Northern Michigan Art: Discovering Pioneer Abstract Painter Manierre

Ploog agrees but believes that Dawson’s decision was deeper than his love for Michigan—his art depended on it. “He was an artist, an engineer and a fruit farmer—and those three things cannot be divorced from each other. The fruit farming, the limbs of his trees, all the time he spent in his orchards is evident in his paintings. The engineering is evident in his paintings. Those three aspects of his life are all part of the same man, and they’re all informing each other.”

In the end, maybe whether Manierre Dawson is a household name in the art world is irrelevant. He is America’s first abstract painter. The fact that he isn’t widely known doesn’t take away his claim. “We’re trying to put an entirely different value system on him, thinking he wasn’t happy because he wasn’t famous or didn’t make lots of money,” says Ploog. “That was really beside the point for him.”

One point is clear—Dawson was happy with his life and his choices. Ploog points out, “If you locked him up, took away his paint brush and said, ‘You can’t do this,’ that would have made him unhappy. As long as he was able to paint, he was happy.”

Peter has a similar perspective about his grandfather. “He enjoyed raising a family and being a fruit farmer. I think he knew he was on the cutting edge of abstract art and was a pioneer, because he saw the other works out there. But he set his life as a fruit farmer—that was one of his great loves. Producing art, painting and sculpture was his other great love.”

Maybe Manierre Dawson is getting the last word, as people are finally learning about him a century after the Armory Show. In fact, more than 100 of his works are on permanent display in art museums around the country, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. He may have understood best how long it would take to be discovered. As he told Rita Johnson when he sold her his Southedge home, “I won’t be famous in my lifetime. I’m not sure how famous I will be in your lifetime, but by the time you have grandchildren, I will be quite famous.” Johnson has 19 grandchildren.  

Kim Skeltis is a communications consultant and freelance writer based in Ludington. [email protected].

Read his Story

  • For Biography Lovers Manierre Dawson: Inventions of the Mind, by Sharon Bluhm, 2012. humpshollow.com
  • For Art History Devotees Manierre Dawson (1887-1969): A Catalogue Raisonné, by Randy Ploog and Myra Bairstow, 2011. manierredawson.com

See his Work

  • West Shore Community College Manierre Dawson Gallery (Arts & Sciences Center), 3000 N. Stiles Rd., Scottville, 231.843.5966, westshore.edu. Two works*: House at Bridge, 1910, oil on wood panel, gift of Peter Lockwood; Untitled (Labyrinth), 1955, composite wood, gift of Manierre Dawson.
  • Muskegon Museum of Art, 296 West Webster Ave., Muskegon, 231.720.2570, muskegonartmuseum.org. One painting: Afternoon II, 1913, oil on canvas, gift of Manierre Dawson.
  • Grand Rapids Art Museum, 101 Monroe Center St. NW, Grand Rapids, 616.831.1000, artmuseumgr.org. One painting: Hercules II, 1913, oil on canvas, purchase—Dorothy Scott Gerber Fund and Sam and Janene Cummings.

Walk his Haunts

  • Scenic drive along Pere Marquette Highway—Drive south on the PM Highway from U.S. 10 in Ludington to soak in the scenery of family orchards and centennial farms along the rolling terrain. Stop at circa-1895 Kistlercrest Farms for maple syrup. 4049 South Pere Marquette Hwy.
  • Picnic at Summit Township Park—Enjoy a Michigan sunset at the park where Dawson, his family and farm workers relaxed after a long day in the orchards. Pick up smoked fish on the way at Bortell’s Fisheries (est. 1898) across the street. 5528 S. Lakeshore Dr.
  • Historic weekend getaway—Stay in a lumber baron home-turned historic bed and breakfast (ludingtonbedandbreakfast.com) in downtown Ludington from Dawson’s era. Visit White Pine Village to see other preserved buildings of the area, and flip through documents in the Mason County Historical Society where Sharon Bluhm researched Dawson (historicwhitepinevillage.org).

Manierre pieces photographed:

Pg. 2

  • Manierre Dawson, Untitled (Labyrinth), 1955, Composite Wood, 28 x 48 in. Collection of West Shore Community College, Gift of the Artist, 1969

Pg. 4

  • Manierre Dawson, Afternoon ll, Oil on Canvas, 1913 Collection of the Muskegon Museum of Art, Michigan, Gift of the Artist, 1969.5
  • Manierre Dawson, House at Bridge, 1910, Oil on Wood Panel, 20 x 25 in. , Collection of West Shore Community College, Gift of Peter Lockwood, 2010.1
This article is also featured in the April 2013 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Get your copy today!

Article Comments