CRANBROOK SIGHTING #9
Sighter: Shelley Selim
Sighted: Eliel Saarinen, Helsinki Central Railway Station
Location: Helsinki, Finland
Date: July 4, 2012
There was a two week block of last summer when at any given moment I could be found clapping, beaming, and prancing with merriment; arms open to our joyous earth’s embrace. No, I hadn’t finally completed my master’s degree (that would come later—with commensurate celebrating in its own right), but rather had landed on Nordic soil, where I completed the remainder of my graduate coursework studying Scandinavian design amidst the incredible apples and countrysides of Sweden and Finland.
How befitting that on our American day of independence, I disembarked in Finland, a country that was also shaped by the struggle for its own autonomy (a struggle which persisted for centuries longer than that of the Tories and the Patriots, I might add). That morning I launched my tour-laden itinerary with a walk to the hub of public transit: the Helsinki Central Railway Station. Conceived by Cranbrook mahatma Eliel Saarinen in 1904, it underwent myriad design revisions before reaching its completed form in 1919. While technological modernization has necessitated considerable renovations to the building’s interior over the years, the external structure remains largely in its original, magnificent state.
Please excuse my blatant Hockney expropriation here. Armed with only an iPhone and a cheap point-and-shoot camera, in my travels I’m often forced to “assemblage” my fractured photographs in a sad attempt to capture the visage of any large building situated on a narrow street (read: most of metropolitan Europe).
Like much of Saarinen’s oeuvre, the Helsinki Central Railway Station is widely celebrated as an architectural masterpiece. Personally, it most appeals to me both as a signifier of the growth of the twentieth-century urban landscape as well as Eliel’s own transition toward a more rationalist approach to design. His original elevation aligned closely with the turn-of-the-century National Romantic style he championed in Finland, most notably the National Museum of Finland (1902-1912) and the Finnish Pavilion at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, both efforts of the Gesellius, Lindgren, and Saarinen architectural firm.
But in the early 1910s, at this point fully abreast of the appeals for modern architecture radiating from Germany, Saarinen eschewed the spired tower and carved granite bears of his initial design, replacing them with Olbrich-esque vaults, sweeping vertical lines, and an arresting quad of proto-deco Emil Wikström “Stone Men” sculptures. With arms extended, presenting lantern globes to railway visitors, the brawny figures can be seen as symbols of a newly empowered and independent Finland, or perhaps a nod to the increasing accessibility of once distant lands at the dawn of the 1920s vogue for travel.
The stepped masonry and geometric patterning in the leaded windows would also become Saarinen trademarks, visible on many of the buildings throughout the Cranbrook campus, including the architect’s own home.
Posted by Shelley Selim
2013-14 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
CRANBROOK SIGHTING #8
Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Jun Kaneko, Dango sculptures
Location: Millennium Park, Chicago, IL
Date: May 26, 2013
I spent the recent Memorial Day holiday in the Chicago area, seeing several awesome things for the first time: the Bean, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, and the Art Institute of Chicago among many others. As I traipsed through Millennium Park on my way to the AIC, frankly giddy at the prospect of viewing Grant Wood’s American Gothic, I stopped cold in my tracks, captivated by a series of large-scale ceramic sculptures that looked vaguely like giant ice-cream pops.
Thinking that perhaps these were the work of famed Cranbrook alum Toshiko Takaezu, I hopped the metal barrier to snap a couple of pictures (the open-air exhibition was closed that day for some reason; in the far distance of the image above, you can see the figure of the guard who yelled at me). The surfaces of the ceramic forms undulated with repeating pattern and variegated glazing. They were—in a word—scrumptious.
As I approached the sculpture—and before I was shooed away by the guard—I read on the exhibition placard that the work was not by Takaezu, but rather by another Cranbrook ceramic artist of note: Jun Kaneko, who served as Artist-in-Residence and Head of the Department of Ceramics from 1979 until 1986. Kaneko’s work often uses pattern, repetition, and surface painting to achieve effects that imply conceptual endlessness. The artist calls these outsized sculptural works Dango, meaning “dumpling” or “rounded form” in Japanese. Such an idiom positions Kaneko in a long line of ceramic artists at Cranbrook who pushed the medium to new heights of sculptural achievement, from Maija Grotell to Takaezu and continuing through to current Artist-in-Residence Anders Ruhwald, whose exhibition in Saarinen House is now on view. Kaneko’s alien-yet-familiar forms, echoing both the organic line of the Bean and the repetition of the Chicago architecture, reminded me once again that even far afield, Cranbrook’s always just around the corner.
