ON THE ROAD: THE HUMPS - THE SUMMER COTTAGE OF MANIERRE DAWSON
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY PAM VANDERPLOEG, COPYRIGHT 2016
IN AUGUST 2015, JON AND I TOOK TO THE ROAD WITH OUR FRIENDS CHRIS BYRON AND TOM WILSON AND JOHN AND JULIE STIVERS. WE TOURED "THE HUMPS" - THE SUMMER COTTAGE OF MANIERRE DAWSON'S FAMILY NEAR LUDINGTON. This picturesque property is located in the rolling dunes between Pentwater and Ludington. It includes a summer home, an original log cabin and other out-buildings once owned by the family of early abstract painter and sculptor Manierre Dawson. The summer home itself has a graceful half-timbered tudor style with a fieldstone side porch that compliments the gorgeous natural site.
Owner Sharon Bluhm is Professor Emeritus at West Shore Community College. She is also the author of the recent book Manierre Dawson: Inventions of the Mind (1887-1969) that received a State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan in 2013. The book is an account of Dawson's life and art vividly told through photos, images of Dawson's art and his own words from the journal (1908-1940) that his father encouraged him to keep. With her book, Sharon Bluhm has created a bridge between the beautiful "Humps" property and the life of Manierre Dawson who is now considered the first abstract American painter. Along with my photos and brief description of the house, I share here a very brief summary of Bluhm's recounting of Manierre Dawson's life and connection to the "Humps."
Manierre Dawson grew up in a prominent and hard-working Chicago family. When the family bought the property close to Lake Michigan in 1903, they called it the "Humps” because of its hilly terrain. It became the family's lakeshore retreat and summer playground. Manierre's parents were avid supporters of the arts and participated in community music circles. They encouraged their children to pursue traditional professions. From 1905 to 1909, Manierre attended the Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology) and received a degree in civil engineering. Simultaneously he developed an abstract painting style completely new to the Chicago art world at that time.
While working for Holabird and Roche, a prestigious Chicago firm known for the design of early Chicago skyscrapers, Dawson was given a six months leave of absence to study abroad in Europe. In his travels he made the acquaintance of John Singer Sargeant and attended a soiree at Gertrude Stein's home. Stein bought one of Dawson’s paintings for 200 francs. During his travels Manierre was exposed to many of the European painters and especially the paintings of Paul Cezanne. However, the evolution of Dawson's abstract painting into an increasingly geometric style is attributed to his engineering studies including descriptive geometry. In Bluhm's words, Dawson is considered the first American artist to “move deliberately from representational painting that sought to copy nature towards complete abstraction in its own right.”
Bluhm’s book is fascinating. It’s amazing to think that Dawson vies with Wassily Kandinsky for the distinction of earliest abstract artist. The Muskegon Art Museum held an exhibit this past spring of Dawson’s works and once finished that show traveled to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts where we went to see it again.
Before Bluhm knew anything about Dawson, she bought the house and property, including the log cabin constructed in 1858. The first restoration of the old cabin was completed by the Dawson family after they bought the property in 1903. Manierre designed and built the beautiful cabin fireplace shown below. When Bluhm bought the property, the cabin once again needed restoration. She even did the re-chinking the cabin herself - an accomplishment that impressed our group of visitors because it so beautifully done.
The main house is comfortable and cozy, and includes the great bones of the original cottage. Bluhm expanded the house to accommodate her family. She enlarged the kitchen, and added a family room and bath. The living room is painted a bright and cheery yellow. The stone fireplace, flanked by built-in wooden shelves, is a standout feature in the room. The bank of windows and French doors adds charm and offers a glimpse of the outdoor seating and the hillside that shelters the house.
Beyond improving the house and cabin, Sharon enhanced the natural scenery with tiered landscaping, lovely gardens and outdoor patio groupings. The grounds were green and lush--almost like a quiet rain forest in the middle of the Michigan woods. The day we visited the hydrangeas were in full bloom adding a splash of color. Next to the garage, Bluhm had even added a quaint, decorative outhouse designed purposely for her daughter's outdoor wedding. Bluhm's two daughters Kate and Lissa now bring their children here to stay. The day we toured the grandchildren were visiting.
The porch was our next destination after we walked the property. Bluhm's book includes wonderful original photos of the house including the fieldstone porch. We sat comfortably enjoying homemade lemonade and cookies while Bluhm shared more of the story.
For Manierre Dawson the trip to Europe had been an awakening. When he returned Dawson went back to work but continued to paint and pursued getting his work exhibited. He enjoyed some early success. One amazing anecdote is the tale of Dawson in 1914 being invited to participate in an important traveling art show "The Fourteenth Exhibition." To retrieve his painting for the show, Dawson had to take the train to Pentwater because the lake ferries did not run in winter. He hiked across the frozen Pentwater Lake and waded through foot-deep snow to reach the remote cabin where the painting was stored in the dry attic. He carried the painting, wrapped only in newspapers, through the deep snow and just made the return train to deliver his painting on time for the show.
Dawson left the Chicago art scene when he fell in love with a Ludington woman. They married and settled on the property adjacent to the "Humps" and Dawson became a Ludington fruit farmer. According to a lecture we heard Bluhm give in Richland, Michigan, Dawson thought he could be a fruit-farmer by day and continue his painting by night and in the quieter winter months. It turned out to be more difficult than planned. Fruit farming left little time for painting and made it difficult to pursue connections to the larger art world. Although Dawson continued to explore his art with sculpture and painting, he settled into relative obscurity after that. That is until now. Recently his work and life has received much deserved attention in publications and exhibitions.
When she bought property, Bluhm knew nothing about Manierre Dawson. Gradually the neighbors told her stories and she found newspaper clippings at the Mason county Historical Society area. She began to amass a notebook. And finally, one Fourth of July, Manierre’s two grandsons pulled up in front of the house. They had been driving ... trying to the find their beloved ancestors' summer haven and finally just stumbled upon the road that led into the property. Bluhm was home and thus began her friendship with the family. They were delighted that their beloved summer home was in such respectful hands!
Bluhm showed them the research she had accumulated and they shared more of the details of the family history and what they knew of Dawson himself. Bluhm was launched on her journey to chronicle the life and important work of Manierre Dawson. Her book now available to all is Manierre Dawson: Inventions of the Mind 1887 - 1969 published in 2013. The research and publication of this book have led to new interest in Dawson's work, and, although Bluhm is modest about this, must have been influential in the recent exhibition of Dawson's work at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and the Muskegon Museum of Arts exhibits in 2015. The public is becoming newly aware of the importance of Manierre Dawson in the timeline of the history of abstract art. The happy ending for this writer was the opportunity to tour a lovely property and to experience the exhibition of Dawson's work. Dawson's life and art made a great impression. I recommend that readers take a look at Dawson's life and work chronicled in Bluhm's fascinating book. Link here for information on how to order the book on Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/Manierre-Dawson-Inventions-Sharon-Bluhm/dp/1467515876/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1457490771&sr=1-1&keywords=manierre+dawson