There’s something special about traveling to Turtle Ridge Gallery. When you’re there, some of the best parts of Door County come together: the arts and nature. The gallery is somewhat secluded from the already secluded Ellison Bay, settled about one mile down Mink River Road. Arriving at the gallery, you’ll notice a serene quiet and peaceful gardens, and you may even see the namesake of the gallery – painted turtles.
“They’re all trying to get to the Mink River,” said Mary Ellen Sisulak, the gallery’s owner and resident artist.
Here, there’s a connection among all things: the land, the gallery, the artist. It’s evident through her work that Sisulak and the property are powerfully linked. The property sits on a south-facing ridge that backs up to the Mink River Estuary, which is protected by The Nature Conservancy. It’s the perfect setting for Sisulak, who features nature in all its forms in her work, whether it’s her iconic, handmade leather handbags or her latest work in encaustics.
Sisulak said, “It’s pretty special that I landed here out of all the places I could be.”
Originally from Milwaukee, she was introduced to Door County by her husband, Robert Bussler. She came with him one season and brought her handbags along for the ride. The bags sold, and they decided to stay. She originally sold her work at Clay Bay Pottery until Bussler built their house and showroom at the current location in 1986.
During her 33 years on the property, Sisulak has been a full-time artist and crafter. “I came here because I wanted to be an artist,” she said. “I started out painting and advertising for people. I worked for the old Door Reminder and did brochures, and meanwhile, I was building up this leather-handbag business.”
In the early days of establishing her business, Sisulak was in good company because the county was home to a growing enclave of artists. She said of the art scene, “It was pretty small, but pretty tight. Quite a few older artists were here that were great mentors. It was a really friendly, warm community of artists, and everybody had their own little niche. We used to have painting sessions at Jim Ingwersen’s barns and life-drawing classes at the old Ellison Bay schoolhouse.”
Now, in 2019, with an established business and the support and encouragement of her gallery manager, Asta Zukauskaite, Sisulak has been able to step back from the business side of the gallery to refocus on an original love: painting.
“I always wanted to paint full time, and when I turned 65, I thought, ‘If not now, when?’” Sisulak said.
So she started painting, prompted by a commission for a four-by-six-foot painting that took six months to finish. As she started creating more and more paintings, she needed more and more space to show them. She and her husband decided to transform an unused space within the gallery into a display room devoted to housing her new work.
The new mixed-media work is in water-soluble encaustics with leather and stones. Sisulak was introduced to water-soluble encaustics at a workshop in Santa Fe. They’re similar to oil paints, but they have a wax base. Sisulak said it’s easier to create details with the water-soluble encaustics than with the more traditional hot-wax encaustics. She creates her paintings on stretched leather and sketches the basic outline for her composition by carving into the leather before painting. She said of her work, “It has a wonderful texture to it. Since I’ve been painting more and more, I like showing the illuminosity of nature.”
Part of the texture comes from stones. “I loved stones since I was a little kid, so I’ve been loving that all along, and been collecting them and incorporating them,” she said. “The stones have their own illuminosity. If you look at the pieces, they all deal with science and magic.”
Sisulak is planning to hold demo days in the new art space.
“I don’t want to lose contact with people who appreciate my work,” she said. And everyone who has appreciated Sisulak’s handbags should be excited about her new work: it’s the designs on her handbags on a much grander scale.
Turtle Ridge Gallery (turtleridgegallery.com), 11736 Mink River Road in Ellison Bay, will open its new art space July 6, 4-8 pm. Refreshments will be served.