CRANBROOK SIGHTING #7
Sighter: Leslie S. Edwards
Sighted: MacDonald Building, J. Robert F. Swanson, Architect, and Pipsan Saarinen Swanson Interiors
Location: Harbor Springs, Michigan
Date: April 2, 2013
Taking a cue from Chad’s road trip, I decided to seek out Cranbrook-related architecture during my recent spring break trip “up north” to our family’s summer home in Goodhart. Since my family has summered up north for over 40 years, I already knew that many Cranbrook artists and architects vacationed there as well. In fact, many built their own homes and cottages just down the road from ours. This time I was in search of the MacDonald building in Harbor Springs – a design that I recently discovered was a Swanson and Associates project. The Swansons had a long association with Cranbrook – J. Robert F. (“Bob”) was a classmate of Harry Booth’s at University of Michigan’s School of Architecture, and he acted as interpreter for Swedish-speaking Eliel Saarinen, a visiting professor in 1923. When Harry and Bob returned to Bloomfield Hills, they established an architecture firm called Swanson and Booth, and designed the first Academy of Art building on our campus in 1925. Bob’s wife and business partner, Pipsan, was none other than the daughter of Eliel and Loja Saarinen and sister to Eero Saarinen!
While Bob worked on many projects with the Saarinens, including the Smithsonian Gallery of Art Competition (1939), Center Line Defense Housing (1941-1942) and the first scheme for General Motors Technical Center (1945), he also had private commissions for numerous residential properties, churches, schools, and businesses across the state. In 1941, Harbor Springs summer resident E. F. MacDonald commissioned the Swansons to design and furnish a modern new building at the corner of State and Main streets downtown. Termed the “finest improvement to be made in the city in recent years,” the first floor sported all-glass store fronts while the second floor housed four efficiency apartments.
The entire interior of the building was fitted with modern furnishings carefully chosen by Pipsan, in two color schemes – green and blue. The interior trim was white pine stained to match the birch doors, and birch furniture was chosen – chairs and tables from Artek-Pascoe including Alvar Aalto’s 402 chair, as well as side chairs, desks and dressers from Johnson Furniture Company of Grand Rapids.
So, on a crisp, winter day, my mother, daughter and I set off for Harbor Springs to see this once-modern marvel. Imagine my surprise when we arrived in town and the building hardly resembled the architectural rendering, except for the main entrance doors and the second floor windows. My guess is that the building was TOO modern for historic Main Street; I can imagine the uproar from residents demanding a more historic look to such a prominent building. Being the ever-curious archivist, I could not post this story without finding out when the building was altered to its present state.
CRANBROOK SIGHTING #6
Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, 1940-42; Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church, 1964; Harry Weese’s Cummins Engine Company Tech Center, 1968
Location: Columbus, IN
Date: February 22, 2013
Part one of my road trip from Michigan to Kentucky brought me to the doorstep of Eero Saarinen’s Miller House in Columbus, IN. Here, then, I submit for your consideration part two: the rapid-fire highlights of my whirlwind, self-cobbled tour of Cranbrook in Columbus.
3:02 PM, Friday afternoon: I need to be in Louisville, KY—about 75 miles away—by 5 PM. Short on time but long on curiosity, I decide to hit as many of the Cranbrook-related local gems of modern architecture as possible before I hit I-65 South.
3:04 PM: I wander out of the Columbus Area Visitor’s Center, map in hand, attempting to plot an architecturally significant route while walking. As I ponder which cool building is closest, I look up from my map to be confronted with the answer:
Crisp lines, modern geometry and repetition, minimal ornament: the soaring tower of Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church breaks my nerd-alert map concentration. It’s difficult even now to imagine how such a monumental reduction of form emerges so early in the century: Eliel begins work on this project in 1940 (at the same time as he develops the design for Cranbrook Art Museum, with which the church shares numerous stylistic attributes). Composed of three rectangular wings surrounding a sunken garden, First Christian Church comprises an essay in clarity of thought and unity of overall form. Taking cues from the earlier models of his Finnish countrymen Alvar Aalto and Erik Bryggmann, Eliel—in concert with his son Eero—imbued the rational, linear form with the tactile material warmth of buff stone panels and tan brick. Bonus vintage shot of the church under construction on March 19, 1941, courtesy of Cranbrook Archives:
3:21 PM: With no time to linger, I hop into Celeste, my beloved ’91 Camry, bound for yet another Saarinen church—but this one is Eero’s. As I drive up the winding path, North Christian Church looks as if it could lift off at any moment. In his architectural vocabulary of simplified forms, Eero sought a language that would “clearly and logically express the form and character of the church.” Hexagonal in plan with a 192-foot spire, the building cuts a knifelike silhouette through the high cloudbank of a February storm:
Given the chilly drizzle and the fact that it’s early Friday afternoon, I have the place to myself. I steal a moment of quiet under the curved awning, reveling in Eero’s visionary forms and sensitive materials.
