Abstract Painter Manierre Dawson Saw the Trees for the Forest and the Forest for the Trees


First, before reading a word, realize that you are running out of time. “Manierre Dawson: Engineering Abstraction” closes Sunday, August 9th, at the Muskegon Museum of Art. The exhibit will travel to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, opening August 29th, 2015, but to wait is foolishness. This exhibit must be engaged while the Michigan summer sun still has intensity. See the show in Muskegon, then see it again in Kalamazoo. Hopefully, the mild, oh so minor, errors of the collateral materials can be blue penciled and corrected by then. It has to be said because the show has a perfection that must be reached. To say this causes me to drown in pettiness.

the hump    dawson_apple

First, the retrospective of Dawson’s work occurs close in time to the exciting news of the painter’s rediscovery by the learned of West Michigan. We had let Dawson slip through the same cracks in our hand that caused us to lose Lewis Lumen Cross, possibly the first painter of quality in Ottawa County. An academic named Sharon Bluhm bought a country retreat among the farmlands near Scottville, and later discovered Dawson had owned the home. And then she wrote Manierre Dawson: Inventions of the Mind, which gave a wake up call to Mason, Oceana, Muskegon, Ottawa and Kent counties. The wake up call found the Muskegon Museum of Art alert. However, it had slept for decades on a donated work from Dawson.

I am not calling the Muskegon Museum of Art on the carpet. The Regional Show now on display, and going dark after the first week of August, rounded up a record number of entries, continuing an upward trend in entries that had lost momentum in 2014. That effort has the power to keep West Michigan artists from languishing on the tree. Let’s have more of that success please. I even bought ten dollars worth of Facebook ads and launched a May 16th fringe festival to increase entries.

Second, the paintings included have been hung to make a happy accident. The most abstract examples line the north wall, the one that could reveal an early summer sunset if windows were cut. Those imaginary windows open north towards Pentwater, Ludington and Scottville. The family swam in Bass Lake to the west of the home, a tragic fact as Dawson’s elder brother drowned in that dark water connected directly to Lake Michigan. And that lake is just north of Pentwater, the closest town to “The Humps”, making me wonder which town Manierre Dawson depended upon for supplies and society. The ease of driving from “The Humps” to Scottville has caused a mental note. Check the roster of the Scottville Clown Band for Manierre’s name.

The Muskegon Museum of Art has encouraged bloggers and electronic journalists, and Janet Tyson answered the call. Her article in Hyperallergic delivered beautiful insights into the exhibition and then paused before a promising path of inquiry and lost focus. She wrote, “farming sapped both his time and money”. Depression did more to sap Dawson’s artistic powers. He stopped writing and limited himself to a single newspaper subscription. Painting on the West Michigan frontier had imposed psychic costs. The nature of those costs have deserved study for decades. In the fifties, Painter and fruit farmer Lumen Cross stood on the top of a staircase in his self-built castle on Deremo Bayou, put a gun to his head, pulled the trigger. Please put in a call to Pine Rest, Grand Rapids Art Museum, ArtPrize and Muskegon Museum of Art. You have an obligation to document the depression that struck two of your most important painters.

I will not begin to discuss how many paintings by Lewis Cross require a basic cleaning. The dirt on those paintings has been rubbed in the face of how many West Michigan painters? The best advice I can give to families of local painters who seek a home for a lifetime’s work, settling an estate: “Don’t take them to the Goodwill right away. Photograph, catalog and keep them together. Kohler in Sheboygan likes to buy the entire oeuvre”. Wisconsin! Why the whole lot of West Michigan painters doesn’t move to Canada for better treatment is beyond me, following the Steamship S.S. Keewatin. Keewatin was hauled out of Kalamazoo Lake and under the watchful sand dunes of Ox-Bow. Hope someone took pictures from that rampart.

Ms. Tyson, I must praise you for beginning to cover West Michigan arts for Hyperallergic, two articles by my count. With all kindness, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, “I crave [you] grace of Summer Boughs”. Go visit Barbara Bull, a farmer and renaissance woman, who has planted the Lavender Labyrinth near Silver Lake, and have a cup of tea, and enjoy a heavenly cherry turnover. Farming might be proved to have given Dawson the strength to go on when the winters seemed darkest. Scores of the trees near “The Humps” had been planted by him as a youth and a middle-aged man. Add to his vita the words, “Landscape Architect” and Arborist. The apple trees I encountered near Seven in the evening on the last day of July have an ineffable beauty. They are old and remind of bonsai. Do they bear the saw marks of the master’s hand? Find the trees that have survived, American treasures. The lines of these trees have found expression in Dawson’s work.

On an ending note, the home of Sharon Bluhm rests in the hollow between the humps, hundreds of yards north of the dirt, public road. It is easy to visit the land, see one of two “humps” and regard her privacy. Ironic that the land that inspired America’s first abstract painter has been pock marked with wind turbines. Let’s prevent the gravel mining that’s taken the slope of a nearby corner from taking “The Humps”.

-Will Juntunen

Muskegon Museum of Art
296 W Webster Ave., Muskegon, MI, 49440
Admission:   Adults $7, Students (with school I.D.) $5
Free for members and children under 17

Hours:   Sun., 12-4:30PM
Fri., Sat., 10AM-4:30PM

Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
“Manierre Dawson: Engineering Abstraction”,  August 29 – December 13
314 S. Park, Kalamazoo 49007
Admission:  Adults $5, Students with ID $2
Free to members, children under 12, active military personnel, and school groups

Hours:   Tues., Wed., Sat., 11AM-5PM
Thurs., Fri., 11AM-8PM
Sun., 12-5PM


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