Larry Thoreson at Gills Rock Pottery. Photo by Brett Kosmider
Creativity flourishes at the tip of the thumb
Door County visitors who continue their journey past Sister Bay are sometimes surprised by what they find near the tip of Door County. And it’s often the Ellison Bay Art Crawl, held in the spring and fall, 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 except his vision of a studio and where his home would be.
“I spent the first winter insulating and reconnecting and skiing,” he said. “Skiing kept me on track. I would shower on the Peterson pickup trail. I had an outhouse which was fully functional; in the winter, i’ll cut a piece of styrofoam to sit on. I heated it with wood. In 1982, I had a real kitchen, real bedrooms and finished the gallery. The new windows came much, much later, but the space was just wonderful.”
Like the late writer Norb Blei, who wrote from a chicken coop in the woods between Ellison Bay and Gills Rock, artists like Dietrich were drawn to the slower pace—and less expensive property—to be had north of Sister Bay.
“We like to think of it as the pinnacle of Door County,” said Judy Thoreson, who owns Gills Rock Pottery with her husband, Larry Thoreson. The gallery was originally located at Gills Rock – hence the name – before moving to the heart of Ellison Bay. “It’s a great community we have here. It’s hard for me to think of anywhere else I’d rather live, except maybe in the winter.”
Other artists followed. It’s not crowded, but it’s certainly busier than it used to be. 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 there is on the freeway — more than it used to be,” Thoreson said.
Up Ellison Bay Hill, south of town, is Clay Bay Pottery, where David and Jeanne Aurelius have been creating 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 put together a down payment for two houses that needed a lot of work. – said Jeanne Door County Living in 2020, the couple bought the property because “we really thought it would be a good place.”
They had an old furnace, no insulation and no luxury, but that didn’t bother them. They had a home and a studio, and set out to create, 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 kind of visitor.
“We had a gallery in Egg Harbor for five years, and I have to say that the people who come here are a different clientele than people who just come in after an ice cream cone,” said Mary Ellen Sisulak, owner of Turtle Ridge. Gallery. “We are a destination. You have to want to come here.”
Turtle Ridge is off anyone’s beaten path. Nestled in the pines along Mink River Road, the small gallery displays a range of works from original – and reasonably priced – leather bags to paintings and mixed media in ink, leather and stone that can run up to 12,000 dollars.
With a degree in painting from UW-Milwaukee, Sisulak moved to Ellison Bay in 1974 and began creating fine art, along with some graphic design for area businesses. Early on, she did well with leather bags – something she started designing and making in college.
A local arts group, Ellison Bay Arts, began about a decade ago to bring together local artists and raise money to buy advertising.
“We started with ceramics because there were so many of us,” Thoreson said. “Then we realized there were painters living here, and some foodies like Kick Ash Coffee, which makes their own coffee and granola.”
The group also includes retired painter and art teacher Rob Williams, although he lives in Gills Rock. Williams is building 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 taught at the Peninsula School of Art and shown at the Hardy Gallery in Ephraim.
Door County Galleries develop a following for both the galleries themselves and their artists, whether they represent one or many more.
“There’s a social thing about the gallery,” Williams said. “I had never thought of the idea of having a gallery as a social connection with many people. But a lot of people, if they buy a painting one year, will come back and say hello.”
At Gills Rock Pottery, Thoreson spends a lot of time in the gallery talking to visitors.
“We don’t just look at people who come in as customers,” she said. “A lot of them keep coming over a period of time — seasons, years. We have families that come back, grandparents and their children, and then their children.”
The community’s relative isolation—though it’s only a few easy highway miles from Sister Bay—creates a bit of natural selection, attracting people looking beyond convenient entertainment for quieter nature and new artistic discoveries. Contributing to that thoughtful, even earnest atmosphere is The Clearing, which hosts week-long arts and crafts workshops.
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 drawn to both the classrooms 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 to the north continues to draw artists—and art lovers—to the quiet shores of the roads near the tip of the peninsula.