3:30 PM: I try to enter several locked doors of the church. I fail. I curse.
3:36 PM: With only time for one final drive-by, I plot my next move on the way to the I-65. I settle on the quirky, proto-Brutalist Cummins Engine Company Tech Center designed by Cranbrook alum Harry Weese in 1968. I’m always drawn to the concrete construction and repetitive form of American architecture of the late 1960s and 1970s—it’s often so withholding, so dutiful in its drilled-down muscularity. Weese enlivens the façade with idiosyncratic pre-cast concrete sun shades over each of the glass exterior windows. I find a certain awkward charm in this strange detail, so I snap a photo through the fence:
Posted by Chad Alligood
2012-13 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
CRANBROOK SIGHTING #5
Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Eero Saarinen’s Miller House, 1953-57
Location: Columbus, IN
Date: February 22, 2013
I love a good road trip. Chintzy roadside attractions, late-night caffeine stops, full-blast radio singing—I’m quite at home behind the wheel at 65 MPH. Road trips satisfy my compulsion to wander while feeding my admiration of classic American kitsch. My recent talk at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft provided the perfect excuse for a meandering journey from Michigan to Kentucky in my trusty ’91 Toyota Camry. At the behest of our preparator extraordinaire and resident design nerd Mark Baker, I scheduled a stop in Columbus, Indiana on the way down. Why Columbus, you might ask? The answers are so awesome and numerous that they require two blog posts.
The first, and perhaps awesomest, is Eero Saarinen’s Miller House. Eero completed a relatively small number of residential commissions in his lifetime; Miller House certainly counts among the most remarkable of these. Check out these views:
Industrialist J. Irwin Miller, perhaps one of the greatest American architectural patrons of the 20th century, commissioned the home from Saarinen in 1953. Miller’s belief in the power of good architecture to set the public mood inspired him to offer to pay all the architect’s fees for public buildings in Columbus. As a result, the 45,000 residents of this town enjoy world-class facilities built by veritable giants in post-war architecture including I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, and Gunnar Birkerts among many others. But it was Eero whom Miller chose to design his personal residence.
Often considered classically Modernist in its open plan, reduction of ornament, and use of steel and glass, Miller House in fact reminded me of another famous residence back on Cranbrook’s campus in Bloomfield Hills: Eliel Saarinen’s 1930 art deco masterpiece Saarinen House. Compare the dining rooms, for instance:
In its circular format, emphasis on spatial relationship in horizontal and vertical planes, and attention to unification between decorative and structural elements, Eero’s dining room directly recalls that of his father. Of course, Miller House’s overall palette and interior décor—conceived by modern master Alexander Girard—radically differs from the warm tones favored by Eliel and his wife Loja, who designed the textiles for the home.
Stay tuned for part two of my road trip…where did it take me next?
Cranbrook Sightings #4
Sighter: Shoshana Resnikoff
Sighted: Paul Evans furniture
Location: New York City
Date: January 26, 2013
I love Cranbrook’s impressive history of 20th century art and design, but sometimes a girl needs to revisit her roots in the 18th century. It was with that in mind that I went out to New York’s Americana Week at the end of January. For fans of 18th and 19th century American decorative arts, Americana Week is like Woodstock. Auction viewings followed by thrilling sales, museum exhibitions devoted to “brown furniture” or master craftspeople, and of course, the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory, where dealers, collectors, and academics gather to see the historical treasures that have resurfaced in the past few years.
This year was my second time at the Winter Antiques Show and I was looking forward to connecting with old friends, both human and furniture (I’m looking at you, 18th century japanned high chests). I figured I’d be leaving Cranbrook behind for the weekend, but what I stumbled upon instead was a Paul Evans Moment.
