Garden art: Ashland, Bayfield area Master Gardeners cultivate green thumb-inspired art exhibit

posted Nov. 13, 2017 10:24 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Heidi Clausen, Regional Editor |

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    Susan Nelson’s quilt was inspired by the life of Bishop Frederic Baraga, an early missionary who traveled throughout the Lake Superior region. The fabrics were chosen to capture some of Baraga’s experiences with the natural world, such as the changing seasons. Also shown is a white ash Adirondack pack basket.

Gardening is, in many ways, an art form. It’s a living sculpture, constantly changing throughout the season as seeds are sown and plants grow and bear fruit. In other ways, it’s a painting come to life, with brushstrokes taken from a palette of many colors.

It only makes sense to combine the two, according to Susan Nelson, interpretive services specialist at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland, which, on Nov. 9, unveiled “Inspired by Nature: Art Through the Eyes of Master Gardeners.” Nelson believes this to be the first exhibit of its kind in Wisconsin to feature art created by local Master Gardeners.

“This is where the artistry meets science,” she said. “This is where they come together and converge, in this art show.”

The Ashland/​Bayfield County Master Gardener Association collaborated on the project, which will remain in place through June 2018. Ten local gardeners contributed works of art for the exhibit, which includes quilts; paintings in acrylic, oil and mixed media; photography; sculpture; weaving; and more. Nelson, a Master Gardener with two quilts in the show, said she was surprised to learn how many of her fellow gardeners also have artistic talent.

“I’ve known these people for years and never knew they were artists, except two,” she said.

She said this exhibit is personal for her because of her connection to it. One of her quilts pays homage to northern Wisconsin’s woodlands, farms and rocky shorelines; the other was inspired by Bishop Frederic Baraga, popularly known as “The Snowshoe Priest,” an early Lake Superior area missionary who traveled hundreds of miles each year on snowshoes during harsh winters.

Baraga began his service in the mid-1800s at the Ottawa Indian Mission in present-day Cross Village, Mich., and served at a Jesuit mission at La Pointe (Madeline Island) in 1835. He founded a mission at L’Anse, Mich., in 1843. Baraga kept a diary preserving accounts of his missionary travels, and his journals were published by the Catholic church. He spoke eight languages fluently and worked to protect the Native Americans from being forced to relocate, publishing a dictionary and grammar of the Ojibwe language. Baraga served until his passing in 1868 and was venerated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

Nelson said she chose her fabrics for the Baraga quilt to try to capture some of Baraga’s experiences with the natural world, such as trees, ferns, flowers, insects and animal tracks, along with the changing seasons. The quilt’s white background represents snow.

The inspiration for the unique art exhibit came from Patra Holter and Jan Wise, professional artists who joined the Master Gardener group last year. Holter has an oil painting entitled “Blue Corn” on display, and Wise submitted a piece showcasing natural dyeing with lichen on wool. Each lichen produces a different color. Collected lichen of one type is placed in a nylon stocking, then into a slow cooker with the wool being dyed. The mixture is brought to a boil,  then allowed to cool. The resulting dyed wool is permanently colored without a mordant and moth-proofed.

Nelson said the exhibit, a true group effort, came together in a little more than a year. The Master Gardener Association has about 25 active members, and almost half are participating. The display goes beyond the form to educate about function, she said. Interpretations are provided for each piece, sharing the artist’s inspiration and horticultural details such as the role of an insect eating an aphid, the origin of galleries on a dead ash tree and how to stop the spread by humans of damaging insects such as emerald ash borers. One artist, a retired doctor who grows perennial native wildflowers and vegetables in alternate rows to encourage pollination, educates people through painting about the importance of pollination.

“People can come here and learn about the natural world and function and a little about gardening with native plants and cultivars,” said Nelson, who adds that many people easily spend two to three hours at the center, taking in all the exhibits and the view from the five-story observation tower.

The NGLVC, established through efforts of the grassroots, nonprofit Friends of the Center organization, combines elements of history, natural resources and visitor information under one roof. The U.S. Forest Service holds title to the facility and 180-acre grounds. Other operating partners are the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wisconsin Historical Society, UW-Extension and the Friends of the Center Alliance Ltd.

The center will celebrate its 20th anniversary in May 2018, and a celebration event is in the works for next September.

If you go

What: “Inspired by Nature: Art Through the Eyes of Master Gardeners” exhibit.

When: Now through June 4.

Where: Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, 29270 County Highway G, Ashland.

Admission: Free. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except on some holidays.

Information: https://​ or 715-685-9983.

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