Northern Michigan Art: Discovering Pioneer Abstract Painter Manierre

Bluhm’s breakthrough happened 10 years ago, when two men walked up her driveway looking for the Humps (pictured below). They had scattered their mother’s ashes on the adjacent property and wanted to see the home where they spent their boyhood summers. They were Peter and Larry Lockwood—Dawson’s grandsons. “We pulled up and started talking to her,” recalls Peter, “and everything went from there. She brought out information that she had gathered about the Humps and Grandfather Manierre, and we started telling her what we knew. It was an amazing meeting.” A friendship was born, and Bluhm stayed in contact with the grandsons, continuing with Peter after Larry passed away in 2004. Peter invited Bluhm and her daughters to Dawson’s exhibition openings around the country, and she gave Peter an open door to stay at the cabin whenever he visits Michigan—which he still does.

But Bluhm is not the only person working to get Dawson his due. Dr. Randy Ploog, affiliate assistant professor of art history at Penn State University, chose Dawson as his Ph.D. dissertation topic in 1990 after he saw one of his paintings and learned Dawson had been painting abstractly since before the Armory Show—and no one could explain how. “Here’s this artist from Chicago who came up with this completely different approach to painting entirely on his own, and he’s been painting abstract art prior to Kandinsky. His most innovative works are completely original—and he arrived at them independent of anything from Europe or even New York,” Ploog says.

Dawson’s engineering education, architecture career and Chicago’s skyline all influenced his linear, geometric abstract art painted in Chicago, Ploog says. And he sees a noticeable evolution in Dawson’s paintings when he migrated to Michigan to be a farmer—the hard lines transition to softer, more organic shapes reflecting the influence of the trees and limbs in his orchards. Michigan’s influence can even be seen in the color palettes of Dawson’s paintings, many of which are in orangey hues inspired by Lake Michigan sunsets (Afternoon II in the Muskegon Museum of Art is a perfect example). Ploog went on to co-write Manierre Dawson (1887-1969): A Catalogue Raisonné chronicling Dawson’s life’s work, published in 2011. A catalogue raisonné is an exhaustive review typically reserved for famous artists. “He needed this,” Ploog says. “It’s because he wasn’t known that I did this.”

As Ploog was pulling together the catalogue, West Shore Community College decided to add an art gallery, with Manierre Dawson as the first featured artist. Bluhm suggested naming the gallery after him to honor the art pioneer who lived near the college. She took a sabbatical in 2009 to prepare the exhibit, and the idea of a book was born. “It was a story that needed to be written,” she says. Bluhm also had a personal reason for telling Dawson’s story. “I want Michiganders to recognize him as an artist of note. He is a person who lived here, and we should know of him, recognize him, and be proud of him. We should hear his name and think, Yes, he lived in Michigan. Like Ernest Hemingway and Father Marquette.”

There is no simple explanation why Manierre Dawson has remained mostly in obscurity for 100 years. Perhaps it came down to timing. He painted avant-garde, abstract work that was ahead of its time—and when the rest of the world was ready for it, he was not living where they could find him. But if you talk to Dawson’s followers, he wouldn’t have had it any other way. As Bluhm learned through 36 years of researching the artist who lived in her home, “Manierre’s heart was in the hills of Michigan.” His grandson Peter concurs. “He loved Northern Michigan—no doubt about it. He was painting up there from the time he was 16, and I don’t think he would have rather settled any place else.”

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