The artistic strokes of women and the literary prowess of authors have intricately woven a tapestry of diverse narratives throughout the history of Northern Michigan. Whether native to the region or drawn here by its allure, their resilience and creativity are deeply rooted in Northern Michigan’s essence. This introduction invites us to delve into the stories of these remarkable women artists and authors, whose creativity has left an enduring imprint on the region’s cultural legacy.

Gwen Frostic

Gwen Frost Gwen Frostic (April 26, 1906 – April 25, 2001), originally Sara Gwendolen Frostic, was a distinguished American artist, entrepreneur, author, and inductee into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. A lifelong Michigan resident, Frostic gained recognition for her naturalist Linocut block print artwork, crafted using Original Heidelberg Platten presses.

Born on April 26, 1906, in Sandusky, Michigan, to Sara and Fred W. Frostic, she was one of seven children. Despite facing physical challenges due to an early illness, Frostic exhibited an early passion and talent for art. Her family’s moves across Michigan, including stops in Croswell, St. Charles, Ann Arbor, and Wyandotte, marked her upbringing.

Gwen graduated Theodore Roosevelt High School in Wyandotte in 1924. There she demonstrated her artistic skills with event posters, Frostic pursued art education at Eastern Michigan University. Later, in 1926, she transferred to Western Michigan University, where she carved her first linoleum block artwork in an art class. Although she left WMU in 1927 without completing her degree, the university’s School of Art now bears her name, thanks to her significant donations.

Setting up a metals studio at home, Frostic initiated Metalcraft, producing commissioned works like copper vases for Clara Bryant Ford. She explored teaching, working as a summer camp counselor, and offering metals courses in Detroit. World War II prompted her shift to Linocut printmaking due to material shortages, leading to the creation of Presscraft Papers.

Heading North

After the war, Frostic established her printing company in Wyandotte, specializing in stationery goods and prints. In the 1950s, she expanded her operations to Frankfort, where she eventually settled permanently. In 1960, she acquired 40 acres in Benzonia, building a unique print shop and dwelling. Over time, she transformed the property into a 285-acre wildlife sanctuary.

Frostic’s business thrived, and she gained recognition as a successful entrepreneur. Her prints, books, and other items showcased her love for nature. Despite living a modest life, she left a substantial $13 million bequest to Western Michigan University, her alma mater, upon her death in 2001.

Presscraft Papers continues to operate in Frostic’s original building. In 2018, a picture book biography titled “Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story” was published, receiving accolades. Frostic received honorary doctorates, and May 23 was declared Gwen Frostic Day in Michigan in 1978. In 1986, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, and the Gwen Frostic Award recognizes literary contributions. In 1998, Frederik Meijer Gardens honored her with the Gwen Frostic Woodland Shade Garden.

Her legacy persists through the Gwen Frostic School of Art at Western Michigan University, named in her honor, and her hillside studio and residence’s inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in 2021.

Mary Chase Perry Stratton

Mary Chase StrattonMary Chase Perry Stratton (March 15, 1867 – April 15, 1961) was a prominent American ceramic artist and co-founder of Pewabic Pottery, specializing in architectural tiles. She was born in Hancock in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Mary later relocated to Ann Arbor with her family, and subsequently to the Detroit area during her early teens. Initial art studies commenced at the Art School of the Detroit Museum of Art, followed by two years at the Art Academy of Cincinnati (1887-1889), studying under sculptor Louis Rebisso.

Returning to Detroit, she, along with Horace James Caulkins, established Pewabic Pottery in 1903, named after an Upper Peninsula copper mine. The enterprise moved to a new building on Jefferson Avenue in 1907, designed by Detroit architect William Stratton, whom Mary married in 1918. Until her passing on April 15, 1961, Stratton played a pivotal role in Pewabic Pottery’s success.

Under her guidance, Pewabic Pottery gained renown for its iridescent glazes, producing architectural tiles, lamps, and vessels. Notable projects include the Hotel Pennsylvania’s roof garden tiles, commissioned by New York architects McKim, Meade & White. Her creations adorn significant Detroit landmarks like the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, the crypt church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Fisher Building, and Eliel Saarinen’s Kingswood School for Girls.

National Historic Landmark

Pewabic Pottery, designated a National Historic Landmark, remains Michigan’s sole historic pottery. Stratton established the ceramics department at the University of Michigan and also taught at Wayne State University. Recognized for her contributions, she received the Charles Fergus Binns Medal in 1947, the highest honor in the American ceramic field.

Stratton’s art was exhibited at the Detroit Art Club in 1995, and she was a charter member of the Detroit Society of Women Painters and Sculptors. Today, Pewabic Pottery continues her legacy by offering classes, workshops, lectures, and internships for potters of all ages.

