Hands On Fun in Door County, Wisconsin
If you yearn to work on big, messy art projects but have neither space, the materials, nor the urge to clean up after yourself, you’ll love Hands On Art Studio. This complex spread over a 100-year old farm delights locals and visitors to Door County, Wisconsin.
The Door County peninsula juts out into Lake Michigan. In summer, droves of Midwestern tourists head up here for beach fun. In winter, about half the businesses close down. But intrepid folks who enjoy snowshoeing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing or time spent somewhere quiet and beautiful appreciate winter in Door County. I visited in February and was happy to take a break from the cold weather to hole up in the Hands On glass fusing studio and make art.
Art lovers have Cy Turnbladh and Karon Ohm to thank for Hands On. Turnbladh, a successful potter from Minnesota, settled in Door County early in the 1990s. He got the idea to open his studio to would-be artists after seeing the paint-your-own pottery studios opening up in big cities. But he knew he could take the concept and make it bigger and better.
The Complex Today
When Turnbladh bought his 65-acre property in the late ‘90s, the old, abandoned buildings lacked electricity and plumbing. “The art barn never housed any animals, just 20,000 pounds of junk my husband had to clean out,” says Ohm.
Turnbladh started his studio at another site while fixing up the farm. Once it was inhabitable, his art business grew. He added glass fusing, a metal shop, jewelry shop, mosaic and a spin art machine for decorating t-shirts. “Whenever Cy gets interested in something, we add a new medium,” Ohm says. They now have 8,000 square feet of studio space.
People of all ages visit Hands On Art. “Most adults haven’t done art for so long, they’re scared of it,” Turnbladh says. Families have parties at the studio, with grandparents and kids making art together. “Even the sullen teenagers get into it.” He loves walking into a room that’s pin-drop quiet because families are concentrating so hard on their art.
Friday nights are adults-only so people can make art without the distraction of watching kids. Some adult nights feature live rock bands.
Fun with Glass
It’s hard to pick a project at Hands On. The pottery studio is a huge, beautiful upstairs space, with at least three contented cats lounging around. The metal shop offers a rare opportunity to drop in and play with metal, even if you have no prior experience. Don’t worry — each shop is staffed by people who know how to work power tools and other necessary equipment.
But when I saw the fused glass studio, I knew that was where I wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon. The light shining through all the colors of glass on a sunny day was prettier than metal or pottery.
In the fused glass studio, project options include bowls and plates of various sizes, wall hangings and garden art. Finished examples of each help you decide. Projects range from about $30 for a bowl to several hundred for elaborate wall-hung sculptures. I chose to make a piece of yard art.
Donna Shanks, the artist who runs the fused glass studio, gave me a clear vertical piece of glass, a few cutting tools and a bamboo bowl to fill with bits of glass. Shelves hold containers of color-coded glass, communal bowls hold assorted odds and ends. There was way more variety than I could put on one piece – opaque, translucent, marbled, rods, confetti, and glittery-looking little glass pieces called frit.
After a brief glass-cutting lesson, Donna set me loose. She made cutting glass look easy, but it took me many broken pieces and a bloody finger before I managed to cut my glass into something remotely resembling a straight line. With my unpredictable cutting style, I was glad I’d asked for goggles.
Once I decided how to arrange my glass – which was really fun – I affixed the pieces with a thin coat of Elmer’s glue. This was just to hold it in place until the experts could fire my piece in a kiln. Locals return to the studio to pick their pieces up after being fired. Tourists like me can arrange shipping.
I was only able to squeeze a couple of hours at Hands On into my busy itinerary. But I could have spent the entire day there. So allow yourself plenty of time if you’re visiting.
In addition to colorful art barns and sculptures, Hands On has a special on-site landmark: the art tile silo. This is a memorial to Turnbladh’s late mother, who spent some of her last years on the farm. To honor this animal lover, Turnbladh and Ohm invite visitors to decorate a tile to attach to the farm’s old silo. Visitors pay $4 per tile, which is donated to the Humane Society.
It will take about 8,000 tiles to cover the silo’s exterior, and Hands On is well on its way of reaching the goal. It’s a brilliant idea – honoring Turnbladh’s mother, making an outstanding piece of art and including everybody who wants to take part.
Vacation memories fade when you get home and fall back into the same old routine. But one day, a couple of weeks after my visit to Wisconsin, a FedEx guy arrived bearing an enormously long box. The studio had fired my piece and attached a metal frame with sharp legs for sticking into soil. It looks gorgeous planted by my front stairs. Every time I see it, I remember a magically creative place and the people who foster the artistic expression of anybody who wants to drop in. Who could ask for a better souvenir?