Autumn in the studios
On fall art tours, treasure hunters find vivid colors everywhere they look.
© Beth Gauper
The Northeast Iowa Artists' Studio Tour starts in Decorah.
When country artists hang an "Open'' sign on their studios, it's time for seasoned shoppers to hit the road.
Around the region, art-studio tours have been springing up, beckoning art patrons into the countryside just as fall leaves change color.
It's the perfect meeting of minds and pocketbooks — shoppers get to chat with the artists, and artists get to sell right out of their studios.
"For us, it's kind of like doing an art fair without having to schlep things hundreds of miles,'' says painter Jean Accola, who organizes the Fresh Art Tour in the ridges and valleys around Pepin, Wis. "And it's more interesting for people to see where the artists live and do their thing, rather than meeting them in some anonymous setting.''
Artists in such tourist spots as Door County, Bayfield and the Amana Colonies have held gallery walks for decades. But in southwest Wisconsin, artists realized that patrons also would venture out to more isolated studios — and consider the trip to be part of the fun.
Their Fall Art Tour in October, showcasing artists in and around Mineral Point, Spring Green and Baraboo, now is so popular that nearby inns book up a year in advance. Artists in other scenic areas noticed its success and organized their own studio tours — in northeast Iowa, along Lake Pepin, in southeast Minnesota and Red Wing.
Shopping on a studio tour isn't like shopping at the mall, though shoppers may find a pottery barn — or, in the case of the Northeast Iowa Artists' Studio Tour, a pottery schoolhouse.
'A fun chick thing'
From the Iowa border, I drove south through farm fields to Darla Ellickson’s rambling old farmhouse, which was packed with people ogling her silver and gold jewelry, plus other artists’ wavy glass vases, fanciful pottery bowls and parquet wood slates.
As I went in, three women were getting into a van, and I heard one say, “I didn’t see anything in there I didn’t like.’’
At a modern home down the road, I went in to see Martha Monson Lowe’s rattan baskets, accompanied by photos showing Lowe and her sister collecting driftwood for the handles along Lake Chelan in Washington state. Like the other artists, Lowe had put out treats for her guests — cookies, grapes, cheese, peanuts.
In the pottery shed next door, where her husband, George Lowe, works, I was surveying a table of stoneware when I heard a familiar voice say, “I don’t see anything here I don’t like.’’
© Beth Gauper
Shoppers look at Dean Schwartz vases on the northeast Iowa tour.
I’d been dogging the steps of Mary Olson of West Union, Iowa, who said she was attending the tour for the fourth time, this year with her daughter-in-law and mother-in-law.
"It's a fun chick thing,’’ she said. “I've done it with different people, and it's always fun.'' At the pottery shed, she’d bought a pitcher, a trivet and a vase, all for gifts, and Lowe had given her a discount “because you’re a nice person.’’
"I love deals,’’ Olson said sheepishly. “My problem is, I've found too many deals today.''
My last stop was Jean Murray’s quilting studio, an adorable timber-frame cottage with hollyhocks growing alongside it. She’d built it on a hillock behind her home, a painted-lady Victorian farmhouse shaded by two enormous spruces.
"It was a very foolish thing,’’ Murray said with a smile. “Probably I should be working out of a cubbyhole in the house, but it's really great to work here.''
Mineral Point discoveries
Later that month, I was in Mineral Point during the big Fall Art Tour, and I saw some serious shoppers at work. Carole
Spelic’s Green Lantern Studios had been open barely five minutes before Linda Friedman came in and scooped up a $200
She and her mother, Joan, had just driven in from Spring Green and Lone Rock, where Friedman had bought the pendant featured in the tour guide. A busy civil-rights lawyer in Chicago, she described the tour as her “once-a-year splurge.’’
“When the car’s full, we’ll go home,’’ she said before hurrying on to her next stop.
One of the best parts of the tours, however, is talking with the artists, each of whom has a story. Friedman’s striped vessel, Spelic said, was patterned on traditional Tibetan tiger rugs, and others have a Gregg shorthand motif.
“People who come in and know Gregg can read my work,’’ Spelic said. “This one is called ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ — it’s actually made out of a book about Australia.’’It all started, said the New York City native, with a library book called “Weekend Fun With Children,’’ which suggested boiling shredded newspaper and shaping it with glue, linseed oil and plaster.
“It evolved into this,’’ said Spelic, hoisting one of the lightweight paper vessels she now shapes and finishes with perlite, Mylar, polyurethane and floor wax. “It turned out to be 12 years, a real long weekend.’’
Like nearly every other artist in Mineral Point, Spelic works out of a historic stone building, in her case a laundry built in 1864 for the U.S. Hotel.
On the outskirts of town, potters Tom and Diana Johnson live and work in a huge stone brewery built in 1860, which still has a spring flowing under the kitchen and a ventilation shaft through which brewers could flee during Prohibition if federal agents approached.
© Beth Gauper
Many of the old stone storefronts of Mineral Point house artist studios and galleries.
Diana Johnson was throwing a pot when a woman on the tour asked if she’d always wanted to be a potter.
“I went to a raku party in California, and I thought, ‘I want to do this, it’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever done,’ ’’ said Johnson, who was teaching nursery school at the time. “It’s funny, how things happen. I just happened to go to that party, and it changed my whole life.’’