Nita Engle

Nita EngleNita Engle (September 30, 1925 – August 29, 2019) was a distinguished American watercolorist, renowned for her innovative techniques and contributions to the art world. Born as Nita Joy Engle in Negaunee, she began her artistic journey by studying at Northern Michigan University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Engle, a trailblazer in a male-dominated field during the 1940s, initially signed her work as “N. Engle” to avoid gender bias.

Her career included roles as an art director at a Chicago advertising agency and positions with prestigious publications like “Reader’s Digest” and “Playboy.” Despite challenges, she garnered recognition for her outstanding contributions, becoming a member and frequent exhibitor of the American Watercolor Society from 1969 onwards.

Engle’s exhibitions, including noteworthy displays in New York City. Her work was showcased alongside renowned artists like Norman Rockwell and Winslow Homer. The “International Waters” exhibition featured her works alongside other American and British artists. In 1981, Mill Pond Press began producing prints of her art.

Return home to the Upper Peninsula

After returning to Marquette, Engle established a studio overlooking Lake Superior, where she drew inspiration from nature and conducted workshops across the United States, Asia, Africa, and Tahiti. Her unique approach involved “throwing, squirting, pouring, and spraying” paint onto paper to create vibrant and expressive paintings.

The PBS documentary “Wilderness Palette – Nita Engle in Michigan” (1985) captured her artistic process. It emphasized her dedication to bringing viewers into the natural landscape through her paintings. Engle’s impact extended globally, with one of her works, “Grouse Country,” being part of the Art of the Embassies Program of the United States Department of State.

Engle’s legacy was celebrated in a retrospective at the DeVos Art Museum in Marquette in 2010. Throughout her career, she received several accolades, including an honorary doctorate from Northern Michigan University, highlighting her significant contributions to the world of watercolor art.

Aileen Fisher

"</aAileen Lucia Fisher (September 9, 1906 – December 2, 2002) was a prolific American writer known for over a hundred children’s books spanning various genres, including poetry, nature prose, biographies, and plays. Born in Iron River, Michigan, but later she relocated to Colorado, where she spent most of her life.

Fisher’s diverse literary contributions garnered recognition earning her awards. She earned the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children in 1978. She described poetry as a means to enrich life with wonder, beauty, and delight, emphasizing her primary love for children’s verse.

Starting her career with a poem titled “Otherwise,” published in 1927, Fisher continued to excel in the realm of children’s literature. She co-founded a ranch in Sunshine Canyon, Colorado, with fellow writer Olive Rabe. There they lived off-the-grid for three decades.

Aileen Fisher’s legacy extends beyond poetry to include plays, biographies, and rhyming non-fiction books, often centered on natural history. Her works received acclaim for illuminating the wonders of the natural world. She earned awards such as the Western Writers of America Spur Award for juvenile non-fiction.

Collaborations

Throughout her prolific career, Fisher collaborated with esteemed artists. Many of her creations, including “Feathered Ones and Furry,” illustrated by Eric Carle, became cherished classics. Her impact on children’s literature endures through anthologies and re-releases. Posthumous collections like “I Heard a Bluebird Sing,” reflect her timeless contribution to American literature.

Aileen Fisher’s profound understanding of human nature and her ability to capture historical and emotional nuances made her a respected figure in the literary landscape. Although not every work received universal acclaim, her enduring influence earned her a place among the luminaries of children’s poetry. Fisher’s papers are preserved in libraries at Southern Mississippi University and Stanford University. She passed away at her home in Boulder, Colorado, at the age of 96.

Incredible Contributions

The impact of Northern Michigan’s women artists and authors is clear. Their creativity has decorated the region’s past and continues to shine brightly today. Whether through paintings, textiles, writings, or poetry, these women have left a lasting legacy. By recognizing and celebrating their contributions, we honor their role in shaping the region’s culture. We ensure their artistic legacy lives on for future generations.

Come back for more history of Northern Michigan Women. In our fifth article we highlight 3 women who defied societal norms and soared to new heights. They took to the skies and inspiring generations with their courage and determination..

Read more about Northern Michigan Women in History. As we publish articles this month we will add links to published articles.


Image Attributions:
Featured Image: Note cards – By Cedar777 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82439337
Mary Chase Stratton Picture- By not known – This image was downloaded from http://www.aaa.si.edu/search/index.cfm/fuseaction/Items.ViewImageDetails/ItemID/6288?search_string=Stratton#Stratton1, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21510116
Aileen Fisher Picture – By unknown – Original publication: unknownImmediate source: http://boulderoralhistory.wordpress.com/tag/aileen-fisher/, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35565426