Taking Art Public: Initiatives bring art to the streetscape

Woolly the Mammoth sits in solitude in Sturgeon Bay’s Bay View Park – at least until visitors arrive to pose for selfies in front of him. A concrete-and-steel sculpture that’s about 14 feet long and the creation of artist Carl Vanderheyden, he is part of the city’s growing collection of public art. Woolly also marks the eastern end of the Ice Age Trail, which terminates in Potawatomi State Park. 

“It’s such a nice addition to the community,” said Cameryn Ehlers-Kwaterski, executive director of Destination Sturgeon Bay, which coordinated the fundraising to purchase the sculpture from Edgewood Orchard Galleries.

The sculpture is just one example of the Door County public art that’s appearing more frequently, especially in Sturgeon Bay and Egg Harbor.

Public response to the mural that was painted last summer on the side of Bayside Bargains in Sturgeon Bay has been positive as well.

One of the first murals in the modern wave of public art was an 80-inch-long painting by Judi Ekholm installed in 2012 on the outside wall of the village hall in Egg Harbor. Kathy Beck invited her to a meeting of the then-recently formed Egg Harbor Arts Committee, which wanted to facilitate public art. 

Ekholm said she didn’t do sculpture but found a way to create a painting that could be hung outdoors. Using acrylic paint on aluminum, she created a vision of meadows and water and had it framed for external display.

Judi Ekholm’s 80-inch “Egg Harbor Meadow” was added to the exterior wall of the Paul J. Bertschinger Community Center in Egg Harbor in 2015. The mural was created with acrylic paint on aluminum. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

“It takes a lot of coats of a special kind of acrylic varnish, which is labor intensive if you do it right, but it has held up pretty well,” Ekholm said.

The committee asked for a valuation so they could insure the painting, and then a year or two later, they paid her that amount, much to her surprise.

Not all murals are popular with the public, however. Josh Van Lieshout, administrator of the City of Sturgeon Bay, was the administrator in Egg Harbor when another outdoor painting took shape. The village ended up in court over a mural that featured pink roses on a lime-green background painted on the side of Mojo Rosa, he said.

The village said the mural’s roses constituted an oversized sign, but a circuit court judge ruled that it was decoration, not a sign. The building was repainted without controversy in 2019. That’s when Sevastopol High School senior Mackenzie Ellefson, who won a competition to paint a mural, created a scene with a bright sun and fluffy, white clouds against a bright-blue sky.

Egg Harbor has an arts advisory committee that’s a registered nonprofit, so it is allowed to raise funds and save them for larger projects. In contrast, when it was a village committee, any unspent funds were turned over to the village treasury at the end of the year, according to Kathy Beck, who has been active in the Public Arts Initiative (PAI) throughout its various iterations over the years. 

“Three Dancers” by Richard Edelman stands near the Peg Egan Performing Arts Center in Egg Harbor. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

The PAI has dotted the village with public art. There’s the Bay View Memorial Terrace, a dry stone structure made without mortar; and there’s Richard Edelman’s “Three Dancers” at the Peg Egan Performing Arts Center. There’s also the single dancer on the bird trail near the intersection of Highway 42 and County G.

“Sunset Melody” on the facade of the Peg Egan building is a mural and mosaic by Kathleen Mand Beck, Cynthia Board, Angela Lensch and Reneé Schwaller, and several other sculptures around the village have been purchased or lent by an artist or gallery.

“Public art is very important for the fabric and sense of place in a community,” said Ken Mathys, an Egg Harbor trustee who is investigating an idea for creative placemaking in public art. “It can provide a setting that engages people for thought and reflective thinking, and also provide peaceful places for rest, relaxation and meditation.”

The village arts group is energized by the construction plans for Highway 42 that will begin after Pumpkin Patch in 2023. Greenery will play an important part, Mathys said. 

Another important project is planning for the 2024 EGGstravaganza, which engages artists to decorate eggs that are displayed around the village and then auctioned off as a fundraiser for the arts. 

Sturgeon Bay’s public-arts efforts are less formal. The mural at Bayside Bargains came about because the  building owner and some interested residents organized it, Van Lieshout said. 

A cyclist in the Peninsula Century Fall Challenge rides past “Windward,” a sculpture made of corten steel by artist Boleslaw Kochanowski. The piece honors the comeback of the Sandhill Crane, and was installed in 2018 at the top of Egg Harbor Beach Park on County Road G. File photo by Len Villano.

“It was all done privately – the city didn’t have a financial interest or approving interest,” he said. “There’s no set formula; it just kind of happens. We tend to not have money for these things, but they happen through interest and special dedication of people who are passionate.”

Painter Claudia Scimeca, who leads painting workshops at ARTicipation on Sturgeon Bay’s Madison Avenue, would like to see more murals.

But would she like abstract works?

“You’re asking an abstract brain, so the answer is yes,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be realistic. Our town is beautiful to begin with, and this enhances it, like frosting on a cake.”

Outdoor murals have often invited community participation. Erin LaBonte and Don Krumpos, artists who own Yonder in Algoma, have designed and developed murals in Algoma, Manitowoc and Fond du Lac, as well as on the Bayside Bargains building in Sturgeon Bay. 

They typically do the outline, paint the more detailed sections and complete the higher areas of the work that require a lift or ladders. Volunteers do the rest by using a paint-by-numbers outline and numbered pots of paint and brushes. 

Participation is often oversubscribed, said LaBonte, who expected a Manitowoc mural to take two days, for example, but volunteers completed it in six hours.

A mural on the wall of Bayside Bargains in Sturgeon Bay.

Volunteers bring a “we” element to a mural, said Ram Rojas, who has painted murals around Door County, including the paneled painting that was removed recently from the Nelson Shopping Center in Baileys Harbor.

“We’d have a day or two of volunteers painting with me,” he said. “I tell them what to do and give them the colors. It gives heart to the mural you cannot reproduce in any other way.”

Sometimes volunteers or observers even end up in the paintings, he added.

Rojas was working on a mural a few years ago when a woman who walked out of a store with groceries became interested in the painting.

“I invited her to put her groceries down and gave her a brush and paint. She wasn’t an artist, just a lady buying groceries, but she painted for a while. Some people end up in the painting, others help make it, and you can see the involvement in the finished work.”

Related Organizations