A Cranbrook Academy of Art student in 1952, Paul Evans crossed boundaries between modern design and historic craftsmanship when he went to work as a craftsman at the living history museum Old Sturbridge Village. Evans created enormous, heavily-decorated furniture pieces that showcased his metalsmithing skills while blurring the lines between functional and sculptural in industrial design.
In fall of 2013 the James A. Michener Art Museum will be staging a retrospective of Evans’ work, after which Cranbrook will play host to the exhibition. As the museum gets into the swing of exhibition planning for the coming year, Paul Evans is the talk of the office. So while I’d totally expect a Paul Evans encounter at Cranbrook, running into him surrounded by Queen Anne chairs and 18th century samplers was a surprise.
After I got over my initial shock, however, it suddenly made sense to see Paul Evans at the Armory. As we begin to take a longer historical look at the twentieth century, there is something meaningful about contextualizing Evans within the history of American craftspeople. The Winter Antiques Show is all about examining and celebrating the objects made by talented artisans over the course of three centuries, and Evans’ work situates him right smack dab in the middle of that. His tools may have been welding equipment rather than awls and hand saws, but Paul Evans is yet another story in this long tradition of people producing “stuff” that blurs distinctions between beauty and functionality and of creating art that can be used in the most immediate of ways.
CRANBROOK SIGHTING #3
Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Daniel Libeskind’s World Trade Center site, 2003-
Location: New York City
Date: January 3, 2013
Over the recent holiday, I spent a glorious week in New York City, where I had lived for three years before accepting my position at Cranbrook. During my stay, I caught up with good friends and former colleagues, revisited old stomping grounds, and reconnected with important burritos of my past (El Centro in Hell’s Kitchen). Of course, as a museum professional and art historian, I also reveled in the sheer breadth of art experiences available to denizens of Gotham. At Ann Hamilton’s installation at the Park Armory, I swung on a giant swing in the company of pigeons and robed monklike actors. At the divine Ferdinand Hodler show at Neue Galerie, I faced the artist’s unflinching, obsessive portraits of his dying lover and muse. And at the Rosemarie Trockel retrospective at the New Museum, I stood slack-jawed in a white-tiled room with a faux palm tree sprouting from the ceiling while motorized birds chirped and whirred, mocking me from a nearby cage.
Heady stuff. So heady, in fact, that I needed a moment of fresh air, and luckily, the New Museum’s Sky Room on the seventh floor offers stunning views of lower Manhattan from a narrow terrace on the south and east sides of the building:
I snapped this picture, undoubtedly like many of the other art tourists around me, with the intent of manipulating it later in Instagram, hopefully inspiring of deluge of “likes.” But as I reviewed the photograph from the comfort of my friend’s couch, I became curious about the Freedom Tower, the building under construction at the center of the photo. I fired up Wikipedia, and lo and behold: hundreds of miles and a holiday away from Cranbrook’s campus, the institution managed to elbow its way into the very center of my touristy snapshot.
Daniel Libeskind, the famed architect who won the competition to design the master plan to rebuild the World Trade Center site, served as the Artist-in-Residence in the Architecture department at Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1978-1985. (Other architects designed the individual buildings within the plan; David Childs of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill designed the Tower itself, though Libeskind chose its height of 1,776 feet.) Libeskind’s tenure at Cranbrook, which preceded the completion of his first building, might be understood as foundational to the development of his design ideas. While he was here, the architect worked closely with Katherine and Michael McCoy, the Artists-in-Residence in the Design department who pioneered the so-called “semantic” approach to design. Elements of this approach, which relies on metaphorical links as a method to solve design problems, extend throughout the architect’s most famous commissions—including the one at the heart of my photo.
Posted by Chad Alligood
2012-13 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
At the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, we spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves. That sounds self-centered, but it’s the nature of the job – we uncover connections between different areas of Cranbrook, building historical and cultural relationships that help us to better preserve Cranbrook history and shape its future. Cranbrook doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though, which is why it’s important for us to take a step back and look at the larger Cranbrook connections out there in the world. And really, what better place to start than 18th-century Canada?
I know that sounds crazy, but run with me on this. In 1759 the British war hero General Wolfe was killed at the Battle of Quebec City on the Plains of Abraham, a battle which the British won. Posthumously celebrated as one of the great British military leaders, General Wolfe and his heroic death were immortalized in both art and literature. In 1770, the American expat artist Benjamin West tried his hand at the subject, painting The Death of General Wolfe. Ultimately, that painting, and the five later versions also made by West, went on to become the iconic image of General Wolfe and a symbol of the British empire.
