Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Grand Marais artist Howard Sivertson's legacy on the North Shore

A man in waders sits in a fishing boat.
From childhood, Howard Sivertson used art to tell stories of the places he loved. He grew up in a commercial fishing family, spending part of his time on Isle Royale.
Courtesy of Jan Sivertson

Friends, family and fans of Howard Sivertson will celebrate a life well-lived on Wednesday, which would have been his 93rd birthday.

Sivertson, a fixture in Grand Marais, Minn. died this past January. The artist published multiple collections that tell stories of Lake Superior through illustration, writing and quite a bit of research.

Sivertson was born into a Lake Superior commercial fishing family, but bouts of sea sickness meant fishing would not be in his future. He became an artist, known for the Sivertson Gallery in Grand Marais, which he co-founded with his daughter, Jan.

MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer talked with Jan about her father's memory.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Friends, family, and fans of Howard Sivertson will celebrate a life well lived tomorrow, which would have been his 93rd birthday. Howard, a fixture in Grand Marais, died this past January. The artist published multiple collections that tell stories of Lake Superior through illustration, writing, and quite a bit of research. Here is Howard talking with NPR in 1994 about the process behind one of his books, the illustrated Voyager.

HOWARD SIVERTSON: I would sit on an island, let's say up in Saginaw Lake, and wonder to myself, what would a brigade of voyagers look coming down this lake? As an artist, I could do the research. I could find out what the canoes looked like, I could find out what the voyagers looked like. And I knew what the country looked like. I went to all the places I illustrated in my book. And I could just put that all together, and then I would see it for the first time too, and that was kind of a kick.

CATHY WURZER: Howard Sivertson was born into a Lake Superior commercial fishing family, but bouts of seasickness meant fishing wasn't going to be in his future. He became an artist known for the Sivertson Gallery in Grand Marais, which was co-founded along with his daughter, Jan. We wanted to talk with Jan about her dad's memory, and she's on the line. Jan, thanks for taking the time, and I'm sorry about the loss of your dad. He really was such an interesting guy.

JAN SIVERTSON: Thanks, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: I love the story about your dad drawing on the blackboard on his first day of kindergarten, I believe, to help explain what he'd been up to all summer long. Can you share that story?

JAN SIVERTSON: Yeah. So prior to that first day of kindergarten, he had spent most of his previous five years at Isle Royale because the fishermen would go out in early April and come back in November. And so Howard had spent his first five years on that rock, living a very unique life compared to the other kids in class. And so he wasn't quite relating to the other kids. And when the teacher asked him what he did last summer, he couldn't relate and so he said, can I go up to the blackboard? And began drawing his summer all the way around the room. All the blackboards for, I think, a long period of time. Thus began his career as a storyteller.

CATHY WURZER: I can only imagine what the kids thought or just the teacher, you know. Yes, he was quite a storyteller. What did you learn from your dad about storytelling?

JAN SIVERTSON: What I didn't learn-- he was constantly telling stories, always telling stories. So I would say I don't know what I didn't learn. But what I learned is that there are lots of points of view. And I learned to pay attention. His stories always reflected some serious focus that he had had on something.

And so by paying attention, and just being present, and mostly seeing the humerous side of things-- I think that was the basis of most of his stories. And he found humor in just about everything.

CATHY WURZER: That would be correct. Knowing what I know of your dad after talking to him. The old North Shore has mostly faded into history. What did he make of the changes along the shore, Isle Royale, the Boundary Waters over time?

JAN SIVERTSON: It's really interesting. Isle Royale he was specifically sort of agitated by, because the promise that was made to him when the park-- I guess would have been his parents and grandparents, when the park took over, is that it would be returned to wilderness and that that never happened.

And the whole idea of public policy is made by the public, and so it changes over time. But as far as the North Shore goes and then Grand Marais specifically, he could not get over-- and even last summer, we spent a lot of time traveling on the North Shore going to appointments and things.

He couldn't get over how things had changed to the positive. Just he would comment on things like, hey, people-- a lot of people have painted their houses since I lived down here. So he was really moved by the aesthetic improvements that had been made on the North Shore and specifically Grand Marais. I know a lot of people complain about change, but Howard was moved by things getting spruced up, and change, and new people, and activity. So he loved the positive changes that were happening.

CATHY WURZER: What was it like to work with your dad when you started the gallery with him?

JAN SIVERTSON: It was really fun but I learned early on that his passion was painting. And so he opted out of the business part right away in 1982, and that's when I took over the business aspect of running the gallery. And that led to a very happy relationship because he wasn't doing things that he disliked. And I was actually learning about business, which was really fascinating and fun for me-- to learn the art of business. So we became really good partners and advocates for each other in that venture.

CATHY WURZER: I love going into the gallery. So this is a tough question to ask you. Is there a piece by your dad that means the most to you?

JAN SIVERTSON: Yes. And the piece is Going Home From the Dance. And on many levels-- the story is just very touching to me. I was born and lived in it, and so were my siblings and other family, friends. We were the kids tucked into the bow of The Picnic, our family boat, heading to Windigo Lodge for the dance, the 4th of July dance. And the painting itself is just so well done from an artistic standpoint. It captures that beautiful cerulean blue of twilight, and the stars are sparkling, and he captures on the shoreline just a couple little red dots of fires flickering on the way to Windigo.

Or it might have been on the way back from Windigo. But either way, it was-- and of course, he's at the helm of the boat with his red suspenders. So it kind of speaks to that highlight of the summer, that one day that the fishermen used to take off work was the 4th of July. And that kind of camaraderie and day of celebration. So that painting kind of sums it all up.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, and those red suspenders. I'm glad you brought that up. And that big smile of his too. Oh, my goodness. Jan, thank you for taking the time to remember your dad. We appreciate you. And of course, we loved his work and he was just, as I say, quite a spirit. Thank you so much.

JAN SIVERTSON: Yes. Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Jan Sivertson is-- her dad is Howard, of course. He was an influential artist and storyteller from Isle Royale, the North Shore. His loved ones are hosting a celebration of his life in Grand Marais tomorrow in the Sivertson Gallery, showing a collection of his prints until June 18.

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