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.
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.
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.