By Liz Maltman
Originally published in Door County Almanac #3, Dragonsbreath Press, 1985
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this article was originally written in the early 1980s, local artist Mary Ellen Sisulak started a successful gallery on Mink River Rd. in Ellison Bay; since that time, her leather handbag designs have attained wide acclaim across the U.S. For more info, visit the Turtle Ridge website: www.turtleridgegallery.com.)
I drove east on Mink River Road, out of Ellison Bay, knowing Mary Ellen lived along this road, not too far from town; past a small white cottage and a larger white frame house…no…she wouldn’t live in a house like that…on past the old camp entrance there was an open field where the land rose, protected by trees…yes, there was a house back there, behind the trees…that would be it…a handmade house, of huge logs pegged together…a couple of friendly, yet protective dogs…safe back here…sunny…warm.
I climbed the steep steps and felt as though I were entering a picture: two high backed chairs and a love seat hand-wrought of bent willow branches, made comfortable with flowered cushions handmade by Mary Ellen…a big black and brown cat sat in “her” chair…a calm, sensitively drawn pastel of a young dancer hung over a bookcase…laid over a railing to the left, I noticed a wonderful Turkish styled coat of intricately woven borders and cloth. It adorned the railing so perfectly, yet at the same time looked so warm and sturdy I could imagine it remaining there forever as a work of art and withstanding endless Door County winters of wind and snow…beautiful and functional…(an indulgence, Mary Ellen admits, created the previous winter for a weaving class at The Clearing. It’s rare that she makes things for herself.) A small oak table was set in a sunny window with bowls of blueberries and wild raspberries…saved from the summer for inspiration, I thought, on this crisp clear winter morning for our lunch together.
This was a friendly corner, strewn with books, Mary Ellen’s drawings, sunshine. The tape recorder I had brought seemed somehow out of place…I felt a unity here of spirit with the elements of nature and things…life. It was peaceful here, calm. Mary Ellen smiling…a good spirit, this one…
Mary Ellen loves to draw. She draws in pastels, in colored pencils, in pen and ink, with a stylus on leather. She draws people, animals, places, things with wonderful sensitivity, clarity and accuracy of detail. The drawings are full of feeling and warmth. But there is something more than what the eye sees, more than the artist’s ability to render what she sees, more than her skill at design and composition. I sense a feeling of wholeness and unity about them – a sensitivity to life, a unifying force that is more than what is depicted.
There are portraits: of a young man, Nathaniel, done the previous summer…other portraits of Debbie, Fran, Caleb…I know some of the people shown in the pastel drawings. Clearly, these were quite amazingly accurate physical descriptions. But the essence of the individual being. I felt I knew something essential about each one of them without having ever met them.
She draws from life or from her mind. She no longer needs a model to render a figure accurately – unless it’s a portrait – but sometimes she chooses to look at things she is drawing. The black and brown cat and the tractor out back served as models, for example, in one of the colored pencil drawings she is currently working on for a children’s book. She knows when a work is “right” and when it is not and does not hesitate to criticize her own work, searching for the most effective way to do it.
I sense a connection between her drawings and her other work. Mary Ellen is best known for her leather work: handbags, briefcases, backpacks, hats, vests, just about anything made out of leather. The bags and cases are soft, pliable, almost “living,” with emblems that contain little drawings or designs. Each item is designed and made by hand out of the finest quality leather. (I am always incredulous at what this woman can create out of a piece of leather.) Each piece is a work of art in itself and could do as much for a wall as a painting. But the connection is more than that. Each article is strong…made to last a lifetime, made to be used everyday; forever. Mary Ellen feels that if it is worth her time to make, it must not only be beautiful to look at, but functional and strong as well. With the woven coat and, likewise, in the drawings, there is a meaning, a purpose or function to the work beyond what is physically described.
Mary Ellen has lived in Door County for seven years with her husband Rob, and for about a year now in the house they built with the occasional help of friends. The house has become an ongoing project, like her work. She came to Door County from Milwaukee, the only artist in a large family. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee with an art degree and background in weaving, drawing and painting; leather work and other crafts, a “regular” job seemed appropriate. She tried working for awhile in the design department of a large clothing manufacturer. The job didn’t pay well and was not interesting or challenging. Mary Ellen wanted to create things – designs, drawings, feelings from her work. There was no meaning for her in that job. In Door she finds a purpose and meaning for her work.
Mary Ellen is constantly busy designing and making leather, weavings, drawings and teaching at The Clearing on occasion. She has designed wine labels for a local winery. The artist senses new directions in her work, her art…unifying the elements she works with, expanding the possibilities of design and content. She is currently designing and making leather suitcases with panels woven of rich designs out of natural fibers. Because she would like to have more time for designing and working on new ideas, Mary Ellen forsees the day when she will hire others to help with cutting and sewing.
During the summer the artist travels to art shows throughout Wisconsin. She has work on display at the Madison Art Center and the Milwaukee Art Center and wants to expand to show at other galleries. Her company is called IMP Leathers and you can see her leather work at Clay Bay Pottery in Ellison Bay.