Couple brings unique art and European flair to Door Peninsula
By Donna Marie Pocius
Special to DoorCountyNavigator.com
When you look at a painting by Karsten Topelmann or another by his wife, Ellen Sprogo-Topelmann, look closely. And then look again and again and again.
In a quest to create unique art, Karsten hides things in paintings. For example, find the word “Door” for the Door Peninsula spelled out in branches of a birch tree painting.
Or look closely in the ice for the word, “love,” he etched into Ellen’s painting of children skating. Karsten actually sent his wife that message when she stepped away from work on her painting.
One of Karsten’s newest creations is a watercolor of Wilson’s, the popular Peninsula ice-cream parlor that overlooks the waters of Green Bay. But he’s not doing a sunny beach scene with vacationers enjoying ice-cream after a swim. Karsten’s painting, “I Dream of Wilson’s,” depicts the old-fashioned restaurant below a night sky filled with stars that form ice-cream cone shapes.
“A lot of people ask me for a painting of Wilson’s, but I had an idea of Wilson’s at night. For me, it has to be real different. Coming from graphics arts, I have to have ideas, something with new appeal. What is unique, what gives an edge,” he says.
For more than 30 years, Karsten, born in Munich, Germany, and Ellen, born in Hamburg, West Germany, have brought unique art and European flair to Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula.
From corporate department to cottage gallery
Paintings and prints by Karsten and Ellen can be found at Hanseatic Art Gallery, housed in a refurbished two-story white cottage, 3060 Hwy. Q, Ephraim. Take Hwy. 42 north through the picturesque village. Turn right (or east) on Hwy. Q, and park immediately in the gallery’s parking lot on your left (or north). The gallery is open daily from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and closed Sunday.
Upon entering the gallery, you also step into Old World Germany and new ways of looking at the Peninsula. Karsten’s Peninsula watercolors and oil paintings are found in the first room. Ellen’s European-inspired acrylics dominate the second room on the first floor, and the back room is filled with prints and note cards. An upper level gallery also is open to the public.
And the artists also are available to discuss their work. “We have people who come who are collectors and new people who look at new galleries. This area is tremendous for exposing art. And they like that we are here--not a salesperson,” Karsten says.
The couple landed here on the Peninsula after friends invited them camping. Former residents of Chicago’s near north side, they vacationed with their children—Lisa, Lars and the late Tanja—and purchased property in 1970 they deemed perfect for the gallery and a house, which Karsten, son of an architect, later designed himself.
Karsten, who worked in graphic arts for Container Corporation of America, always found moonlighting time for painting. Ellen formerly created animation drawings for television commercials and shows.
They opened their gallery in 1971. “I was so excited. I couldn’t believe it. We are going to move up here,” Ellen recalls.
“We knew that Ephraim is the nicest place on the Peninsula for its beauty and a gallery,” Karsten adds.
The artists at work
Karsten paints first for himself, inspired by Peninsula surroundings and his travels. “I see things I think are beautiful as a painting. For instance, the Ephraim skyline--I enjoy putting the silhouette in the light, on a rainy day, sunny day, with a thunderstorm running in and out. That is what makes me feel good—all the possibilities,” he says. “It is a good feeling when the collectors come in and see how it affects them. We agree on a painting for a reason.”
The artist first drives through the Peninsula, making notes about atmosphere, light and shadows. At the optimum time, he returns to the scene with his easel. He takes a photograph to record details that he finishes in his studio, located on the upper level of his home.
His Peninsula art helps tourists recall their vacations. “I often describe what a subject is, and they go and look at it,” Karsten says.“They say it looks different—that is the artistic license,” Ellen adds.
For example, Karsten’s cover art for the book, “Celebrating Door County’s Wild Places,” uniquely depicts tree roots in Newport State Park, Ellison Bay. “I enjoy the mystery in nature--the water, flowers and how they grow and how they are shaped different. I think about creation and how that happens,” he explains.
Ellen reminisces about her childhood in Europe when she creates. Her large scale acrylics depict children at play, European weddings, angels as well as the popular “Our Village” scene (available as a print) – look closely for the beer bottle, a touch of humor painted by Karsten.
“I love the Old World. And I include people—many people—in my paintings,” Ellen says. “What I like is the interaction she paints, the kids looking at each other, the light, the way they are playing with the ball,” Karsten adds.
Ellen’s work adorns the covers of books including “Ephraim Stories,” and the new “Door County Stories.”
The artists enjoy their work and life in Ephraim--Karsten was voted by town residents as 2003 Fyr Ball Chieftain, the first foreign-born individual to be honored with the medallion and robe at the 150th anniversary of the village.
They regularly share advice with aspiring artists. “You have to really enjoy what you are doing. It shows in your work when you are happy,” Ellen tells them.
Karsten recalls words a Munich street artist gave him after he revealed he wanted to be a painter. “You’ll have to learn how to eat bread then,” the artist told him. “Some of these things, you don’t forget,” Karsten says.
But Ellen and Karsten welcome a change of scenery, too. They maintain a residence in Spain, where they paint and connect with friends over dinner in their home or out in the Canary Islands.
Another European connection is Karsten’s exhibition of paintings as part of his membership in an artists guild in Munich. Karsten studied art at the Academy of Art, Munich.
With a thriving art business, the couple remains uncertain when they’ll make the next trip overseas. In addition to “I Dream of Wilson’s,” Karsten is working on a painting of a Victorian house adorned with a stairway and flowers. “It has an interesting flow—there’s an “s” curve through the painting, kind of a neat thing,” he says. “I always have to have something unique or add a little humor.”
Donna Marie Pocius is an Egg Harbor, Wisconsinbased freelance writer.