Road Trip: Northern Michigan Art Galleries on a Fall Color Tour

Soak up gorgeous fall color views in Charlevoix and Antrim counties and find vibrant fine art around every turn at Northern Michigan art galleries.

Gallery 1: Twisted Fish Gallery and Sculpture Garden

On this Northern Michigan road trip through orchards and rolling hills, you’ll likely spot a moose just off U.S. 31. Your wildlife sighting is actually the anchor piece for Twisted Fish Gallery and Sculpture Garden near Elk Rapids. It’s the first of three stops on our fall color tour of Northern Michigan art galleries. 

Through its 20-year history, Twisted Fish has gained a reputation as the go-to spot for both whimsical yard sculptures and massive canvases that make a perfect living room centerpiece.

Inside the Cottage Annex hangs one such example—a lifelike and nearly life-sized painting of an elk. There’s also a tiny owl carved from driftwood and a table crafted of local stones, ironwork and slabs of wood. Throughout both galleries and garden, the works of 70 (mostly) Michigan artists mingle colorfully and companionably, some of them representational of the orchards, lakes and bucolic landscapes you passed en route. Others are more abstract, but always emotion-invoking.

Lynn Streit, who took over as manager of her parents’ gallery last year after time working in South Africa, didn’t want to be known for just one genre. Instead, she wants to deliver on the sentiment she hears from both artists and visitors. As she offers them tea from the cottage kitchen, a spot at the doodle-time table or the chance to take home a piece to try it out in their space before making a final decision, they say: “I come here, and I feel like I’m home.”

Featured in the October 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.

Gallery 2: Otis Pottery

Next up, Otis Pottery, located two miles south on M66 down Lake Charlevoix’s south arm. There’s a storied history to this studio housed inside a 100-year-old homestead. For 28 years, it’s been the gallery of David and June Otis, who are recently joined by their son, Andrew.

David and June started making pottery 40 years ago in Germany, inside an 800-year-old castle. They quickly gained a Northern Michigan following for David’s one-of-a-kind teapots, June’s hand-built pieces such as her popular framed hearts and the settings for Japanese tea ceremonies or sushi plates—inspired by June’s Japanese heritage. Both the functional cookware and the more sculptural pieces are set apart by brightly colored accent glazes or water-inspired turquoise.

Visitors are welcome to watch the artisans at work firing up their new wood-fired kiln. See David add the ash marks that long ago gave his work a distinctive style. Or watch Andrew throw pots up to six feet tall. He’s one of only a handful of potters in the U.S. doing such large-scale works, something you don’t doubt as you watch him center 75 pounds of clay at a time, using his whole body in the process. These works are thrown in two sections and dried partly by torch so the two halves can be connected before they’re fired. As a last step, he carves in intricate designs, often topping his pieces with a kimono figure that’s carried through many of the gallery’s works.

“It’s almost like working with a canvas,” Andrew says. “There are so many possibilities in texture and design.”

Gallery 3: Jordan Valley Glassworks

Wind south, 10 minutes down M66, to the town of East Jordan on Lake Charlevoix. The outside of your last gallery stop is nondescript, but what you find inside Jordan Valley Glassworks is anything but. Word-of-mouth alone has brought customers, from most Michigan governors to Henry Winkler (a.k.a. The Fonz).

The gallery’s boldly colored glass ornaments have graced many state Christmas trees, and innumerable school groups have filtered through. Intermingled with works for sale are items like historic glass beads. The shop uses them as a visible prop as they share how they were once traded for goods … and how the glass blowers of Murano had such prestige they were allowed to marry royalty—unheard of for a craftsperson.

Today, the shop’s hallmark is color—and the way it’s used to capture the movement of the lakes that surround it.

Working the shop are Shellie, two of her children and design specialist Glenna Haney. All of them craft works from showpiece chandeliers (that collectors have displayed alongside works by Chihuly and other glass legends) to small paperweights. Other standouts are glass vases infused with Michigan wildflowers or ladybugs—created by blowing a big flower or bug to the thickness of a pencil, picking it up with hot glass and melting it in. A new passion is adding colorful glass to old ladders or rustic chandeliers. However, the best seller remains the Governors Puff Pot. This round piece was originally designed for the National Governors Conference to capture Michigan—green forests on top, blue waters on bottom, and beaches and history represented by the infusion of sand and copper.

Take in a bit more of those inspiring blue, green and copper hues—in the form of hilly farms and forests washed in fall color—as you finish up your Northern Michigan art galleries road trip. You’ll connect with the Breezeway, a pastoral drive along County Road 48, to get back to U.S. 31 at Atwood. Soak it all up. The art and the natural beauty of an afternoon well-wandered.

Kim Schneider is a long-time travel writer specializing in Michigan adventures, food and wine. The Midwest Travel Journalist Association has named her Mark Twain Travel Writer of the Year, and she’s the author of “100 Things to Do in Traverse City Before You Die.” // Melisa McKolay is an award-winning photographer specializing in lifestyle portraiture and wedding photojournalism.