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Take the Lake: Algoma’s Flying Pig Gallery & Greenspace

If spending part of your hard-earned vacation inside of an art gallery is far from your idea of the perfect day, one stop at The Flying Pig Gallery & Greenspace just might change your mind:  about galleries, about art, and about what constitutes a perfect vacation day. With a freshly-brewed cup of coffee from the organic coffee bar, you can set out to explore this 15-acre compound, complete with a pond, a moat (yes, a real moat!) and a fantastic collection of indoor artworks, outdoor sculptures, and display gardens filled with exotic plants.

The Flying Pig Gallery & Greenspace is located just two miles south of Algoma and nine miles north of Kewaunee. If you are traveling Highway 42, you won’t miss it. It’s right next to…well, it’s right next to nothing, which is part of the fun. Like stumbling into a small café and ordering what turns out to be the world’s best bisque, or finding yourself in a no-name pub with a fantastic live band, part of this gallery’s allure is the sheer delight of the unexpected. As in, what’s this doing here?

“Being near water has always been important to us, and part of our dream. It’s fun to see the excitement of first-time visitors, who are so surprised to see a gallery like ours in such a small town,” says Susan Connor, who co-owns the business with partner Robyn Mulhaney.

“This location raised a lot of eyebrows amongst our friends and families,” laughed Mulhaney, “but it was a very purposeful decision. We liked the challenge of making this a destination, and we knew we’d have to design a gallery and create grounds distinctive enough to attract attention.”

Distinctive indeed. The two-story, 4,000-square-foot building with a red pig “flying” out of the front is a sight in itself, and is gaining regional attention not just for its art, but for its overall commitment to sustainable building practices and careful attention to green design.

Connor and Mulhaney began planning The Flying Pig in 2001, when environmentally-conscious design was just beginning to gain attention in the Midwest. They were brave adventurers in the creative use of reclaimed building materials (paths made of concrete pavement from the City of Algoma, old migrant shacks moved to the property and converted to usable demonstration space for artists), the utilization of passive solar, and the installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system. The effect – what you can see and what you cannot see – is stunning. The design for the gallery was inspired by an old feed mill in downtown Sturgeon Bay, complete with a cupola. It carefully incorporates as much natural light as possible. This functional design has allowed Connor and Mulhaney to create a space that works equally well to showcase original artworks and act as a greenhouse.

The gallery’s official greeter is Bella, the small white dog who welcomes each guest and invites them to view the works of primarily self-taught, contemporary folk artists from the Midwest, the Southwest and beyond. Bella sets the tone for the warm and welcoming environment of this anything-but-stuffy gallery. The colors are bright and expressive (the walls are painted with quotes:  “The spontaneous rally will begin at 1:45,” “Make art, not noise/war/greed/lutefisk”), the mediums are bold and fun (metal, wood, reclaimed “garbage”) and there is an extensive and eclectic mixture of work.

At first, the bright colors and unique textures may lead you to believe that the gallery is more appropriate for children than adults, but a quick look around will convince you otherwise. Herein lies the genius of The Flying Pig, and what makes Connor and Mulhaney such exceptional retailers:  their content ranges from quirky funny (artists’ greeting cards, tiny ceramic heads, silly magnets), to quirky functional (pottery, gardening items, socks made from recycled cotton), to quirky beautiful (silver and 14-karat gold rings, oils on canvas, textural collages). There’s also just plain quirky (my favorite is artist Chris London’s tiny ceramic skeleton heads, perched atop the tines of antique rusted rakes). With the works of over 60 artists, the mixture of these pieces looks easy, but like good theater, the trick is to turn your time, sweat, trials-and-errors into something that looks effortlessly simple. The craftsmanship of the work, and the presentation of the products, is simply outstanding.

The marriage of art and business has always been a tricky one, but Connor and Mulhaney have got it down. Connor, who is a CPA and has a degree in library science, finds the gallery allows her to combine her organizational and business skills with her love of primitive art and off-season travel.

“We travel a lot to find new work and love discovering new artists for the gallery. I have always been drawn to folk art, where most artists use the materials at hand – clay, rubber, metal – in totally creative and surprising ways,” she says.

Mulhaney is a self-taught and passionate horticulturalist with a commitment to and excitement for all things green. It is primarily her job to keep the outside greenspace looking good, and she spends most of her time talking with customers who are as dedicated as she is to the art of gardening. She stopped to show me a Voodoo Lily that she begrudgingly inherited last year.

“It’s also called a Corpse Lily, because when it blooms, which is rare, it stinks like a dead body. Last year it unfortunately bloomed on Memorial Day Weekend and attracted every bug in the five-mile radius and repelled all the customers,” she laughed. “But it’s so pretty, and grows so freakishly fast, and it’s fun to watch,” she added, sounding like the true, eco-clectic gardener she is.

As the 2009 summer season opens, I wonder aloud how the economy and the predicted tightening of purse strings will affect the gallery.

“We’ve anticipated this,” says Mulhaney, “and adjusted our inventory and price points while remaining loyal to funky, original, eclectic, handcrafted arts. We realize that our customers, while still enjoying our gallery as much as ever, may be a bit more cautious when it comes to purchasing. This year, we expect just as many, if not more, customers coming through the door, but possibly wanting to spend a bit less than usual. That’s okay with us. We have everything from $6 handcrafted pieces that make great gifts, to more expensive pieces for serious art collectors.”

Both Mulhaney and Connor are a constant presence in what they call this well-controlled, chaotic place. They invite you to stop in and enjoy the “brassy vibrations of outsider styles” the next time you happen through Algoma. When you do, don’t forget to look up at the bodies clinging to the balcony – comprised completely of clear packaging tape and created by temporarily mummifying two local kids. Also, don’t skip the bathrooms (they actually encourage stopping in to use the bathrooms) which are, well, you’ll have to stop in and see for yourself.