But what does this have to do with Cranbrook? Well, in 1928 William L. Clements bought one of the six identified General Wolfes and donated it, along with his extensive library of early Americana, to the University of Michigan in order to build the William L. Clements Library. In the same year, George Booth bought a version of The Death of General Wolfe on the understanding that it was also a Benjamin West. Booth’s General Wolfe is very different from the other versions, however, and there has long been debate over whether the painting is actually a West. Regardless of its origins, however, The Death of General Wolfe has hung in Cranbrook School for over 80 years.
Fast forward to 2012 when the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) borrowed the Clements Library’s The Death of General Wolfe to showcase it in an incredible exhibition called Benjamin West: General Wolfe and the Art of Empire. When the information about this exhibition came across a desk at the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, it was like a light-bulb went off. Two versions of The Death of General Wolfe just 45 miles apart, each purchased in 1928 by avid collectors? Could there be a more perfect Cranbrook connection? And with that the Day Away program was born.
The Day Away program is about exploring Cranbrook connections with the wider world, and so on December 1st a group of Cranbrook enthusiasts spent the day immersing themselves in all things Wolfe and West. We started the day at Cranbrook School’s Page Hall, where CS instructor Jeffrey Welch described the historical context for Booth’s acquisition of General Wolfe and I gave a brief overview of Benjamin West, providing a visual analysis of the features of both paintings.
From there we boarded a bus and drove to Ann Arbor. At UMMA we were met by exhibition curator Carol McNamara, who took us through Benjamin West: General Wolfe and the Art of Empire. Her masterful analysis integrated the painting into a constellation of objects that ranged from a lock of Wolfe’s hair to mundane household goods. By examining the material culture related to General Wolfe, Carol was able to show how West’s painting became the defining image of the general, transforming him into a symbol for the newly formed British imperial identity and enshrining Wolfe within the pantheon of great British leaders.
Following lunch at the Kelsey Museum of Archeology (where a few of us slipped away to catch a glimpse of the incredible Tiffany window installed in the Kelsey’s reading room) we finished our day at Clements Library. Housed in an Albert Kahn-designed building that the architect described as his greatest achievement, the Clements is one of the worlds’ greatest repositories of early American written and printed material. Director Kevin Graffagnino spoke with us about the history of the Clements and its future plans. He set us loose on the library and even let us page through some of their treasures. Not only did the visit further contextualize The Death of General Wolfe into the world of 18th century colonial politics, but it highlighted even greater the Cranbrook connections. Here was a temple to history and learning, dreamt up by a passionate collector and designed by a great architect of the twentieth century. Replace “early Americana” with “art and education” and you have Cranbrook in a nutshell.
With our time at the Clements coming to a close, we boarded the bus and headed back to Bloomfield Hills. On the bus ride back we took an informal vote whether or not we thought Cranbrook’s General Wolfe was really a West. As a group we decided that no, it probably wasn’t. Still, we won’t know for sure until a West expert checks it out. Even if the bus group is right, though, and Cranbrook’s Death of General Wolfe is not by West, we can still look at the painting hanging in Cranbrook’s Page Hall and see not only a history of 18th century British military heroism but also a record of Cranbrook connections that extend beyond the 319 acres of this campus far out into the world.
CRANBROOK SIGHTING #2
Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Tony Rosenthal, T-Square, 1975-76
Location: Detroit, MI
Date: September 24, 2012
Monday morning, 9 a.m. On a typical Monday at this time, I’m settling in to my sweet Knoll-designed desk in our newly-renovated office space at the museum. “Settling in” for me means checking my calendar and email, guzzling Diet Coke, and chowing down on granola bars. But this is no typical Monday: I stepped out of the car with my three museum colleagues into a gritty, industrial corridor on Detroit’s East Side—worlds away from the meticulously manicured lawns and bubbling fountains of Cranbrook’s campus.
