By Hugh E. Bishop
When it comes to the world of art on Lake Superior's Minnesota north shore, it seems that wherever you look, you'll find something produced, influenced or offered for sale by one of the "North Shore Four" of the Sivertson family.
The profusion of Lake Superior art produced by Howard Sivertson, his daughters Jan and Liz and his wife, Elaine, has become even more highly prized than the fish that Sivertson ancestors produced from the lake.
But while they take their art seriously, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s inaccurate to describe them as “serious artists.”
Gently poking fun at one another and comically interpreting a photographer’s direction while posing for a group photo, it’s obvious that they enjoy a good laugh and that each is a willing victim of the joking. The irreverent attitude even shows in Howard’s coining of “The North Shore Four” to describe their family phenomenon thus referring tongue-in-cheek to the more lofty and prestigious “Group of Seven,” who so influenced Canadian art.
As these four Minnesota artists were earning their accolades in the world of art, the Sivertson Gallery, opened 20 years ago by Howard and Jan in the basement of his Grand Marais home, grew into an important legacy on its own. The gallery has become an outlet for regional artists whose works are featured there and for patrons seeking authentic regional artwork. While the Sivertson Gallery, Art of the North of Grand Marais and Duluth, Minnesota, celebrates its 20th anniversary in the art community this year, it could also be a celebration of nearly 110 years of Sivertson life on Lake Superior.
In 1892, the original Sivertsons, Severin “Sam” and Theodora, immigrated from Norway to fish at Isle Royale, Michigan, rearing their two sons, Arthur and Stanley, and two daughters, Bertha (Eckel) and Myrtle (Johnson), on the income from commercial fishing.
Stanley and Art followed their father into the fishing trade and established Sivertson Brothers Fishery and the Grand Portage-Isle Royale Transportation Line. Their sisters married Isle Royale fishermen, so it seemed predestined that Howard, Art’s only son, would likewise be inducted into the family business - until he inexplicably displayed a pronounced tendency toward seasickness and proved to be “too dreamy” and unhandy with fishing gear to be a reliable partner in the busy confines of a fishing boat.
When Howard matured enough to start fishing, Art constantly needed to admonish his wayward son. “Quit your dreaming and pay attention,” he’d say as buoy lines heavily laden with rock anchors, hundreds of feet of net or the sharp barbs of long hooklines were sent over the side of the boat, threatening to entangle and drag the day-dreaming boy overboard or to snag him badly enough to cause serious injury.
Instead of his ancestor’s instinct for fishing, Howard somewhere acquired an artistic bent that changed the direction in which his branch of the Sivertson family tree grows. The gene is obviously dominant since son Jeffrey is credited by his dad as sharing Jan and Liz’s artistic inclination. The artistic accomplishments of Howard’s second wife, Elaine, add another facet to reflect beauty from the Sivertson artistic gem. (Her name, too, is Jan but she goes by the nickname to reduce familial and outside confusion since their marriage on March 23, 1985.)
After the gallery opened in 1980, Howard discovered that he was much more enthused to create artworks than to sell them and begged out. Jan took full responsibility for the gallery and nurtured it through those early years. A recognized batik artist, it is Jan’s contribution as manager of Sivertson Galleries that has provided an important artistic lifeline - not just to members of the family but to many regional artists. Without that outlet for their works, many recognized artists might find their artistic efforts less lucrative and patrons would find it considerably harder to shop for authentic northern art.
“From the beginning, our mission has been to exhibit artwork that reflects the character of Lake Superior’s beauty and depth, environment, history and people,” Jan says. “Over our 20-year history, many artists have helped us meet that mission and each of them deserves credit for our success. It’s been exciting to watch interest in local artists grow and to be able to put customers in touch with local works.”
Twenty years of tending to business has meant sacrificing some of her own artistic production, Jan says. “The galleries do take time from my art, but provide other excitement for me. Several years ago, I became interested in original pieces by the native people in the far northern arctic areas of Canada and Alaska. Those pieces have become an important addition to our gallery offerings.”
From the modest start-up in Howard’s basement, Jan moved the business to downtown Grand Marais in 1982. As the business embraced Inuit and Native Alaskan art, the tag “Art of the North” was added to the gallery logo. In 1995, Jan opened a gallery in Duluth’s Canal Park. A second Grand Marais gallery opened last year.
“The galleries are doing well and pretty much take care of themselves on a day-to-day basis, so it’s time for me to get back to doing my art,” Jan says. Closing their Bayfield gallery last year means more energy for her work and for the new gallery in Grand Marais. Jan focuses on the wax and dye work that batiking entails in studios in her home in town and in her cabin at the far end of the Gunflint Trail.