For most of my adult life, I’ve headed to Northern Minnesota for my summer vacation spot as a way to escape the heat and humidity of the Twin Cities. I’ve spent time canoeing and hiking in the Boundary Waters, relaxing in a cabin on the Gunflint Trail, and enjoying the breeze and the quaint artsy North Shore scene.
In the last couple of years, I’ve expanded my horizons somewhat— venturing to other parts of the state— like the Driftless Area in Southeast Minnesota and the prairie out west— in search of vacation spots within driving distance. Last week, I traveled across the eastern border to Wisconsin, and headed up to Door County, at the peninsula between Lake Michigan and Green Bay. I was invited with a group of journalists to experience the art scene in the county for a few days, hosted by Destination Door County and their partners. I had long heard the praises of Door Shakespeare, and my mission was to discover the other arts offerings in the region.
I found that the peninsula is bursting with galleries, theater, music, and more. The community struck me as quite collegial. Theater companies would post about each others’ shows on Instagram, and the gallerists I spoke with gave a sense of collaboration with the community as a whole.
And it’s not far from the Twin Cities. It took me five hours to drive to the city of Egg Harbor, where I stayed at the newly renovated cabins at Alpine Resort. To me, that commute seemed reasonable for a week-long vacation or long weekend getaway.
Door County is the ancestral homeland of Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi and other Native nations, and I was glad I had the chance to see a wonderful exhibition at the Kress Pavilion featuring contemporary Native artists from the area.
The Kress Pavillion in Egg Harbor opened in 2018 and acts as a library, exhibition space, and an additional concert space with huge bay windows that look out onto the water. I was there to see a lunchtime showing of the fabulous Midsummer’s Music, a classical chamber group, and perused the paintings, digital media works, drawings and more on view by Menominee, Oneida, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk and Brothertown artists.
The exhibition was curated by Coleen Bins, owner of Chief OshKosh Native Arts, also in Egg Harbor. Bin’s store is in the spot once operated by Roy Oshkosh, a Menominee leader who operated the business as a trading post and held weekly summer powwows in the mid-20th century. Bins is from the Oneida Nation, and sells contemporary art and traditional craft, including beautiful porcupine quill jewelry she has created. When I popped in the shop, Bins was hurrying out to attend a powwow, but she mentioned to me she has plans to host dancing and cultural events on the grounds of the shop in the future.
Near Chief OshKosh Native Arts is another gallery operated by Minneapolis College of Art and Design alum Angela Lensch. She and her partner, Tony Bessen, were both students of kinetic artist David Riemer. The couple creates giant wind-propelled mobile pieces similar to Riemer, whose work is available at the gallery and on view at Harbor View Park in the main part of town.
I visited galleries in Egg Harbor, Sturgeon Bay, Ephraim, Fish Creek, and more, and was pleasantly surprised to see Minnesota artists represented in the galleries. The stunning copper pieces by Rochester-based Dan and Frances Hedblom caught my eye at Plum Gallery and I enjoyed the Minneapolis-based Kathleen Kvern’s encaustic paintings at the Cappaert Contemporary Gallery.
Even when stepping inside these indoor galleries, you never lose the sense of place. Both the Plum Gallery and Cappaert Contemporary Gallery overlook the bay, which you can see as you peruse the art. Edgewood Orchard Gallery, in Fish Creek, has a winding path that traverses through its whimsical sculpture park, while the gallery’s two buildings are joined by an idyllic walkway from which to view the grounds.
The Hardy Gallery, housed in an old warehouse for exportable goods, has a longstanding tradition of visitors inscribing their names on the exterior— creating a rather beautiful textured pattern. The building itself looks out onto Green Bay, and captures the glorious splendor of the sunset’s colors.
