February 23, 2024

Larger Than Life

Art giants of northern Michigan
By Joseph Beyer | July 30, 2022

Maybe it’s our human ego or maybe it’s just the supersizing of our culture, but big art is in. Innovations in materials and technology now make it possible to imagine and create almost anything, no matter the size.

International visionaries like Christo and Jeanne-Claude have wrapped buildings, parks, and islands with fabric and transformed them into experiences, while early land art pioneers like Robert Smithson built spiral jetties that could be seen from the skies. Even one of the largest pop artists in the world, Ai Weiwei, has a grandé piece in Michigan: Iron Tree at the Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park outside Grand Rapids.

Big art is often also about big ideas. And even here in northern Michigan, you might be surprised to learn how lucky we are to live in a region of huge possibilities and large-format thinkers. Here are just a few of the giant-sized spots to explore around the North.


Michigan Legacy Art Park, Thompsonville MI
michlegacyartpark.org | Suggested donation $5 Adults, children free

So large and life-sized is Fallen Comrade (artist David Greenwood’s sculptural homage to the Tuskegee Airmen), that pilots who’ve seen it from the sky have sometimes phoned-in reports of a downed plane in the middle of Crystal Mountain’s resort where the 30-acre outdoor Art Park has been located ever since it opened in 1995.

Many locals—along with artist David Barr—created the park, which has grown to over 50 works and seasonal exhibits and contains many intimate or human-scaled works but also some real wow-moments with monumental sculptures. Marilyn Wheaton, one of the park’s founding board members, says going big was never the goal in and of itself. “The mission of the park has always been to create a perfect environment for artists to share ideas. David Barr was much more interested in conveying stories, so he made artworks proportional to the sites where they would live,” she remembers. “All art parks outdoors attract large works because against an open field or a wood, you do want to be drawn to them,” she adds.

One of those perfect combinations of size and place is Gary Kulak’s sculpture Barn Chair, an oversized replica exploration of the craft of woodworking and furniture here in Michigan. The art beckons you to sit there as you pause to contemplate the vast view of the Betsie River in the valley below. Your perfect pic will be #NoFilter.

Topping the list as the largest artwork we could find in the region, sculptor Michael McGillis’ homage to both the nautical and botanical history of Michigan is called Five Needles and towers above the forest floor in sharpened spires almost 40 feet tall holding massive, sail-like canvas panels. It’s a stunning and haunting piece, made more so by just how hard it was to install and create, requiring the cooperation of a very delicate crane and months of prep work.

Walk of Art presented by Art Rapids, Elk Rapids MI
artrapids.net | Free

“When you put art outside, it takes on a new perspective, but it also breaks barriers because it’s not intimidating. The outdoors is a canvas you can’t get in a gallery.” President Becky Lancaster sounds excited when we speak because eight new works have recently been installed into this summer’s 2022 collection at the Walk of Art in Elk Rapids.

What should you see on your visit? Artist Tom Moran’s huge orb and spear shaped sculpture Spire and Orb was created in collaboration with 20 students working together with the Industrial Arts Institute. Moran is a Michigan legend when it comes to creating huge oversized pieces, including the world’s largest chainsaw replica in the Upper Peninsula and other welded wonders across the state. Moran has so many pieces, he even maintains his own “art park” of sorts in Onaway.

Moran isn’t the only big deal in the park’s collection along the gorgeous grounds that lead to the sandy beach of the East Bay. Don’t miss outsider artist Dewey Blocksma’s playful Grand Traverse Portage, which stretches almost 15 feet wide and over 8 feet tall, or the “you can’t miss it” photo-op at Singing Pail of Dreams by artist John Gos. (The kids will love this jumbo version of a sand pail and shovels.)


Twisted Fish Gallery, Elk Rapids MI

Nearby Elk Rapids-based Twisted Fish Gallery has long been known for showcasing large paintings and sculptures. As art collectors, when Bob and Charlotte Streit started the gallery, they were not only unafraid of large, bold sculptures—they intentionally sought them out. Now, daughter Lynn is the gallery director, and she continues their reputation for curating big pieces.

So who buys these massive works? “Back in 2020, we were making deliveries of sculptures left and right. Because of the pandemic, everyone wanted new work, and they were focused on their homes where they were spending so much time,” Streit recalls.

Often, Streit watches clients purchase smaller pieces only to return to the gallery for something larger. “They realize that their wall space can command something bigger and bolder, and people want that right now.” Streit says Twisted Fish advised their artists to go bigger, and there continues to be a robust market for these works.

Higher Art Gallery, Traverse City MI

Local artist and artist-evangelist Shanny Brooke (who founded Higher Art Gallery in 2016), has also noticed a desire for large works, especially in the outdoor sculpture department. “During COVID, I equated [the trend] with people spending much more time outside, getting to those yard projects, and beautifying things. Even now, when people entertain, they prefer to do so outdoors instead of in their living rooms. So making the outside cozy, and including their own personal touches, seems to be what is happening,” she says.

Brooke carries many large works in her collection for clients. She says, “It takes a certain level of confidence to purchase something large. It sets the mood for the space and is a big reflection of our own personality and taste. As an artist myself, I love to paint large scale, and it’s always a great feeling when someone decides to purchase something of mine like that.”

