Anyone who’s visited Charlevoix, MI, for more than 24 hours has run across blue and white tiles, vases shaped like women’s heads, bowls decorated in sunflowers or angels and fanciful paintings of starry skies and barns and roosters. The source of this decorative bounty is a local legend.
She’s also a pioneer. Sue moved north 42 years ago to see if she could “make a living.” She had 2 of 3 teenagers in tow. Husband Russ remained in Detroit with the 3rd. Russ worked in design for GM while Sue blazed the trail.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Many Detroiters got to know Sue’s artwork in the 1960s and 70s. Sue did frequent cover illustrations for The Detroit Free Press Sunday Magazine. If good manners were the standard by which she was hired, she’d never have had the chance.
When Sue’s son Russ Jr. was a boy, he had a paper route for the Free Press. One cranky customer kept complaining that he never put her paper inside her storm door. Problem was the lady kept her storm door locked.
Sue sometimes drove Russ Jr. on his route and was aware of the issue. One morning Sue got a call from someone at the Free Press. Assuming it was Russ Jr.’s manager, Sue ranted, “I know about the problem. It’s not my son’s fault. Mrs. Dougherty forgets to unlock her storm door.” She slammed the phone down.
Fortunately, the caller called back. He was Mort Persky, an editor starting a Sunday supplement. (He got Sue’s name from his wife Yolanda who took Sue’s class at Wayne State U.) Mort hired Sue to create the cover of his first magazine. It would illustrate a story about Woodward Avenue, the main artery in Detroit. (Persky went on to share a Pulitzer for editing at the Free Press.)
Sue continued to freelance for the paper. In 1963, she spent a week at Motown. “I met Marvin Gaye, who gave me a big kiss. And Smokey Robinson. I was in the recording booth with Berry Gordy’s brother when he was mixing sounds for ‘Heat Wave’ by Martha and the Vandellas and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.”
About the Motown studio, she says, “It was a hokey set-up. At the time I didn’t realize what a thrill it was to be there. A life experience.”
Sue found work in several areas. She created cards for Hallmark and in-store posters for Hudson’s design department. She restored furniture for popular antiques dealer Fran Weiss. Her art was shown at a frame shop, a coffee house, an arts theater.
While she sold well enough, Sue says, “I don’t think the Midwest appreciates its artists. It’s important to recognize artists. They represent the culture and history of their era.”
When her kids were all in school, Sue spent 3 years at Detroit’s famous Pewabic Pottery. She studied salt glazing and raku. “3 years at Pewabic was like getting a master’s degree.” The family lived in Pleasant Ridge, a suburb of Detroit. But older son Russ was “being a teenager.” Sue wasn’t crazy about suburbia. She decided to try a different environment, northern Michigan.
Sue scraped together the funds and bought Grange Hall, built in 1910, a few miles south of Charlevoix. (The grange hall movement started in the U.S. after the Civil war. It was an organization supporting the business and social lives of farmers.) Sue says, “We fell in love with the land and the building.” The real estate taxes were $58/year. Sons Russ Jr. and Robert joined Future Farmers of America. (Russ Jr. grew up to run Bolts’ Farm Market across the road from our farm. Wife Cindy and brother Robert work with him. Their sweet corn is the best in NoMI.)
That first year was “rough,” Sue says. But she cobbled together freelance jobs and sold her wares where she could. She made enough that first year to finance everything but the family’s health care. Meanwhile Russ Sr., whom she’d met when they were students at the Cleveland Institute of Arts, wanted to find work more creative than designing auto interiors. After a year, Sue and Russ sold their home in Pleasant Ridge. Russ Sr. joined the family at Grange Hall and began making art with Sue. It was a dream come true. “Russ and I had always wanted to work together and start a business.”
The first winter Sue “didn’t know a soul.” But other artists, including popular potter Bonnie Staffel, found and welcomed her. They developed an informal group. “We all helped each other out.” One member, a talented photographer, was “so poor I’d feed her.”
A group of about 10 eventually grew to around 60. They organized shows and talks. They fixed up an old building at Brownwood Acres, staffed the gallery and sold their work there. They petitioned the state for the seed money to help buy an old church in Petoskey, MI. (It’s since become the thriving Crooked Tree Arts Center.) Sue and Russ wrote a newsletter. They helped start the Charlevoix summer art fair, which today ranks among the country’s best. (The Bolts’ booth is always in the center of the action.)
Sue and Russ sold their work in art fairs and shops as well as at Grange Hall. They participated in art fairs in Florida, Kansas City and more. Bolt blue and white tiles appeared on fireplace surrounds and bathroom walls around northern Michigan and as far away as Florida and Wyoming.
Sue says, “We didn’t care about being rich. We just wanted to be able to do our work and be independent.”
Sue is currently featured in a 1-person show at the Charlevoix Circle of the Arts. I attended a talk she gave in the gallery, backed up by her friend actress Abby Adler. As Sue discussed her paintings, Abby read poems Sue had written while painting certain pictures. Abby lent a dramatic Irish brogue to poems often filled with color. As in these lines:
Inside the green
On top of a hill
Cindy and I pick delicate beans
They are the last to come along
The sun no longer strong
A slit of light
On the horizon
As purple shadows
“I’m a storyteller,” Sue says. “Writing helps clarify my painting.”
For a northern Michigan legend, Sue is self-effacing. “I don’t even want to say I’m an artist. It sounds so arrogant. What I do is just a matter of observation and using different materials.”
“The Seasons of Sue Bolt” is on display until Sept. 23. One reason Sue agreed to it, she says, was to help inventory the large body of work she has made or been given by others. She plans to turn some of the latter pieces over to descendants of the artists who made them.
After living 10 years in their studio, Sue and Russ Sr. moved to a comfortable home overlooking Lake Charlevoix. Grange Hall remains their studio. Their work has been shown at the DIA, the Cleveland Museum and numerous other spaces.
What’s her advice to aspiring young writers?
Many years ago, as a young reporter for The Detroit News, I asked that question of Max Shulman, best known as author of novels including Rally Round the Flag, Boys!, co-author of The Tender Trap and creator of Dobie Gillis. I’ve never forgotten his answer.
He said, “It’s always the same: Seek truth and marry money.”
Sue took the question a little more seriously. She said, “Love what you do. Do it and don’t be afraid. You’ve got to love it ‘cause it’s a lot of hard work. But if you love it, somehow everything works out.”
Sue continues to love what she does and still creates imaginative artworks that many others love, too. Daughter, Lori, an artist, and son-in-law Frank Hasseld, a sculptor, help with the heavy lifting and run the business side of the business.
At 85, Sue looks back on a life filled with opportunities, good friends, enthusiastic collectors and staying true to herself. “It’s all been a great adventure,” she says. “It isn’t over yet.”