills into her husband’s lifelong career as a portrait artist.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota on April 16, 1929, Phyllis left home at age 18 when she qualified for advanced acting classes at the University of Minnesota. She was cast in such productions as You Can’t Take It With You, and after graduation, moved to Chicago where the city life proved a treat for the art and music lover.

In Chicago, she met her future husband, Jim Ingwersen, a poor man “struggling to afford art supplies.” In the city, she worked at the Drake Hotel and later, as a secretary at J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency. She was promoted to copywriter.   

Phyllis and Jim courted for six years. During that time, she tired of advertising and moved to New York City to break into publishing.

“After two years, I’d had enough,” Phyllis said in an interview with her niece, Karen Davidson Seward. “I decided to go back to the University of Minnesota to get my teaching degree in art. I student taught at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Then I moved to Philadelphia. I painted the quaint neighborhoods with brownstones and worked in the book department at Wanamaker’s department store.”

Jim finally won Phyllis’s hand in Philadelphia. “I was living at the Morgan Hall YWCA when Jim showed up with a pearl ring in his pocket. The next day we queued up at city hall behind a gal getting a divorce who was on a rant about the institution of marriage,” said Phyllis.

On Nov. 4, 1960, Phyllis and Jim were married. Phyllis moved into Jim’s Tree Studio, an exclusive artist colony in Chicago. Their generation of Tree Studio artists were hip to existentialists, jazz and the vagaries of the wounds of war on an artist’s psyche. Jim and Phyllis’s coterie of contemporaries included Yugoslavian portrait painter Gus Likan and his wife, Barbara; Holocaust survivor and surrealist painter, Joseph Schwartzbaum; Al DiGiacomo, Richard Florsheim and John Doctoroff.

“We had the best life in Chicago,” said Phyllis, recounting visits to jazz clubs, symphonies, the art institute and local eateries.

Untitled watercolor by Phyllis Ingwersen.

It is also where Jim’s art career launched.

“A lawyer involved with the 7th Circuit Court came to Jim’s show at the Union League Club,” Phyllis said. “When he saw the pastel portrait of Jim’s niece in her tutu, he recommended Jim to be the court’s portrait artist. That was the beginning of Jim’s brilliant career. We’d do one judge or one doctor and then they’d say, ‘Here’s another and another.’ We experienced great success, the kind that every artist dreams of. Jim’s pastel of ‘Gretchen’ became one of the biggest selling reproductions in the world. We just took it in stride, we didn’t dwell on it. We just did what we needed to do to keep up with demand.”  

In 1965, Phyllis and Jim started to split their time between a cottage in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin and the Tree Studios. Five years later, they purchased a 19th century farm in Sister Bay and spent years transforming it into an artist hideaway.

Phyllis’s knowledge of the arts and art history made her both Jim’s biggest fan and his harshest critic. She was Jim’s liaison with clients. She made lasting connections with people when she organized the sittings and unveilings for Jim’s paintings.

During the summer months, Phyllis organized life drawing classes for Jim to host. She planned square dances in the cavernous barn. She managed the gallery in the granary. There were scores of bratwurst picnics on beaches and coves and boat rides to Horseshoe Island.

In rural winter, groups gathered for cross-country ski adventures deep into woods, at The Ridges, on a friend’s “back 40.” Trips to Milwaukee and Chicago kept their cultured lifestyle alive.

Portrait of Phyllis Ingwersen by Jim Ingwersen.

For six decades, Phyllis and Jim were true collaborators. In some ways, theirs was a “unity of opposites” and the system worked well. Phyllis’s conversational flair paired with Jim’s powers of observation kept the clients rolling in. Her quick wit and repartée engaged the sitter’s mind. Phyllis’s memory for names and puckish humor kept friends and clients alike entranced.

In addition to her husband, Phyllis is survived by her sister-in-law, Barbara Davidson (Don Q. Davidson), her nieces and nephews: Karen Davidson Seward (Peter Seward), Chris Davidson, Cory Lindholm (Dorothy), Jay Lindholm, Dayna Lindholm Fisher (Jerry), Peter Ingwersen (Lisa), Lisa Ingwersen Dupre (Bob), and Matt Ingwersen. Phyllis was predeceased by her parents, her sister Lois, and brother-in-law, Calvin Lindholm.

In memory of Phyllis’s passion for young people and music education, an endowed scholarship fund will be established in her name at Birch Creek Music Performance Center. Gifts may be sent to PO Box 230, Egg Harbor, WI 54209, or given online at birchcreek.org/support in memory of Phyllis Ingwersen.

A forthcoming publication about Phyllis and Jim Ingwersen titled, Captured Moments in the Life of a Painter, will be released this summer in conjunction with an exhibit at the Miller Art Museum that opens July 21. For a special pre-publication offer, visit millerartmuseum.org.

 

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