Northern Michigan Art: Discovering Pioneer Abstract Painter Manierre

Dawson decided that the only way to pursue art seriously was to find more time—so he quit his job and moved to the Michigan property to become a fruit farmer. Not long after, he met Lillian Boucher, fell in love and married her. Dawson reached a crossroads about whether to stay permanently. In his journal entry on March 28, 1913, he wrote, “Why not stay here on the farm, add a few acres of level land … and earn a living from the soil, with every spare hour devoted, at times to the pleasures of married life, or at times to the pleasures of painting, sketching or carving.” Manierre Dawson  •  Untitled (Labyrinth), 1955  •  Composite Wood, 28 x 48 in. Collection of West Shore Community College, Gift of the Artist, 1969

He envisioned a simple life as a farmer and painter, buying property with a home and fruit farm adjacent to the Humps (which he named Southedge) for him and his wife. Time for artwork slipped away while he juggled running a farm and supporting a family, and he wasn’t able to paint regularly again until 1948, when he paid off his loans. Meanwhile, modern art was finally gaining respect.

Dawson presented his work in a few solo shows in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until he was 79 and living in Florida with his wife that a museum curator took serious notice of his work. The curator was amazed to see Dawson’s abstract paintings from 1910, supposedly before other abstract art existed. Skeptical, he questioned whether they were Dawson’s. Dawson proved they were his, and the curator became a champion. But by then, art history books had been written crediting another American artist—Arthur Dove—as the country’s first abstract artist. Russian artist Wassily Kandinksy is recognized as the first in the world to adopt and stay with the concept of abstraction—emphasizing elements of colors, shapes and lines rather than physical subjects.

Bluhm knew none of this when she moved into her house at the Humps. But once she heard stories, she started digging. She located the history of her property at the county courthouse. A few years later, she discovered a folder about Dawson at the Mason County Historical Society. “I found out he had these journals, and he talked about this place [the Humps]. And that he was in the Armory Show with Picasso and Matisse. I was thinking, Wow—this is really exciting.”

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