Life Intersecting Art

“Cherries & Cherries”

Mary Johnson first visited Door County in 1940 on vacation from Elgin, Illinois. Her parents owned a rustic summer cottage that lacked both electricity and indoor plumbing, but as a baby she was quite comfortable.

Now she is a grandmother and still returning to the peninsula each year to spend the season. However, her summer place is anything but primitive, a series of airy rooms tastefully furnished, expansive views of the waters of Green Bay, and an impressive display of art on the walls, much of it work that she has created.

She continued to join her family as they visited Northern Door each summer, until at Northwestern University Mary met and married her husband-to-be Rick. After a honeymoon in Door County, his career as a mechanical engineer took them to his position with an aerospace company in Phoenix. Distance and subsequent travel expense brought a hiatus to their visits to the peninsula until 1985 when they bought their present home.

“The people who owned the property sold it because their children went off to college,” Johnson said. “And we bought it because our children were going off to college!”

The original home on the property was a small guesthouse. Just as Johnson’s mother in 1950 sketched out a design for a waterfront house in Door County, she sketched the plan for enlarging the original home to make it the spacious vacation retreat that it is today, nestled in a woodland setting with a boat dock extending into the bay.

With the inspiration of nature so close at hand, a visitor might expect oil color landscapes and floral still life to spontaneously spring onto a blank canvas. But art is never that simple.

“Fall Birches”

Mary Johnson might technically be classified as an outsider artist, as she graduated from Northwestern not with a degree in art but in elementary education. Her last formal classroom art instruction occurred, she laughs, when she was in junior high.

In Scottsdale, Ariz. she was encouraged to begin what became a 40-year career in art by her mother who was inspired and coached by a sculptor friend. “I waited until [my son] Greg started kindergarten,” Johnson recalled, “and then went to my mother’s studio and began painting,” also following suggestions from her mother’s artist friend.

Subsequently she enrolled in a workshop with a visiting artist, joined the Scottsdale Artists’ League, and launched an art career. She showed her work in the League’s gallery and in a design studio. To her surprise, she sold paintings.

When she and her husband bought their summer place in Sister Bay, “I was excited to be asked to show my work in the Jack Anderson Gallery,” she said. Now her paintings are exhibited at the Cottage Row Gallery where she was featured artist this summer for the week of August 17-23.

Johnson characterizes her work as impressionistic. “I try to stay loose,” she explained, “lost lines, merging colors.” She admires the Impressionists who “awakened a desire in me to create something that would bring me pleasure.”

“This is just a hobby,” she insists. “I’m not a professional. I’d be starving if I tried to support myself!”

Johnson works exclusively in oils. “I do a plein air style,” she said, “although I’m not a plein air artist.” Like those painters, she explained, she preps the canvas with a light purple or a dull red pigment that makes for easier application of subsequent layers of paint and allows some of the undercoat to be visible.


Of her landscape subject matter, she laughs: “I can’t grow flowers, but I can paint them!”

During her early years as an artist she chose as subjects the deserts and mountains of the Southwest that she saw around her, but now her paintings reflect her love of Door County, the water, trees, and flowers.

“When I’m asked why I use so much blue in my paintings,” she said, “I reply that I have always loved the blue of Lake Michigan where I have spent so many summers.”

And just as Door County has become an important part of her life, so has her art. “I’d be lost if I couldn’t paint,” she said. Her late husband had used their garage as a woodworking shop, but now the space has become her studio where a group of her friends occasionally join her as they paint.

Johnson is a prolific painter, but doesn’t worry about her “leaners,” the pieces that haven’t sold and for which neither she nor her adult children have wall space. She happily gives them to her friends who either display them in their homes or pass them to on to their adult children.

Three aspects of Mary Johnson’s life are important to her. Painting is obviously one of them.

A second is teaching. While she has spent little time in a formal school classroom, she has filled her life with teaching others, both working with the Special Olympics program in Scottsdale and, teaching Sunday school to elementary age children in her church in Scottsdale, now in her 50th year. Giving swimming instructions to developmentally challenged young people is a natural choice for her, as she has been a swimmer all of her life, but occasionally she has had to learn other skills before passing them on: “I had not been a shotputter!” she laughed.

A third important part of her life is being an athlete. Johnson is a trim and fit woman who likes participating in sports and the outdoors. She still enjoys tennis, swimming, and boating; and she has been an avid golfer and bicyclist.

“Tasting Room”

This last winter after snowshoeing with her grandchildren, she consulted with her physician about a minor injury she had sustained during the adventure. “And how many other 70-something women were snowshoeing on the course?” he asked. She had to admit that she was probably the only one.

When Mary Johnson paints, she uses the Rembrandt method of planning the work, dividing the canvas into nine sections, three rows of three, and then considering the resultant four intersections as possible focus points. Johnson seems to have done that in her life as well, and one of those places in which lines intersect is Door County, the present day subject of much of her art.

See Mary Johnson’s work at the Cottage Row Gallery, south of Fish Creek at 9197 Highway 42, or visit