Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reported Feature: Ox-Box Colony

For the Kalamazoo Gazette 07-25-10 edition
Heaven for artists
Saugatuck’s Ox-Bow celebrates 100 years

With both hands, Isak Applin gently lifts one of the small, chunky wood blocks of type out of its tray. He holds it up to the light to better show it off, as if he’s handling a precious jewel.
The letter blocks, for use in his printmaking studio classes at the Ox-Bow School of Art in Saugatuck this summer, are a new acquisition, says Applin, a Chicago-based painter and printmaker.

His class this afternoon boasts a half-dozen students intent on their work running the letterpress printer or bent over wood slabs into which they’re carving pictures. The course, called “Image and Word,” is for “any artist using text and image at the same time,” he explains.
A short hike along the winding dirt path, downhill and closer to the lagoon, is Jerry Catania, who’s overseeing 10 students learning the art of making glass. One student stands on a cement block and blows through a long, vuvuzela-like tube, to expand the hot glass vessel at the other end. A mirror angled on floor helps her check her progress.
“I’m like a coach,” Catania smiles, as he shouts guidance to a student across the studio. “Get some more heat.”
Catania operates Water Street Glassworks with his wife, Kathy, in Benton Harbor. With his brother — and with financial help from an Ox-Bow student — he built this very studio where he now teaches.
“I used to teach in a tent on the sand on the beach,” he recalls with a moan. This studio’s roof and cement floor — to withstand the heavy and extremely hot materials — are much better, he smiles. Catania also built the ovens used here today for firing the glass.
“Land gently,” he says to another student, as he hurries over to examine her technique.
Catania, Applin and the other instructors, visiting artists and artists-in-residence specializing in ceramics, painting, drawing, metalworking and other disciplines at the Ox-Bow School are building on a cherished tradition that, this year, has been under way out here in the woods, along the river, for 100 years. It’s a belief that art and nature inspire each other, a concept that’s held sway at the school since it was founded by Chicago painters Frederick Fursman and Walter Marshall Clute, artists from the Art Institute of Chicago who came to Saugatuck seeking respite in the dunes and pine trees from the heat and bustle of the big city.
But to really appreciate the Ox-Bow School and the arts community that’s thrived in Saugatuck and Douglas — “The Art Coast of Michigan,” as area’s web site proclaims, touting its two dozen galleries — you need to go back further than Fursman and Clute. You need to go back to Monet, Manet and the early brushstrokes of French Impressionism.
It’s true Fursman and Clute began teaching painting classes on the east bank of the Kalamazoo River in the summer of 1903. But the Art Institute of Chicago a few years before had become the first major museum to purchase Impressionist paintings, the new rage in Europe. Fursman went to France to see for himself, and there the art movement depicting the quality of light on landscapes and coastal scenes, focusing on seeking inspiration in nature, made a large impression on him.
The other key, more local, development was the rerouting of the Kalamazoo River. Charles and Henry Shriver had built a house on the river’s bend in the 1860s, on former Potawatomi land. Later, to cash in on the river traffic, they remade that home into a 20-room inn.
But when the river was straightened in 1907, that busy harbor became a quiet lagoon, and river-travel business plummeted. So the innkeepers began catering to the artists who were in Saugatuck for the scenery, renting rooms for the entire summer season — a welcome relief to some, as Clute had been running a nearby “tent camp,” called Camp Artist’s Dream.
Come 1910, Fursman and Clute established their summertime art school. Four years later, the Riverside Inn (later to be called the Ox-Bow Inn) became its main — and for a while, only — building.
Today that inn still stands, serving as the school’s administration office, as do working studios, a small boat dock and a number of yellow, blue, orange and red cabins for artists-in-residence, deep in the woods along the Kalamazoo River. (So wooded, in fact, first-time visitors might turn away before reaching the school, warned off by street signs along a mud road that read “No exit,” “Dead end” and “Single lane/Downhill traffic has right of way.”)
In 1987 the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — Fursman and Clute’s old employer — assumed responsibility for Ox-Bow’s academic program. Today, a number of Ox-Bow instructors regularly come from the SAIC, Ox-Bow Executive Director Jason Kalajainen says. He estimates one-third of the Saugatuck school’s instructors are returnees, and notes all are working, professional artists and/or instructors.
“What’s needed (in faculty selection) is determined by what’s going on in the art world, in museum and galleries, and what students are interested in,” he says.
That is to ensure education the 500-some students receive in the 40 to 50 different courses offered at various times of the year at Ox-Bow is of the “same caliber as you’d receive at the SAIC,” he says. Several of the current instructors had pieces in the most recent prestigious Whitney Biennial show in New York, which concluded in May, he adds.
As for Ox-Bow’s artists-in-residence overall, “about one-third … need space to get things done. Another third, not to sound trendy, are hot up-and-comers. Another third have interesting backgrounds, and this gives them time to move forward with things ….
“We’re here to make things possible,” explains Kalajainen, who’s been at Ox-Bow since 2005. “Artists have enough roadblocks. We’re trying to remove those roadblocks.”
A major part of that roadblock-removal involves promoting the interaction among students and fellows, artists-in-residence, guest speakers and other faculty. On one recent afternoon, two artists were locked in intense, soft-spoken conversation over a lunch table and cups of coffee — an eager young man, possibly an MFA fellow, and a calm, gray-haired woman, likely a longtime Ox-Bow artist and student — discussing a hurdle he was facing with his current project.
“Happens all the time,” Academic Director Mike Andrews confirms cheerfully. The school’s program and philosophy, the wooded confines of the 115-acre layout itself, encourage that sort of multi-discipline, “generational conservation,” as he calls it.
The Ox-Bow experience allows for “intimate discussions with nationally known artist, at top-notch facilities,” agrees Lynn McIntyre, a Chicago psychotherapist who’s been taking Ox-Bow classes for 11 years. Staying at the school “softens you out and opens you up.”
There’s also the bonfire by the lagoon, jokes Judy Bowman Anthrop, Douglas preservationist and author. (See sidebar, “Get your art on.”) Anthrop has been taking classes at Ox-Bow for 30 years, mostly working in watercolor.
“Somebody’s always up all night there. There’s always a campfire.”
Weekly themed costume parties and a communal dining hall also aid camaraderie.
But what the artists-in-residence, fellows and students really value is the dedication the place inspires.
“I love the seriousness” of how art is treated at Ox-Bow, Anthrop says. “It’s a total immersion. It’s my own time with my art.”
“It’s great to get away from the cement and heat of the city,” contends Christopher Meerdo, echoing the sentiments of founders Fursman and Clute. “The city inspires one kind of art. Being in the woods inspires another.”
Meerdo, an MFA student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who grew up in Hancock, in the Upper Peninsula, is spending his three-week residency using photography to consider “the way landscape affects people.” It’s a work in progress.
Elizabeth Riley, a New York City artist who works with video and installations, spent three weeks at Ox-Bow last year. She recalls the four-by-eight-foot white studio tables on which she built a cityscape using found wood from near the bonfire, and wood discarded by other Ox-Bow artists.
That experience created “space to let things come up,” Riley says. And she truly appreciated the scenery: “Michigan reminded me of the beauty of New England, just on a larger scale.”
Annie Fisher agreed on the benefits of the school’s somewhat-isolated, wooded setting. While there, the New York Parsons School of Design graduate has been building outdoor sculpture with found objects. “In New York City, it’s dumpster-diving” to find usable materials, Fisher confides with a laugh.
Here she can “keep working in a new body of work, and broadening that,” incorporating fresh ideas gleaned at the school from instructors and other artists.
She is among 12 fellows at Ox-Bow this summer, selected from schools across the country, Mike Andrews points out. Day-long coursework, evening lectures and 24-hour access to studios for a week can run students $535 for non-credit, and $1,140 for credit. But fellows such as Fisher pay no tuition and instead receive a stipend for working on campus — in the main office, preparing meals, mowing the wide front lawn.
That leaves them free time to create, contemplate and wander along the river bank and dunes. Maryjo Lemanski, director of Water Street Gallery on Center Street in Douglas and an Ox-Bow auxiliary board member, admits “it’s an amazing piece of land.”
The school, she continues, “has an identity where artists want to come and explore and experience,” nourishing the Saugatuck-Douglas community as “an art destination.
“This,” Lemanski says, “is heaven for artists.”

