Artist draws on wood, wildlife for inspiration

White brings nature of Oconto County alive from old Baptist church
Joan White is pictured in her Lakewood business, Nicolet Studio, where she has painted and sold her artwork for more than 30 years. Her pieces of art start out as sketches that get transformed to wood. (Greg Seubert)Joan White paints in her art gallery in Lakewood. Most of White’s paintings feature animals, but some include people. (Greg Seubert)Endangered animals such as this polar bear figure prominently in Joan White’s artwork. The Lakewood artist has been creating works of art from an old church building for nearly 40 years. (Greg Seubert)
By: 
Greg Seubert
Correspondent

A vivid imagination, an eye for detail and a love of wildlife have added up to a successful career for Lakewood’s Joan White.

She has owned and operated Nicolet Studio out of a former church building in the northern Oconto County community for nearly 40 years.

“The idea was when I graduated from art school, I wanted to be an artist,” White said on a recent Saturday afternoon in her studio.

“I guess I didn’t realize how unusual that is, to make a living as an artist. When I moved up here, I needed a studio space, and this place was sitting vacant. It’s an old Baptist church. I got it for a song, fixed it up and have been here ever since. That was 38 years ago.”

White is no stranger to the Lakewood area.

“I’m from Appleton, but my folks had a cottage up here on the Oconto River,” she said. “That’s what started me coming up here as a kid. I just fell in love with the area. It’s peaceful.”

With a lot of help from her husband, Ken, a retired carpenter, White’s speciality is paintings on carefully selected slices of wood.

“I’m drawn to the forest — always have been,” she said. “I always liked wood. I started painting on a couple boards and realized I had a feel for it. Sometimes, I have an idea in my head of what I want to paint, and then I have to look for the right piece of wood. Normally, I stare at the wood, I see something and I go from there.”

White’s original plan was to come up with unique pieces of art.

“Initially, it was trying to sell something and put food on the table,” she said. “I was doing landscapes, a whole smattering of things for the first few years. I started painting on boards and then my husband starting finding some more unusual wood.

“I wanted to paint something that no one else was doing or couldn’t do. Instead of just putting a bird on a branch, I really studied the wood, tried to see what was in it and let it tell a story to me. The knots, the grain, the color, the shape, I took it all in. I sketch out what I see and paint from there.”

Ken cuts the wood, cures it for a year or more, kiln-dries the wood and planes and sands every piece until they are glassy smooth. The final painting is finished with several coats of wood sealer.

White prefers burl wood, but she also uses wood from birch, maple, cherry, black walnut, oak and ash trees.

She sells much of her work through a website – joanwhite.com – and the studio’s Facebook page, facebook.com/JoanWhiteWoodPaintings.

“We traveled around the country and did log home shows,” she said. “Usually, I was the only artist at the show because nobody had thought of it. I formed a relationship with collectors all over the country.”

Many of White’s pieces feature endangered or threatened animals.

“Probably 80% are bears and deer, the usual thing, but then I have to break away from that,” she said. “We travel a lot, so I have a lot of subject photos from different places that I can use.”

White said she has painted thousands of pieces over the years and usually works on one at a time.

Most of her work are reproductions.

“Mostly everything in here are reproductions of wood pieces,” she said. “They look like wood, but they’re a print. My printer laminates a lithograph to a composite and then cuts it out so they look like wood. They’ve really been selling well. People like them for their cabins, and they’re a fraction of what an original costs.

“I have a really good printer in Green Bay,” she said. “She’s a photographer. I take her the original piece, she does a really high-res photo of it and she has a really fancy printer and makes the prints. I sign and number them on the back so they’re a limited edition.”

Customers who wander into Nicolet Studio, located at 15346 Gage St., a block off of state Highway 32, usually purchase the reproductions.

“The online sales are more the original pieces because those are true collectors that are looking for my original work,” White said. “Once people started liking my work and word got around, I formed close relationships with my collectors. When I would paint a piece and think, ‘Oh, Karen would like this piece,’ I’d contact her.”

Some of those collectors have dozens of White’s original pieces.

“One time, Ken and I did a show in Chicago and one of our collectors invited us over for dinner,” she said. “It was up and down the halls and everywhere. He and I hadn’t seen some of these pieces in quite awhile, so it was fun to revisit them.”

White has kept only one piece for herself.

“The one thing I took away from going to art school is I remember one instructor said, ‘If you’re going to make a living at it, you can’t get attached to your own work,’” she said. “I’ve kept one piece for myself out of all of them. It was after a trip to Africa. When I got back, I did a collage of the trip and it was meaningful, so I kept it.”

White knows the day she stops painting will eventually come, but that won’t be anytime soon.

“I get days where I’m not feeling creative, but it doesn’t happen very often,” she said. “I just go sit in the woods or go trout fishing and it re-inspires me. I am working a little less now because I feel like I’ve earned it. I used to work every single day in the summer. I try to be here from 10 to 4:30, but if we want to take off and go camping, we do. I probably worked too hard, but that’s how you get good at it.”

White offered some advice for anyone thinking of making a living as an artist.

“You have to be dedicated,” she said. “You can’t just sit around waiting for it to come to you. You have to pursue it, maintain relationships and be personable. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice. You really have to live for your art.”