When asked about large art she likes in the area, Brooke mentioned a new painting from local Rufus Snoddy hanging in the lobby of the renovated Delamar Traverse City, which rotates new and available works throughout their spaces, curated by interior designer and gallerist Diane Birdsall.


Dennos Museum Center, Traverse City MI
dennosmuseum.org | Admission $6 for adults

Executive Director Craig Hadley highlights two works of tremendous scale when asked about the largest pieces in the museum, which is located on the grounds of Northwestern Michigan College. One is the towering 18-by-13-foot geometry of Clement Meadmore’s aluminum sculpture, However. An exploration of musical emotion in a bold black matte finish, the piece can be seen on the front lawn of the museum along with 12 other monumental sculptures outdoors. Another notably large piece, The Family by Gheorghe Iliescu Calinesti, stands at over 10 feet tall and is made of solid wood.

On the visual art side, Hadley thinks Untitled, a triptych by artist Louis de Niverville of three acrylic on masonite panels, may be the largest painting in the museum’s collection, spanning 16 feet by 9 feet when hung.

Taking care of giant works is a proportional challenge, Hadley shares. “Preventative care and conservation are the biggest challenges when it comes to large-scale works. The outdoor sculptures obviously suffer year-round from being exposed to the elements, and professional services typically need to come to us, rather than shipping artworks away to be restored, which is what we would typically do.”

Traverse City Arts Commission

Among the many gifts of public art in Traverse City are two large standouts, both for their size and creativity. Artist Bobby Magee Lopez’ expansive and colorful mural in the Clinch Park Tunnel titled Mazinaadin Exhibition “Make an Image” is a stunner with its telescopic framing and imaginative hand-painted digital montage. It was installed in 2019 in a partnership with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

Another notable spot (dedicated as a memorial artwork to honor Bryan Crough, a longtime civic servant to the downtown area), is the imaginative and playful sculpture Enspire by artist Dewitt Godfrey, an American sculptor raised in Kalamazoo. More than 100 bands of steel form together in oval-shapes to create a translucent and large honeycomb artwork you can walk around and into, changing the perspectives from each angle.


“J’OLean” at Olean’s Dispensary, Northport MI
Daniel Caudill never thought one day he’d own and care for a 19-foot woman modeled after Jackie Kennedy—weighing between 300 and 400 pounds of fiberglass curves and attracting visitors from all over the country—but that’s just part of the unlikely story of J’Olean.

An unknown artist forged her, one of only six “Uniroyal Gals” created as undisputable brand beacons dotted across the American landscape of roadside attractions.

Discarded and forgotten, J’Olean was found in a field in Kentucky and aroused the curiosity of a family from Cleveland, who purchased her for $150 on the spot. When she arrived in Ohio, there was much work to be done, and the restoration included recreating one of her missing hands. Once she was complete, she entertained backyard guests for years. As time passed, she needed a good home, and Michigan friends Michael “Chet” Chetcuti and Kyle Evans of Northport fell under the spell.

Five years later, Caudill stepped in with a wild idea: Why couldn’t J’Olean welcome people again, this time as the spokeswoman for his new cannabis dispensary? “Northport is such a small, eccentric but welcoming place, and there’s been nothing but praise and love,” he says.

The Dairy Lodge, Traverse City MI
Almost as complex is the story of one of the city’s most iconic women, The Dairy Lodge Girl on Division Street. When Al and Shirley Hepler opened the ice cream shop in 1958, legend has it that Al wanted to celebrate his wife by memorializing her on the sign, which famously showed a blonde woman in a fur-collared coat riding an ice cream cone. What is known for certain is that Al commissioned an actual artist to paint the first version. That man was Mel Timmerman.

As years spanned to decades, there were two other owners after Al and Shirley’s era, and at some point during that time, an unknown person repainted the sign, changing some of the original colors (like the woman’s hair to brunette). The business sold to the Popp Family in 1986 (who still operate it), and when they were preparing for the shop’s 50th anniversary in 2008, the original artist of the sign approached them and asked if he could oversee the restoration.

Current owner Stacey Popp says, “When Mel approached my mom, he told her that painting the Dairy Lodge sign had been his first professional job and now that he was aging, he wanted it to be his last.” But the artist had one condition: He wanted to return “Shirley” to her original blonde hair color. The Popp family agreed.

The light-hearted controversy was swift and spread around town in newspaper stories and talk radio—everyone had an opinion on the change. When Stacey purchased the family business in 2015, she knew the sign needed some love again, but Timmerman was no longer in this world. This time, she called on her artist nephew Jay Kopicki to help.

“He’s so talented—he’s done murals in Detroit, big paintings on the side of buildings. Jay came up and restored her and when he got to the hair, he said, ‘Well, what’s it going to be? Blonde or brunette?’” Stacey recalls. “I said…both!”

Now when you view the sign, “Shirley” is brunette on the south side of the building and blonde on the north side. It’s as perfect a compromise as a chocolate and vanilla swirled Cosmo-Cone.


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