ELLISON BAY, Wis. — Nobody said making a "to do" list for a Door County vacation would be easy. Taking in the spectacle of a fish boil is about as obligatory as bringing home a few jars of cherry jam. But the biggest challenge may be deciding which art galleries to visit. With nearly 100 of them dotting the peninsula from one end to the other, the county's a hub for casual browsers, serious collectors and scores of artists too.
"It's kind of a Catch-22," observed potter Thor Thoreson. "There're a lot of artists because there's a good market. And there's a good market because there're a lot of artists."
Thoreson and his wife, Judy, moved to rural Door County from Crystal Lake in suburban Chicago in 1979 and never looked back. The local trees, flowers and animals all influence the vases and other unique pieces of pottery sold at Gills Rock Stoneware, the couple's studio in Ellison Bay.
"This is very fertile ground for the artists. It's a beautiful landscape," he explained. "It's just a natural place to find inspiration."
That's a theme tourists hear time and again as they visit with artists at the plethora of galleries.
"There's a very specific atmosphere and lighting that we use for inspiration," noted Jeremy Popelka of Sturgeon Bay's Popelka Trenchard Glass.
"It's a really great place to be an artist," his wife, Stephanie Trenchard, added as the couple worked on a molten glob of glass just extracted from a 2,000-degree furnace.
The red-hot blob would be shaped, blown and eventually transformed into a one-of-a-kind piece of art. The couple's work reflects that unique light, as well as the abundant bounty of local color, from vibrant blue to shimmering gold.
One of Door County's most prolific artists, Kathy Glasnap, works out of a gallery set in a grove of trees along a scenic road not far from Fish Creek. She's been painting professionally since 1968, but she began even earlier than that.
"I'd been painting all through grade school and high school," she said. "I was the one who got to do the bulletin board and the yearbook."
Glasnap guesses she has created more than 15,000 original watercolors during her career. But she's quick to note that many of the pieces she churned out in the early years sold for less than $10 each.
These days, the Wisconsin native concentrates on Door County scenes, created from photographs she snaps on drives along the peninsula.
Her works, available both as originals and prints, reflect the diverse landscape and the four seasons. Popular pieces include the Cana Island Lighthouse in spring, the beach at Ephraim in summer, Eagle Bluff in fall and Shimmering Sands Creek (it empties into Lake Michigan north of Sturgeon Bay) in winter. Look closely, and in many of the paintings, Glasnap's trademark — a male cardinal she calls Fred — can be spotted.
Always on the lookout for yet-to-be-painted places, Glasnap plans to delight this summer's customers with several new creations.
"My goal this year is to do Wilson's ice-cream parlor in Ephraim and the old filling station up at Ellison Bay," she said. "And there are a few lighthouses from Door County I still have to do. I haven't done Plum Island Lighthouse. I haven't done Pilot Island either."
Often bought as souvenirs of memorable vacations, the art is amazingly varied. Kathleen Mand Beck paints local scenes onto goose eggs, which she then sells in her Dovetail Gallery, appropriately located in Egg Harbor.
Beck's masterpiece is a replica of the Sturgeon Bay Lighthouse. It is crafted from 45 eggs gathered from 15 different types of birds.
"People come and go from artist to artist to artist and potter to potter to potter," Thor Thoreson pointed out. "It's great for everybody. And, it keeps everybody on their toes because it's so competitive."
If you go
Dovetail Gallery (920-868-3987, dovetailgallery.com) is at the north end of Egg Harbor on Wisconsin Highway 42.
Gills Rock Stoneware (920-854-2774, gillsrock.com) is on Highway 42 in Ellison Bay.
Kathy Glasnap Gallery (920-839-2110, glasnapgallery.com) is at 8873 County Highway A east of Fish Creek.
Popelka Trenchard Glass (920-743-7287, popelkaglass.com) is at 64 S. Second Ave. in downtown Sturgeon Bay. During the summer, free glass-blowing demonstrations are held from noon to 2 p.m. Saturdays.