Discover Michigan: Artists find inspiration in Porcupine Mountains

State park seeks applicants for Artist-in-Residence program

By: Jennifer Sigouin | Online Only | Published March 14, 2017

With a seemingly endless palette of colors throughout its 60,000 acres, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Michigan’s northern Upper Peninsula seems like a natural work of art — which is why artists are annually invited to use the park as their muse.

The park’s Artist-in-Residence program offers artists a rare opportunity to stay in the park, draw inspiration from their surroundings, and then express the park’s sights and sounds through their chosen mediums. The program is currently seeking applicants for residencies in the spring, summer and fall of 2017 and the winter of 2018.

The Artist-in-Residence is required to stay at the park — located 15 miles west of Ontonagon — for a minimum of two weeks, and is provided lodging in a rustic, timber-frame cabin near the Union River. During their time at the park, each artist is expected to share their experience with visitors through demonstrations or talks. Then, at the conclusion of their residency, each artist is asked to donate a finished piece inspired by their stay to the Friends of the Porkies, a nonprofit that supports the park.

According to program coordinator Sherri McCabe, past participants have included painters, sculptors, photographers, mixed-media artists, filmmakers, animators, weavers, musicians, poets and writers — each finding their own way to translate the park’s beauty into art.

“Each artist has had different challenges in the wilderness environment, and perhaps the most significant idea, related by many, is the idea that this marvelous tract of land is a treasure,” said McCabe. “It needs to be visited often, protected by many and enjoyed by all. That has come through loud and clear.”

Photographer Steven Thorpe, of Huntington Woods, participated in the program in 2015 and said it was “one of the more rewarding experiences” in his life.

“The Porcupine Mountains are among Michigan’s jewels, and it felt good to give back after decades of happy backpacking there,” he said.

Thorpe, who owns two small businesses, previously worked as a professional photographer, writer, editor, software developer, web developer and website manager. Now, he takes photos for pleasure, mainly focusing on nature.

His signature piece for the Artist-in-Residence program was a composite of macro shots of fungi.

“My original theme was ‘The Park Over Your Head and Under Your Feet,’ trying to get people to slow down and enjoy the little things, as I unfortunately didn’t for many years,” he said. “There had been a freaky spell of weather just before I arrived, and by the third day, I was saying, ‘What is with these fantastic mushrooms?’ So I shifted gears and concentrated on them.”

Thorpe added that staying in the secluded cabin — named “Dan’s Cabin” in honor of photographer and Friends of the Porkies founding President Dan Urbanski — was, in itself, worth the trip.

Painter and writer Steve Gilzow, of Saline, was similarly inspired by the setting during his time as Artist-in-Residence in 2011.

“The best thing about the stay — in my case, two weeks — was being able to explore the park with Dan’s Cabin as a home base,” he said. “Just being in that space, away from a main trail or road, was inspirational. I spent several days without much conversation with anyone.”

Using a watercolor sketchbook, Gilzow combined painting and writing to create an illustrated journal of his experience. Following his residency, he created two pieces to donate to the Friends of the Porkies. One was a hand-lettered essay in a handmade accordion book, which included several postcard-sized watercolor paintings tucked into pockets inside. The other was a large triptych — a three-panel painting — of the Union River, done in watercolor on Yupo paper.

When artist Matt Assenmacher, of Brighton, served as an Artist-in-Residence in August of 2013, he taught a class on landscape drawing at the park’s Folk School, located in a historical carpenter shop building. He and his wife also spent their two-week visit exploring as much of the park as possible.

“We went on long hikes, we kayaked and explored all of the natural beauty of the park,” he said. “I took lots of pictures during my experience and I created many sketches.” 

After completing his residency, Assenmacher designed a large-format, acrylic painting that depicts his memories from his stay. His painting, as well as other participants’ work, are now part of the park’s permanent collection on display at the Visitor’s Center.

You don’t have to be a visual artist to participate in the program, though. Tim Twiss, of Highland Township, is one of a few musicians to have served as Artist-in-Residence.

“My goal was to recreate music in the style of the mid-19th-century banjo, with northern Michigan as a backdrop as opposed to the South,” he said of his residency. “In particular, I was inspired by — and named my pieces for — the various landmarks in the park.”

Twiss, who stayed at the park for two weeks in late fall of 2008, said he enjoyed the isolation, which gave him the ability to immerse himself in creativity without distractions.

“October, and the darkness and seasonal change, was especially haunting in a way I would never have ventured into on my own,” he noted.

Over the course of his residency, Twiss was able to complete nine new musical pieces, which he transcribed and later recorded. He also documented his experience through video, which is available on YouTube.

Artists who would like to be considered for upcoming seasons can find an application online at www.porkies.org/artist-in-residence. Applications must be received by March 31, and accepted artists will be notified on or before April 21.

According to McCabe, a selection committee will look at all applications, and selection will be based on several factors, including artistic integrity, reasons for wanting to do the residency, quality of work samples, plans for public presentations, and the ability to live in a wilderness environment.

To view works from past Artists-in-Residence, visit the photo gallery at www.porkies.org/artist-in-residence. For more information on Michigan’s state parks, visit www.michigan.gov/parks.


Our Discover Michigan series explores Michigan’s most road trip-worthy destinations and events. Where’s your favorite place to travel in the mitten? Leave us a comment or email jsigouin@candgnews.com. We may use your suggestion in an upcoming feature.