The Artists of the North: Creativity thrives at the tip of the thumb

Door County visitors who continue their drive past Sister Bay are sometimes surprised by what they find near the tip of Door County. And often it’s the Ellison Bay Art Crawl, held in spring and autumn, that draws them north.

“Often we see people from Sturgeon Bay, and they said they didn’t know this was up here,” said John Dietrich, who owns Ellison Bay Pottery.

Dietrich moved to Ellison Bay in 1974 after six years as an apprentice to the late Fish Creek potter Abe Cohn. Dietrich bought a property with a barn and not much else, aside from his vision of a studio and where his house would be. 

“I spent the first winter insulating and rewiring and cross-country skiing,” he said. “Skiing kept me on track. I would take showers at Peterson’s Wagon Trail. I had an outhouse which was fully functional; in winter, I would cut out a piece of Styrofoam to sit on. I heated it with wood. In 1982, I got to have a real kitchen, real bedrooms and finished off the gallery. New windows came much, much later, but the space was just great.”

Like the late writer Norb Blei, who wrote from a chicken coop in the woods between Ellison Bay and Gills Rock, artists such as Dietrich were drawn to the slower pace — and less pricey property — to be had north of Sister Bay. 

“We like to think of this as the top of Door County,” said Judy Thoreson, who owns Gills Rock Pottery with her husband, Larry Thoreson. The gallery was originally located in Gills Rock — thus the name — before relocating to the heart of Ellison Bay. “It is a wonderful community we have here. It’s hard for me to think of anywhere else I’d rather live, except maybe in the wintertime.”

Other artists followed. It’s not crowded, but it is certainly busier than it used to be. The Thoresons’ gallery is right on Highway 42, so she sees the cars, trucks and campers.

“There are times when I can’t believe how much traffic is on the highway — more than it used to be,” Thoreson said.

Up the Ellison Bay hill, just south of town, stands Clay Bay Pottery, where David and Jeanne Aurelius have created hand-thrown pottery and tiles for 45 years. 

They moved to the property in their 20s. With a few thousand dollars from David’s parents, they scraped together a down payment for two houses in need of a lot of work. Jeanne told Door County Living in 2020 that the couple bought the property because “we really thought it was going to be a good place.”

They had an old furnace, no insulation and no luxuries, but that didn’t bother them. They had a home and a studio, and they set about creating, quickly becoming mainstays of the county’s art scene. 

Because Ellison Bay is beyond the more popular tourist towns, its artisans find that they attract a different sort of visitor. 

“We had a gallery in Egg Harbor for five years, and I have to say the people who come in here are a different clientele from people who would just walk in after an ice cream cone,” said Mary Ellen Sisulak, owner of Turtle Ridge Gallery. “We’re a destination. You have to want to come here.”

Turtle Ridge isn’t on anyone’s beaten path. Located in the pines along Mink River Road, the small gallery displays a range of work from originally designed — and reasonably priced — leather bags, to paintings and mixed media with paint, leather and stones that can run up to $12,000.

With a degree in painting from UW-Milwaukee, Sisulak moved to Ellison Bay in 1974 and started creating fine art, along with some graphic design for area businesses. From the beginning, she did well with leather bags — something she had started designing and making in college.

A local arts group, Ellison Bay Arts, started about a decade ago to bring together local artists and pool money to buy advertising. 

“We started with potteries because there were so many of us,” Thoreson said. “Then we realized there were painters living here, too, and some food people like Kick Ash Coffee, which produces coffee and their own granola.”

The group also includes painter and retired art teacher Rob Williams, even though he lives in Gills Rock. Williams is constructing a new studio/gallery that will be open for business next year. His current gallery, just off the highway, opened in 2004, but he had also been teaching at Peninsula School of Art and showing at the Hardy Gallery in Ephraim.

Door County galleries develop a following both for the galleries themselves and for their artists, whether they represent one or many more than one. 

“There is a social thing about the gallery,” Williams said. “I had never thought about the idea of having a gallery as a social connection with a lot of people. But a lot of people, if they buy a painting one year, will come back and say hi.”

At Gills Rock Pottery, Thoreson spends a lot of time in the gallery talking to visitors.

“We don’t just look at the people coming in as customers,” she said. “A lot of them keep coming over a period of time — seasons, years. We have families who have come back, grandparents and their kids, and then their kids.”

The relative isolation of the community — though it’s only a few easy highway miles from Sister Bay — creates a bit of natural selection, attracting people who are looking beyond convenient entertainment for quieter nature and new artistic discovery. Contributing to that thoughtful, even earnest, atmosphere is The Clearing, which runs weeklong workshops in arts and crafts.

The Clearing attracts people who are lifelong learners, said its director, Michael Schneider. Students at The Clearing, many of whom have been taking courses for years, are attracted by both the classes and the grounds, created by legendary landscape architect Jens Jensen, who founded the school in 1935 after moving from his home north of Chicago. 

Nearly a century later, the same rural setting that drew Jensen north continues to draw artists — and art lovers — to the quiet roadsides near the tip of the peninsula. 

Related Organizations