If a few circumstances in Manierre Dawson’s life had gone differently, today he might be lauded as one of Michigan’s most famous residents and America’s first abstract painter. Instead, he is among history’s most overlooked artists. A handful of crusaders are working to fix that. Will he get his due?
“Except to scholars of art, the name Manierre Dawson is largely unknown and is only recently finding its rightful place in history,” wrote Sharon Bluhm in her 2012 biography, Manierre Dawson: Inventions of the Mind. Bluhm isn’t a historian or author; rather, she is an English professor at West Shore Community College who happened to stumble upon an English Tudor nestled between two hills near Ludington in 1976.
She fell in love with the place and put in an offer on the spot. Not long after she bought it, neighbors started asking her if she knew about the artist who had lived there. She wouldn’t learn until years later that her home (nicknamed the “Humps” by the Dawsons) held a story about an individual whose art was pioneering, yet is virtually unknown.
Manierre (his maternal grandfather’s last name) was born in Chicago in 1887 as the second of four sons of an ambitious, educated couple. His father bought farm property near Ludington a few miles east of Lake Michigan as a summer retreat, which Manierre especially loved to visit. An artistic boy, he painted scenes of the surrounding landscape as well as helped design the family homestead and renovate the 1858 log cabin on the property. He took his first and only art class at 17, solidifying his love of painting. Pressured by his father to learn a professional trade, he studied civil engineering instead of art, though he never stopped painting. He began his career at a Chicago architecture firm, painting feverishly in his spare time.
The year 1910 was a turning point. In early spring, he started painting completely abstract, non-representational work; and in the spring, he left for a six-month tour of Europe to study the art masters. The experience left an indelible imprint, bolstering his confidence to continue his new, experimental style of painting.
In 1913, Dawson was invited to show his work at the New York Armory Show, a modern art exhibition where Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne first exhibited for a wide audience in the United States. He was a perfectionist, and knowing that he had stored his best paintings in the Ludington summer home, he passed on the opportunity. When the show traveled to Chicago, an organizer entered Dawson’s work after borrowing a painting from the family home. Dawson was thrilled not only to see the other artists’ experimental works, but also to discover that his abstract style was part of a bigger movement. Unfortunately, the media scorned the radical art. Invited to submit for another exhibition, he was determined to show one of his best paintings, even if it meant traveling to Ludington in the winter to fetch it from storage. He took a train to Pentwater, since ferries weren’t running, and walked nine miles to the farm and back to grab a painting, arriving at the train station with minutes to spare.
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.”
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.’”
Bluhm’s breakthrough happened 10 years ago when two men walked up her driveway looking for the Humps. 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 independently 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.”
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 West Michigan. firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story is featured in the April 2013 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!
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. Four works: Acrobats, 1954, composite wood, gift of Reginald Yaple; Untitled Abstraction, 1912, oil on wood panel, gift of Peter Lockwood; 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. 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. One painting: Hercules II, 1913, oil on canvas, purchase—Dorothy Scott Gerber Fund and Sam and Janene Cummings.
- Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, 14 S. Park St., Kalamazoo, 269.349.7775. One painting: Mother and Child, 1912, oil on canvas, gift by Mr. and Mrs. Donald S. Gilmore.
- Note: West Shore Community College is exploring the placement of a large scale reproduction of an original Manierre Dawson sculpture on its campus. The sculpture would be the first of its kind and the latest addition to the Mason County Sculpture Trail. The college hopes to announce its plans this summer 2018.
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 Historic White Pine Village to see other preserved buildings of the area, and flip through documents in the Mason County Historical Society’s Research Library where Sharon Bluhm researched Dawson.
- Car ferry trip aboard the S.S. Badger—Travel across Lake Michigan in the S.S. Badger, the last coal-fired steamship in the United States. Celebrating 65 years in 2018, the Badger is reminiscent of car ferries that Manierre Dawson may have taken when visiting Ludington from Chicago during his childhood summers.
Manierre Pieces Photographed
- Manierre Dawson, Untitled (Labyrinth), 1955, Composite Wood, 28 x 48 in. Collection of West Shore Community College, Gift of the Artist, 1969
- 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