This is the setting for Venus Bronze Works, a local firm specializing in the conservation and restoration of outdoor sculpture. Giorgio Gikas, the founder and president of Venus, met us in his massive, hangar-like space to examine and discuss his ongoing conservation of T-Square (1975-1976), a large-scale outdoor steel sculpture by Tony Rosenthal (1914-2009) in the museum’s collection. Works of art that are situated outdoors present their own unique challenges of preservation, and T-Square is no exception: after decades of sitting directly on those aforementioned manicured lawns, the massive sculpture plainly begged for restoration and repair. Years of exposure to rain and snow had caused some elements to rust through, threatening the work’s long-term stability and preservation. Of course, Rosenthal anticipated that his outdoor steel sculptures would develop a layer of rust as they aged. In fact, these installation photographs from the object file show a lovely orange oxidation over the surface of the object in 1978—just two years after its completion!
But by the middle of the 2000s, the deterioration of the steel at the sculpture’s base had begun to compromise its structural viability. In 2004, Gregory Wittkopp, Director of Cranbrook Art Museum, contacted Rosenthal to discuss best practices for conservation and preservation of his outdoor sculpture. The artist recommended a number of steps to conserve the work, including repair of the steel tubes followed by sandblasting, priming, and painting with industrial epoxy coating to preserve the steel. Enter Giorgio, a highly skilled sculptural conservator with over 25 years of experience, and voila—we have the first step in a repaired T-Square.
So far, Giorgio has refabricated interior brackets that had rusted through and reinforced the interior sidewall and other portions of the steel tubing. The next step: sandblasting the weathered surface so that the sealant can adhere. When all is said and done, T-Square can triumphantly return from Giorgio’s workshop—30-odd miles away—back to its home at Cranbrook, where it will rest atop a newly-poured concrete pad to protect it from pooling moisture. One of the potential sites for the sculpture is just outside my window here at the museum…perhaps one Monday morning at 9 a.m. in the not-too-distant future, I can look out my window with a mouth full of granola and smile, knowing that T-Square is in better shape than ever.
Posted by Chad Alligood
2012-13 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
CRANBROOK SIGHTING #1
Sighter: Gregory Wittkopp
Sighted: Zoltan Sepeshy, Hauling in the Nets, 1940
Location: Beaver Island, MI
Date: August 18, 2012
“Dad, have we ever gone on a vacation without visiting a museum?” My daughter, who now is a college Junior, asked me that question some ten or twelve years ago. While I don’t remember where we were when she asked the question, I do remember the answer: “Probably not.”
So here I am on vacation on Beaver Island, a relatively remote island in the middle of northern Lake Michigan, writing my first blog entry for Cranbrook Art Museum. And yes, my daughter and I are in a museum, the island’s Maritime Museum, sitting in front of a large mural by none other than Cranbrook Academy of Art’s second president, Zoltan Sepeshy.
To get an idea of how incongruous this Cranbrook “sighting” really is, you need to get a sense of the context. While quite large (picture an island the size of Manhattan), Beaver Island has a year-round population of less than 500 people, many of whom are descendents of its nineteenth-century Irish fishermen. Now and again you meet someone that has a connection to the island’s most infamous resident, King James Strang. Strang was Brigham Young’s rival who, instead of leading his flock of Mormons to Utah, brought them in 1846 to this Michigan island where his self-proclaimed kingdom could exist—literally on the edge of state law. While this kingdom lasted but a few years (he was shot and killed in 1856, ostensibly by disgruntled followers), his legacy continues to this day in many of the island’s place names, including Lake Geneserath, King’s Highway, and Mt. Pisgah, to list just a few.
Although Sepeshy and his family vacationed on Crystal Lake near Frankfurt, southwest of here on the Michigan mainland, it is doubtful that the Cranbrook painter ever took the ferry from Charlevoix to the island’s only town, St. James. But the mural he painted in 1940 for the Lincoln Park Post Office near Detroit somehow made its way to the island in the summer of 1967 where it remains in the care of the Beaver Island Historical Society. The thirteen-foot long, egg tempura mural, Hauling in the Nets, depicts three brawny fishermen as they struggle to lift a net-load of whitefish into their small open boat. No, it is not a depiction of local fishermen. The imagery, nevertheless, connects with an important chapter of local history, which is why it continues to resonate with the island’s residents generations after commercial fishing ended in Lake Michigan. And to the rest of the museum’s visitors—including my daughter and me—the mural is a compelling work by an American Scene painter who deserves far more attention than he has received. But enough about art and museums, it’s time to walk over to the shed across the street and buy some fresh whitefish to grill tonight.
Posted by Gregory Wittkopp
Director, Cranbrook Art Museum and Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research