Keeper of a Legacy: Joan Vieth Champeau

Who would have thought that a young girl from Menominee, Michigan, who starred in the Frosh Frolics, aspired to be a beautician and worked for a colonel in the Army during the events of Iwo Jima and Tarawa during World War II, would become one of Door County’s finest artists?

Joan Vieth Champeau would prove to be a trailblazer for women in the arts in the county and establish a fine arts gallery that would become a landmark in regional arts for 47 years.

Perhaps it was providence that Joan would naturally pursue a career in art. After all, she comes from a long line of artists, being the fourth generation of Vieth/Grosse artists and a descendant of Frederick the Great of Prussia, Patron of the Arts. Her father Otto Vieth, distinguished cellist, artist and sign painter, provided her with an art-filled environment growing up.

Peninsula State Park. Joan Vieth Champeau.

“Peninsula State Park” by Joan Vieth Champeau.

Joan Vieth Champeau began studying art in 1954 at the age of 28, when by happenstance her piano teacher Gyda Nyman saw a talent in her. Gyda taught her how to draw and then required her to bring a watercolor with her to every lesson. This encouragement ignited a passion in her for painting. Joan would paint in the late evenings after work at Johnny’s Cottage Restaurant when her young children were asleep.

During the 1950s, Joan studied art at The Clearing with Gerhard Miller and Wayne Claxton. It was a lucky day when internationally known portrait artist Lester Bentley noticed her oil paintings at Johnny’s Cottage and invited her to study art lessons with him and Miller at the Craft Mart Summer Art School, where she served as monitor. These lessons proved to be a turning point for Joan’s artistic growth. She learned color from Bentley and Gerhard Miller became her lifelong mentor.

Joan describes herself as a mood and emotional painter, who strived to embrace the American landscape.

“I couldn’t help but paint, surrounded by so much beauty and history in the county; I was compelled to express my emotions.”

It was in 1967 that Joan opened the Champeau Pioneer Gallery, named in honor of her pioneer ancestors who settled Sister Bay, in a small building located next to Johnny’s Cottage Restaurant; it was designed by master craftsman husband Jim.

Roeser's Lumbermill. Joan Vieth Champeau.

“Roeser’s Lumbermill” by Joan Vieth Champeau.

Sprinkled with antiques, the gallery showcased Joan’s large oils, award-winning lighthouse scenes, and abstracts. The gallery also featured paintings by father Otto Vieth and brother Paul Vieth that featured Door County and lake scenes. By the late 1970s daughters Nanette and Roberta were displaying their paintings in the gallery. Nanette, a prized student of Lester Bentley, featured portraits and landscapes and holds a bachelor’s from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in art, while Roberta studied art at St. Norbert College with a bachelor’s in Art Education and a master’s degree from UW-Whitewater.

Roberta’s media are acrylic and watercolor; she is a master calligrapher. Roberta paints florals, landscapes and seascapes and was once commissioned to do wedding invitations that were sent to Prince Charles and Lady Diana, and President and Mrs. Reagan.

By the 1980s the Pioneer Gallery expanded into featuring more than 200 artists from all over the country. Joan often served as a mentor to many young artists through the years they would visit the gallery. Third daughter Patrice joined her sisters in displaying art as well, focusing on watercolors and acrylics. These whimsical Door County scenes paid for tuition at UW-Stevens Point, where she studied art, music and education.

Joan’s mother’s pewter candy case served as an impetus for adding jewelry to the gallery’s collection. As the Champeaus enjoyed exploring the western states, they stumbled across a new love in the arts: handmade Native American jewelry and pottery. Every winter, Joan and Jim traveled west to add to the jewelry collection; they featured Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Santo Domingo jewelry. One of Joan’s customers, an actress, selected jewelry to be worn at the Academy Awards.

It was 1992 when the Champeau family moved the gallery from downtown to its present location on top of the Sister Bay hill. The gallery was built on family land from the 1870s, “on great grandma’s potato patch,” recalls Joan. Designed by husband Jim, the new gallery was built to resemble Victorian style homes of Joan’s youth. The handbuilt stone fence framing the property was restored and built by Jim and good friend Dean Logerquist.

The new gallery continued its tradition of featuring fine art, antiques and jewelry. Patrons of the gallery not only experienced some of the region’s finest artists, they also received a history lesson on Sister Bay’s early days by Joan.

Joan Vieth Champeau with her daughters Patrice (left) and Roberta.

Joan Vieth Champeau with her daughters Patrice (left) and Roberta.

When Joan suffered a broken hip in 2006, daughters Nanette and Roberta took over the helm of running the gallery. With Roberta’s years of artful display experience and keen business vision, and Nanette’s charming personality and ease with the customers, this was a natural transition. Joan always says “my daughters have gold in their fingers” meaning their creativity with their artwork and Roberta’s talent for display.

Joan’s paintings are included in numerous permanent collections including Wisconsin Women in the Arts, Neville Museum, Miller Art Museum, The Hardy Gallery, Bank of Menasha, The Clearing Folk School, Peninsula School of Arts, Washington Island Art and Nature Center, Reliable Life Insurance Company, WFRV-TV, Baylake Bank, Ministry North Shore Medical Clinic, and Door County Memorial Hospital. Her artwork also is included in two Wisconsin governors’ private collections and collections throughout the United States. She has conducted art programs with many Wisconsin organizations and has given numerous lectures on painting and has written several historical articles.

Joan now keeps an overstuffed scrapbook full of awards, newspaper articles and letters of thanks and appreciation from patrons, politicians and artists from across the country. When asked how she accomplished so much, Joan smiles and humbly replied, “I had a lot of ‘giddy-up.’ It was quite an adventure.”

The Champeau Pioneer Gallery has recently been sold and will close after 47 memorable years on Sunday, Oct. 25. A closing sale will be held Oct. 8 – 10, from 10 am until 5 pm each day.

The Champeau family would like to thank all their customers and the wonderful staff who contributed to its success over the years. For now, the Champeau girls plan on doing some traveling and gathering ideas for the next chapter.

Joan Champeau Pioneer Gallery is located at 2428 S Bay Shore Dr. in Sister Bay.

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