On top of a tall display shelf in the Rustic Fish Gallery sit eight rectangular blocks of wood. The leftmost block is plain and bald, distinguished only by a rough point on its tip. As the blocks progress to the right, a figure begins to emerge, clearer in each block than it was in the one before. By the block on the far right, the figure has morphed into an intricate carving of Santa Claus.
This sense of process is central to the Rustic Fish, uniting the gallery’s eclectic collection of art, including pottery, jewelry, photography, and woodcarving. In serving as the main studio and outlet for the carvings of Erik Rinkleff and the primary headquarters for the Little Fish Studios stationery of Mary Ann Rinkleff, the Rustic Fish Gallery provides a single location for the artistic steps of creation.
Before the Rinkleffs opened their gallery in 2007, they both made plenty of art but didn’t own a retail space from which to sell it. “Erik didn’t have space to work,” Mary Ann explains. “And people weren’t seeing his work.” Meanwhile, Mary Ann’s Little Fish note cards and greeting cards were popular throughout the U.S. and Canada but didn’t have a centralized display space. “People were always calling the office, saying, ‘Can I shop your shelves?’ So we thought it would be nice to have a retail space for Little Fish Studios and for Erik.”
Now in its fourth season, the Rustic Fish provides exactly the space the Rinkleffs needed. Located in the Green Gables shops in north Ephraim, the gallery is decorated in bold, solid earth tones. Though it hosts an ever-growing variety of different art forms, the relatively small gallery feels clean and cozy, unified by a natural, organic aesthetic.
Examples of Mary Ann’s photography are prevalent, not only in the large canvas prints of her photographs hanging on the walls, but also in the racks of note cards that sit in the center of the shop. Each of Mary Ann’s hundreds of stationery designs features a quotation matched with a nature photograph.
“My focus isn’t landscapes; it’s macro [close-up] photography,” she explains. “It’s not examining the little bug on the flower; it’s examining the bug in its natural setting and pulling back a little bit. People come to Door County looking for landscape photography, but when I go out to shoot, what catches me are the small things.”
Though Mary Ann’s background is in journalism, she has been taking photographs ever since moving to Door County in 2001. Little Fish Studios, which began as a small business in 2002 (when Mary Ann printed her note cards herself in her apartment), has grown into a nationally successful business whose “world headquarters” are now in the Rustic Fish Gallery. Though Little Fish product distribution is now managed elsewhere, the upstairs level of the Rustic Fish also functions as a mini-warehouse for Little Fish cards.
“It’s really fun if people walk in and they’ve seen the cards at home where they live,” Mary Ann says. “I’ve had to do a few autographs, which is embarrassing but fun.”
More than the recognition, Mary Ann appreciates the one-on-one conversations invited by the gallery space. “It’s fun to come out behind the counter and help people find the right card for their situation,” she says. “Some of best ideas I’ve had come from customers who are looking for something. [Before the gallery existed] I’d get feedback second- or third-hand sometimes, but I didn’t have that direct contact.”
Erik, too, loves communicating directly with his customers, and customers enjoy talking to Erik as well. Though Erik’s studio is in the back of the gallery, the clear visibility of his workspace is a great conversation-starter.
“When people come in,” says Mary Ann, “and they see Erik, they say, ‘Oh, are you actually carving? Cool!’”
Erik agrees. “It’s satisfying that you can talk to people who are here enjoying your work. You have that connection.”
The type of work Erik does in his studio is called Scandinavian flat plane carving, of which the aim is “to leave a lot of knife marks. It’s very angular; there’s no sandpaper involved. It’s a primitive kind of carving,” says Erik.
The variety of angles left on the wood allows for an intricate interplay of light and shadow. “When you have light coming down and you rotate [a carving],” Erik explains, “the light comes down on different facets.” Erik also adds paint to many of his carvings, which depict whimsical characters, including Santas, snowmen, and wood spirits. But he maintains that “the paint is secondary. That’s what people like, but it’s all about the knife work.”
A regular teacher at The Clearing in Ellison Bay, Erik also offered woodcarving classes at the Rustic Fish. “Snowmen and Santas are great beginner projects,” Erik says. “In a day, a beginner can carve something like that and take it home, and you can do this with just a few basic tools and minimal investment. It’s about the experience of working with wood.”
Wood and photography are not the only media explored in the Rustic Fish Gallery. Though the Rustic Fish originally displayed only art by the Rinkleffs, by the end of the first season, Erik and Mary Ann had added folk art by Ellison Bay’s Craig and Vicky Anderson to their inventory. More recently, they added ceramic pieces made by a potter in Michigan, as well as a selection of recycled silver jewelry. Other items in the Rustic Fish inventory include brass jewelry, ceramic lamps that burn vegetable instead of petroleum-based oil, and copper ornaments.
Though they are interested in varying their inventory, the Rinkleffs specifically hand pick the pieces they choose to carry, and try to make sure their selections are both unique and thematically connected. They are also “careful to carry pieces you don’t find elsewhere in Door County,” says Mary Ann.
The Rustic Fish is indeed a unique member of Door County’s broad community of galleries. Though the step-by-step Santa carvings sit stationary on that tall display shelf, the sense of progression they embody mirrors the way the Rustic Fish is constantly shifting, reflecting the process of the artists on whose work it is built.