A Glimpse into the Past: Virginia Maher’s Art History Books Tell the Story of the Door County Art Scene


Virginia Maher is Door County’s own art historian – one who combines an insightful eye with a knack for writing clearly and without jargon about local artists and their work. She and her husband, Tom, a retired architect, moved to the county full time in 2002.

Maher studied as an undergraduate at Loyola University in Chicago, then returned to study at UW-Milwaukee in 1994 and earned a master’s degree in art history. She has helped people understand and appreciate art through her writing and teaching, including summer classes at the Peninsula School of Art.

“If we want to appreciate art, we have to try to understand what the artist wanted to do,” she explained in an email interview. “The better we understand, the more we love art. We never finished learning the art. There are always new things to discover. Large works of art look different every time you stand in front of them.

The Maher’s also contributed to art: over 60 paintings, prints, drawings, and books by Wisconsin artists at the Miller Art Museum; three large sculptures at the Peninsula School of Art; and over 40 works of modern and contemporary art at the UW-Milwaukee Art Museum.

In 2016, Maher published Selected artists from Door County, with a page on each of the more than 60 artists. She interviewed them in their studios with her collaborator Paul Burton, photographer and writer.

Virgina Maher guides Miller Art Museum volunteers through the Maher Sculpture Garden north of Cave Point in September 2018.

This year Maher published Beauty made easy, a meditation on beauty and simplicity – as the title suggests – around pottery, with ideas from thinkers and visionaries such as Jens Jensen, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Morris, John Ruskin and even texts from catalogs of pottery from the beginning of the 20th century.

When I visited Virginia and Tom Maher to talk about Beauty made easy, she released a book she wrote in 2018 titled Representing the past: the art collection of the Ephraim Historical Foundation, produced with assistance from Emily Irwin and Paul Burton.

The book is a mixture of art and history. It opens with a painting of the Reverend Andreas Iverson, the founder of Ephraim, who represents him painting on an easel in a frock coat, circa 1860. The Moravian church, which he led, is located in his site of ‘origin at the water’s edge, with sailboats on the bay. The church appears again in a 2010 painting by Charles Peterson showing horse teams moving it upward in 1863 to its present location.

The collection also includes a 1956 painting of Sturgeon Bay by Wayne L. Claxton (1902-1983) showing the steel bridge, built in 1931, and the attic, built in 1901.

Another striking watercolor by Claxton, “Light Wind” (1953), shows three sailing ships, each with a crew of two sides parallel to each other.

“There is no discernible landscape or recognizable landmarks to distract sailors, nor the viewer,” Maher said. “In this partially abstract painting, the water is reduced to diagonal shapes and lines, and the sky to a grid pattern of blue and white colored blocks, as if to create an area of ​​focus.”

Maher divides the paintings in the collection into seascapes, landscapes, portraits, rural scenes and monuments. Using the approach that has worked so well with Selected artists, it has a page of text opposite a page with an image.

The foundation’s collection is unusual, notes Emily Irwin, who was the director of outreach and curator when the book was developed.

“Historic institutions traditionally collect objects such as clothes, household items and furniture from the past,” she said, but the Historical Ephraim Foundation, founded in 1949, “began to collect works of art. of local artists soon after its creation ”.

She pointed to a 1900 painting of Ephraim, for example, which “portrays the local landscape in a unique way, with the artist’s singular perspective. Such an image shows changes in natural and built environments and can even capture moments of everyday life such as modes of transportation or historical clothing. When examined through artistic and historical lenses, countless stories emerge from a single work of art. “

Maher’s comments on a 1920 painting of sailing ships in Ephraim Harbor by Jessie Kalmbach Chase are typical of how Maher is able to combine a knowledge of nature and an eye for painting into a few enlightening sentences: ” The cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment form a strong line in the center of the painting that draws the viewer’s attention to the tall vertical masts and billowing sails of four racing boats on a course in the bay.

Commenting on an untitled landscape by Martha Mary Hachmeister (circa 1935) – a painting of three birches and a cottage nestled in a row of conifers – Maher writes that “with its primitive, flat forms and muted symbolic colors, seems greatly influenced by Der Blaue Reiter, turned away from traditional naturalistic art for a simpler and freer primitive style as a movement towards abstraction and spirituality in order to transcend the negative aspects of modern life and political turmoil .

Maher believes that a key value of art is its ability to move beyond the materialism and clutter of everyday life. In Selected artists, she finds three themes in the artists of Door County. One is the rise of women artists, who “parallel gains have been made by women artists nationally and internationally”.

The second theme is that art affects both the viewer and the creator, and a third theme is a growing interest in abstract art.

“Today, many artists on the Peninsula are starting to accept the idea that less can be more,” Maher said. “As a result, more and more two-dimensional and three-dimensional abstract objects are being created.”

As she recounts in her books, Door County’s art scene is teeming with foreigners settling in and bringing their own influences, and Door County residents studying across the country and around the world. She said this has been going on since at least the 1920s, when two professors at the Art Institute of Chicago opened a summer art school for disabled veterans.

“One constant over the years is that Door County art is so influenced by the environment: forests, miles of shoreline, the vastness of Lake Michigan, rolling farm fields, the Niagara Escarpment and picturesque villages. “

However, focusing on the natural world does not exclude abstractions or imaginative interpretations, and this has been true for over a century. Maher shows this style of painting, which was often impressionistic, and has a long tradition in Door County.

Imagine the past is available from the Ephraim Historical Foundation and from Novel Bay Books in Sturgeon Bay. Beauty made easy is available at the Miller Art Museum, Novel Bay Books, and the SŌMI Gallery in Sturgeon Bay; and Northern Door at the Peninsula School of Art and Ellison Bay Pottery. All books are also available from the author at [email protected]

Maher will sign and sell Beauty made easy at the Baileys Harbor Winter Farmer’s Market on December 4 and 11, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.


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