In Sturgeon Bay, I watched glass artist Jeremy Popelka and his team at the Popelka Trenchard Fine Art Gallery demonstrate the Murrini style of glassmaking, resulting in a swirling, mesmerizing vase. Popelka runs the gallery with his wife, fellow glass artist Stephanie Trenchard, who herself makes thick, layered glass pieces that incorporate storytelling. Down the street, Margaret Lockwood runs a gallery featuring her pensive abstract landscapes, with a little theater in the basement for small productions.
The Draw of Door County
There’s something about Door County that attracts artists and entrepreneurs to not only visit, but base their career.
Andy Crain, who runs Crain’s Kitchen in Sister Bay, was a lawyer in Denver for much of his career, and always dreamed of making Door County, where he and his family often visited, his permanent home. Before he opened the restaurant, which serves biscuit sandwiches, inspired salads and soups, he meticulously experimented with his biscuit recipe before being satisfied he had the perfect combination of ingredients.
Ginnie Cappaert, of Cappaert Contemporary Gallery, had fond memories as a child coming up to Door County, and is now living her dream, basing her studio and gallery inside of an 1873 log home.
The draw of Door County for creatives goes back generations. For instance, after brother and sister team Caroline and Richard Fisher founded Peninsula Players in 1935, it became a draw for actors, directors and other theater folks from all over to come and create theater in the woods. Chicago-based filmmaker and artist Madeline Tripp Tourtelot acted at the theater, and founded two art institutions in Door County, including the Ephraim Art School in 1943 and Door Harbor School of Art in 1965, now known as the Peninsula School of Art, which nurtures artists of all ages in Fish Creek.
Nowadays, Door Shakespeare, Peninsula Players, Northern Sky Theater and Third Avenue Playworks attract theater artists from all over. Like the galleries, many of the theaters celebrate the beauty of the outdoors as a major component to the aesthetic.
Door Shakespeare’s stage, for instance, is built around an enormous maple tree. The theater sits inside of Lawrence University’s Björklunden campus on the coast of Lake Michigan, filled with meadows and woods.
Seeing a play at Northern Sky Theater in Door County, Wisconsin, is a special kind of experience. You drive through the woodsy Peninsula State Park to get there and find the outdoor stage surrounded in a canopy of trees. There’s a campfire in the outdoor “lobby” area, and mosquito spray available for guests. I felt like I was at summer camp as I watched a production of “Cheeseheads: The Musical.” During the second act, I felt something brush against my foot. Turns out it was a squirrel. That’s just par for the course at the outdoor theater. Northern Sky also recently added a new indoor space as a second theater to its main outdoor theater in the park, and the grounds outside the new building feature a rugged sense of the outdoors.
Peninsula Players is technically an indoor theater, but it has huge doors that open up into the forested area that surrounds it. They have a lovely picnic area overlooking the bay to enjoy dinner before the show. I saw an intriguing world premiere play at the theater, called “A Rock Sails By,” by Sean Grennan. The play centers around a scientist who confronts her diagnosis of dementia while grappling with an unexplainable comet, a possible alien visitation, and grief over her late husband. The compelling work made me want to see more plays by the theater.
In the end, I wish I could have spent a bit longer on the peninsula. I needed more time to shop in all of the boutiques in Sister Bay, and I’d have liked to visit one of the famed cherry orchards (Though I did have a yummy cherry pie at the iconic Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor and various cherry-flavored brews. At the top of the list was the crisp tasting U-Pick Cherry beer from Bridge Up Brewing Co. at Sonny’s Pizzeria, a lovely spot with a patio overlooking the Historic Sturgeon Bay Bridge.)
Here are a few upcoming festivals and events to consider:
Door County Plein Air Festival
When: July 23-29
Where: Organized by the Peninsula School of Art at various locations throughout Door County
Cost: Free for many events, $170 for Pallette Pass which includes VIP events and benefits.
Death’s Door Dance Festival
When: July 27-30
Where: Various locations in Door County
Cost: Most events are free or request a $10 donation.
Door County Festival of Fine Arts
When: Saturday, August 12 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Waterfront Park in Sister Bay
For more information about Door County, visit Destination Door County.