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Blue Coast Artists celebrating 25 years
Posted: Feb 3, 2014

Along the southwest shoreline of Lake Michigan, between South Haven and Saugatuck, US Route 31 meanders through a pastoral scene of small towns and farms.  Each autumn, for the past twenty-five years, tourists from nearby cities and towns take to the highway for the annual Blue Coast Artists’ Fall Tour of Studios.  Founded in 1989 by three local artists, the association is dedicated to the preservation of the culture and heritage of the region, through the enhancement of public appreciation of hand made craft and fine art.   Over the years, the Blue Coast Artists have worked independently and together to create arts and crafts and to provide a forum for education in the arts for the local population.  In the process, they have emerged as a resource for the community in promoting local tourism through a virtual grass-roots effort that stands as a model for integrating the arts into the public economy and culture.

In the late 1980s, three artists happened to schedule weekend open houses at their studios on the same weekend.  As visitors perused the ceramic pots, paintings, and jewelry at the studio shops, the artists overheard chatter about visits to the other studios.  Impressed with the turnouts, the artists realized the value of a cooperative effort in bringing people to their studios.

The next year, the studio tour was born.  Within a few years, the group grew to include more artists and coined the name, Blue Coast Artists.  The tour has remained the primary joint venture of the member studios, and draws over 2,000 visitors to the area over the two-day event each year. 

Potter Dawn Soltysiak, owner of Khnemu Studio, has been a member of the organization for twelve years and is actively involved in the group’s activities.  “One thing I have come to realize as an artist,” she explains, “is that people can’t fully respect and appreciate your work unless they can see what is involved in making it.  They need to see it in the context of a whole lifestyle.”  The Blue Coast Artists’ efforts in bringing people to the area are aimed at reinforcing this concept.  Although the Fall Tour is the pinnacle of the group’s efforts, the summer tourist season is filled with opportunities for urban dwellers to explore the slower pace of a life devoted to craftsmanship in a rural setting.  In recent years, the group has expanded to include a cooperative of local farms and businesses.  Each spring, they publish a brochure for the region that highlights the member artists and the affiliated farms and businesses, detailing studio hours and locations.  The region claims over 85 B&Bs, where the Blue Coast Artists brochures are displayed.  Soltysiak says that local businesses support the group’s efforts and appreciate their involvement in the local Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office.  The recent trend toward interest in organic lifestyles, community supported agriculture, and conservation has opened a window for tourism opportunities.  Blue Coast Artists recently joined forces with the Lakeshore Harvest County Farm Tour, promoting a complete survey of the area’s offerings.  Whether for a day trip or a weekend get-away, the area offers many options for exploration.

Today, Blue Coast Artists functions as a limited licensed corporation.  As the group grew, criteria for membership were established and the jury system was set up.  Geographic boundaries were agreed upon.  Membership in the group varies by year, with applications exceeding available spots.  New members are selected through a juried process.  Annual dues support the costs of advertising, both for the spring brochure and for the fall tour promotion. Members agree to minimum business hours during the summer tourist season.  The artists share a lifestyle in which the annual cycle begins with solitary creative work in the cold months, building inventory.  As the days grow longer after the winter solstice, attention turns to planning for the upcoming tourist season.  Members review applications from potential new artists and begin work on the spring brochure that serves as a driving guide for visitors to the area.  The first weekend in May marks the opening of the season when each member’s studio is open for business.  The artists continue their creative labors, welcoming visitors into their studios to observe. 

During the summer, brochures for the Fall Tour of Studios are distributed locally and through the mail.  Generally held the first weekend of October, the tour marks the culmination of the season’s work for the artists.  Many plan special events for that weekend, such as demonstrations and workshops.  In 2013, Blue Coast artist Jeff Blandford of Volmod Studio showed off his work made from clay discovered in his own backyard.  Potter Mark Williams, one of the original founders of Blue Coast, demonstrated his salt kiln, with a kiln opening scheduled for each day.  Rural hospitality thrives, with many studios serving snacks and local specialties to visitors.  Soltysiak’s Khnemu Studio enhanced tours of its solar-powered kilns, with Raku firing demonstrations, a locally grown pumpkin sale, and samples of farm-grown popcorn.

The upcoming 2014 season at Blue Coast Artists features twelve studio artists, working in a variety of media.  Ceramic artists include Solstysiak, Blanford, and Williams, along with Lee McKee from Lake Effect Pottery, Sandra Schneider from Reverie Design & Craft, and Ellie Dietrich from Aspen Glenn Studio.  Visual artists Suzie Lattner Zwissler and Anker Richert-Korioth paint in pastels and acrylics at their studios, Lattner Studio and The Frontdoor Studio and Gallery, respectively.  The group includes two jewelry artists: silversmith Christine Russell Bruno, of Town Hall Studio, and jewelry maker Michelle Clark, who also builds custom furniture at her Brazilian Shack.  Wood and glass artist Barb Hogarth, of Blue Star Studio, works in glass and wood.  Metal artist Terry Thomas rounds out the group at his studio, Whispering Pines.  Thomas also runs an Arabian Horse Farm, which features several gates that he fabricated.

Blue Coast Artists’ success in providing an informative and pleasant experience for tourists is only part of the group’s influence.  Many of the studios offer classes and workshops for the local community.  Many residents of the county utilize the tour map to discover new treasures in their own backyards that they did not know existed.  The area itself has come to be known as “the Blue Coast,” taking its lead from the artists.  The wider community has transformed, taking on a new character, a character defined by its people’s connection to the arts.  Each of the member studios is a place where the artist incorporates his or her work into a complete lifestyle that is marked by living in harmony with the geography of the region and utilizing the resources of that geography.  The affiliated farms from the Lakeshore Harvest Country agri-tourism tour likewise support this ethos.  The story of the Blue Coast Artists is a story of a small group of artists simply looking to sell their pots, who evolved into a powerful cultural and economic force that stands as evidence of the power of art to transform human lives.

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