Historic Northern Michigan Artist Gwen Frostic’s Studio Opens to Public
The old Heidelberg presses, twelve of them, are still working to crank out the timeless works of legendary Michigan artist Gwen Frostic, just as they were a half-century ago. Frostic died twenty years ago in 2001, a day before her 95th birthday. But her works and the studio she built near the Betsie River in northern Michigan’s Benzie County live on, thanks in part to the owners and curators of the property, Greg and Kim Forshee. Kim used to work at the studio, and Greg, a machinist by trade, used to build parts to keep the old presses running. Frostic left the property to friends, and the Forshees bought part of it in 2010. Frostic opened her new studio and Presscraft Papers on her 48th birthday in 1964. The Forshees said her studio East of Frankfort, Michigan employed workers in three shifts.
Recently, the studio, retail shop, printing operation, and private residence were given special recognition through the property’s listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
As a toddler, a high fever left Frostic with lifelong symptoms similar to cerebral palsy. She walked with a limp and had week hands. But she overcame those disabilities to become an artist, working with metals at first. During World War II, she worked full-time, six days a week, as a tool and die draftsperson in the Willow Run bomber plant of Ford Motor Company where she became skilled in production. Due to the war, a shortage of metal led Frostic to use linoleum block carvings with Heidelberg printing presses, a skill she developed years before while a student at Western Michigan University. After she died, Frostic donated $13 million to WMU’s Art Department.
“Although she was a physically disabled artist and businesswoman functioning in a man’s world, Gwen Frostic defied the odds and became a much-honored, beloved Michigander. She was an inspiration to both physically challenged persons and the women of Michigan and far beyond, as a noted artist, writer, nature lover, and entrepreneur,” said Debra Ball Johnson, AIA, architect, historic architect, and architectural historian at SHPO. “Designed by her and reflective of her love of nature, the studio represents Gwen Frostic during her productive life and most directly reflects her significance in and contributions to art in Michigan. With the help of this designation, the Gwen Frostic Studio will continue to be a destination – and inspiration – for art lovers, history buffs, and tourists for years to come.”
The studio will open to the public on May 28th. The Forshees think people will be in awe of the building itself which Gwen Frostic designed and built into the landscape as naturally as she could. With large expanses of windows for natural light to allow for views of the bucolic landscape around the building, it includes walls and buttresses of local boulders, sod roofs, a “roundhouse” addition to accommodate increased summertime visitors and sales, and natural materials used on the interior and exterior. The original 40-acre site, which included her beloved Frog Pond, grew to more than 200 acres as Frostic acquired and preserved adjacent fields and wetlands.
The studio building is significant for the art she created while living there with nature; the books she wrote, illustrated, and printed based on her love of Michigan’s natural environment; her unique store which has hosted millions of visitors; the printing operation over which she had total control; and her actions to conserve and promote Michigan’s natural environment.
“We give pennies to the kids to throw in the pond and see the fish and make a wish,” said Kim Forshee. “People love walking around and looking at all of the art and everybody loves watching the presses run. And there’s a chance to shop too and pick up her greeting cards, mugs, and all kinds of different products. It’s going to be nice having it on the historic registry and having more and more people visit and become familiar with Gwen’s art. We're very honored and proud to be on the National Register. We consider ourselves caretakers of the property, and our mission is to continue to spread the word about Gwen Frostic and to share what she accomplished in her time in Northern Michigan. This opportunity is a step in the right direction for teaching current and future generations to stick to their passions, no matter the hurdles. Thank you to the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office for not only nominating but working diligently on this effort to ensure that the legacy of Gwen Frostic lives on nationally.”
Kim Forshee related a story about Frostic. “She was walking back from the Betsie River after spending a day sketching the landscape, and halfway back to the studio, she ran into a man with his little boy. They asked her ‘Hey, did you see anything back that way?’ She replied, ‘Well, did you see anything back that way? They said ‘No, we haven’t seen nothing yet.’ Frostic replied, ‘No, then there’s nothing for you this way, you might as well turn around and go back.’
If you’re one of those “Road Not Taken” types, stop by the next time you’re in Northern Michigan. You can get more information on the website.