Get your art on

In honor of the Ox-Bow School of Art’s 100th birthday, you can dip your toe this summer into the artistic waters off Lake Michigan in Saugatuck and Douglas a number ways:

• The Saugatuck-Douglas area boasts almost two dozen galleries, about half of which also function as studios, so you can watch artists at work, too.

• Ox-Bow itself, deep in the woods at 3435 Rupprecht Way, opens its working studios to the public  on some Fridays, starting at 7:30 p.m., through the summer. Check before you go: or call 269-857-5811.

• Art in the Meadow at Ox-Bow consists of four-day workshops throughout the summer in a variety of media for children and adults who just might want to try their hands at a particular discipline. Fees range from $130-170. Yes, the classes are taught by Ox-Bow faculty and artists. Contact the school.

• On July 29, 1-5 p.m., preservationist, longtime Ox-Bow student and author of “A Portrait of Ox-Bow: Architecture-Art-Artists” Judy Bowman Anthrop will give an historical walking tour of the school grounds that will include rustic cabins, studios old and refurbished, and a haunted cottage. Five of the buildings are listed on the State Historical Record.

• The Saugatuck-Douglas Museum features “A Place Called Ox-Bow: 100 Years of Connecting Art, Nature and People,” an historical perspective of the school and the community. “It’s the story of how Ox-Bow evolved into an arts colony,” notes Jim Schmiechem, museum chairman and curator of the show. At 735 Park St., the museum is down the street from Ox-Bow, along the Kalamazoo River’s west shoreline. Run by the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society, the museum is open noon-4 p.m. during the summer, free admission. Tuesday Talks in the Old School House in Douglas., 269-857-7900.

• The Grand Rapids Art Museum, 101 Monroe Center St. N.W., also is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. A joint exhibition with Ox-Bow running through Aug. 22 presents work from more than 30 artists who’ve been connected with the school — “100 Years: Art, Legacy, Vision” and “Ox-Bow: The Second Century.” Also, a lecture series will bring in Ox-Bow artists from across the nation to talk about contemporary-art issues. Plus, an extended loan of Ox-Bow artist Joan Mitchell’s abstract expressionist paintings continues on display at GRAM., 616-831-1000.

Artists at Ox-Bow

Here’s a very brief list of some of the better-known artists who’ve been connected with the Ox-Bow School of Art:

• Claus Oldenburg, sculptor
• LeRoy Neiman, painter
• Shel Silverstein, writer
• James Brandess, painter
• Ellen Lanyon, painter
• Chris Ware, cartoonist/graphic novelists/book designer
• Ed Paschke, painter
• Burt Tillstrom, puppeteer and creator of the “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” TV show
• Ralph Rosenborg, painter
• Nancy Spero, painter, collagist
• Leon Golub, painter
• Joan Mitchell, painter (see sidebar)
• Max Kahn, sculptor, painter
• Karl Wirsum, painter and one of the Chicago Imagists
• Janet Fish, painter, printmaker
• Peter Saul, painter
• Edgar Rupprecht, painter
• Nichole Hollander, comic strip cartoonist
• Bill Olendorf, painter.

Thanks to the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society for helping with this list.

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