New life for a garage
Back in town, Sandra Scott and Judith Sutcliffe had just opened Longbranch Gallery. Scott, a former television producer in San Francisco, and Sutcliffe, a tile muralist in Santa Barbara, had already developed an interest in rustic furniture when they were waylaid in Mineral Point.
“We came to Mineral Point and stopped at the pipe shop, not knowing the owner was the director of the chamber of commerce,’’ Scott said. “He gave us a wonderful pitch on what a wonderful place Mineral Point was, how the art colony had developed, and how ‘only’ two buildings were for sale.’’
Inspired, they bought “the ugliest building in town,’’ a former truck-repair shop, and renovated it, opening on the first day of the studio tour.
“I’m still somewhat dazed,’’ Scott said ruefully.
One of her artists, John Schakel, had just sold a bent-willow rocker to an ecstatic woman who said she'd looked two years for just the right one.
© Beth Gauper
At a stop on the Northeast Iowa Artists' Studio Tour, Gena Ollendieck shows her miniature books.
"I think this tour is the greatest thing, in this time when people run to the mall to buy things made in China,'' Schakel said.
The mall will seem dull and distant to those who explore the countryside on studio tours. Each piece of art, each scenic vista is one of a kind — and don't forget the stories.
Here are some of the best in 2012.
Trip Tips: Fall studio tours
Sept. 7-9 and 14-16, Autumn Winds Studio Tour in east-central Minnesota, with artists in Moose Lake,
Sturgeon Lake, Barnum and Askov, along the Willard Munger State Trail.
Sept. 15-16, 14 South Artists Fall Studio Tour south of Madison, with 35 artists in seven towns, including Stoughton, Paoli, Oregon, Verona and Fitchburg.
Sept. 28-Oct. 7, Crossing Borders Studio Tour on Lake Superior's North Shore, with artists at
studios between Duluth and Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Oct. 5-7, Meander, the Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl, with artists at sites in and around Ortonville, Appleton, Madison, Milan, Dawson, Montevideo and Granite Falls in western Minnesota.
Oct. 5-7, Fall Fresh Art Tour, with artists at studios along the Wisconsin side of Lake Pepin, from Bay City to Durand and Pepin.
Oct. 5-7, Hidden Studios Art Tour along the Ice Age Trail in central Wisconsin, with artists
in studios in Almond, Amherst Junction, Iola and Waupaca.
Oct. 5-7, Northwoods Art Tour in northeast Wisconsin, with artists at studios in and around Manitowish Waters, Boulder Junction, Minocqua and Eagle River.
Oct. 6, Scott County Art Crawl south of Minneapolis, with 60 artists
at studios in and around the suburbs of Shakopee, Jordan, Savage and Prior Lake.
Oct. 6-7, Artisans Road Trip in northwest Iowa, with artists in and around Storm Lake, Spirit Lake, Okoboji, Spencer and Estherville.
Oct. 6-7, Falling Leaves Art Studio Tour in western Wisconsin, with artists at studios in and around Augusta, Fairchild and Osseo, southeast of Eau Claire.
Oct. 6-7, Shawano Country Miles of Art, with tours of artist studios, barn quilts and murals in Shawano and Menominee counties in northeast Wisconsin.
Oct. 12-14, Covered Bridge Studio Tour in eastern Wisconsin, with more than 60 artists in
Cedarburg, Grafton, Port Washington, Mequon, Thiensville and Newburg.
Oct. 12-14, Northeast Iowa Artists' Studio Tour, with artists at sites around Decorah, Burr Oak, St. Lucas, Waukon, West Union, Cresco, New Albin, Lansing, Elgin and Clermont.
© Beth Gauper
A 1914 former Norwegian nursing home in rural Decorah, Iowa, houses the studio of master potter Dean Schwarz.
For more, see Table-hopping in
Oct. 13-14, Art Studio Tour of Northeast Wisconsin, with artists at studios in and around Green Bay, Kewaunee and Algoma.
Oct. 12-14, St. Paul Art Crawl, with artists in downtown St. Paul and the Raymond-University area.
Oct. 12-14, Twenty Dirty Hands Pottery Tour, with artists at studios and a wood kiln in and around the northwest Illinois towns of Galena and Elizabeth.
Oct. 19-21, Southwest Wisconsin Fall Art Tour, with artists at studios between Mineral Point, Spring Green, Dodgeville and Baraboo. This tour, started in 1994, is very popular; reserve lodgings early.
Oct. 20-21, Studio ArTour, with 46 artists at 23 studios in and around Northfield, Cannon Falls and Faribault in southcentral Minnesota.
Oct. 20-21, Southeast Iowa Artists's Studio Tour, with 29 artists in and around Washington, Mount
Pleasant, Burlington and Fort Madison.
Oct. 27-28, Earth, Wood & Fire Artist Tour east of Madison, with artists in and around Lake Mills, Cambridge and Fort Atkinson.
Nov. 2-4, Art Attack in Minneapolis. Visit more than 200 artists in their studios at the Northrup King Building in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District.
Nov. 3-4, Mississippi River Valley Art Drive in eastern Iowa and western Illinois, with artists in the Quad Cities and between Clinton, Iowa, and Galesburg, Ill.
Nov. 17-18 and Dec. 1-2, Crossing Borders Studio Tour of southeast Wisconsin and northeast Illinois, with artists in the lakes country between Burlington, Wis., and Lake Villa, Ill.
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