Thursday, June 12, 2014

Frostic’s Michigan

by Casey Gamble

Sara Gwendolyn Frostic, mostly known as Gwen Frostic, was one of Michigan’s most famous artists. Her originally-carved block-prints and poetry-style prose that narrate the glorious scenes of nature found in her books are timeless and unforgettable, not that anyone would want to forget them. Each turn of a page in any of her books sends you further into a world of pure Michigan serenity, and when you finish reading, you may notice that you feel a little calmer than you did before you started. This is at least what Frostic hoped for when she created these prints. She wanted to bring back true feelings from the hearts of her readers that reminded them of the natural wonders of Michigan.
What is especially poignant for me, besides the words written on the pages, is the story of the woman behind it all. In 1906, when she was just eight months old, Frostic was struck with a terrible illness that left her partially paralyzed. She always labeled it polio later in her life, and never cared to explore the matter any further; it was what it was to Frostic, and this was how she saw most things in her life, which may have been heavily influenced by her mother, Sara. Sara was a hard-headed, no-nonsense type of woman who put little value of any kind on emotional coddling of her children. Her father, Fred, had a love for Michigan’s natural world. He was also very crafty and interested in the arts and wood carving, which we can imagine is what inspired Frostic’s later career.
It was a combination of both of her parents’ personalities that led her through life with a proud and very stubborn independence. She certainly proved to the world that she needed no one but herself to get by. Frostic was nearly 40 years old when she bought a printing press to put in her basement, and began her carving work on linoleum. By the 1950’s she started her business, Presscraft Papers, and people in town were becoming very familiar with her presence because she was Frankfort’s lone female business owner with the reputation of a “rattlesnake.” When she published her first book, My Michigan, in 1957, the people loved it and this encouraged the eventual publication of over 20 more books, 17 of which the Clarke Historical Library has in its holdings. 
The shop eventually moved to Benzonia where it still exists to this day, continuing on since Frostic's death in 2001. Frostic’s goal was never to simply educate people on Michigan nature, but to remind us of our roots in the natural world and make us feel it from our hearts, which from my own experience exploring these books, she has accomplished. She was not just a woman with an artistic inclination who appreciated wilderness. She had a genuine love for nature because, unlike many of the people in her life, it never ceased to treat her with total equality, and her love of carving also became a metaphor for her life. According to Sheryl James in her book, The Life and Wisdom of Gwen Frostic, “In order to produce clean, simple images, she had to cut away what was not needed." She never bothered to conform because she knew she would never be like everyone else. All that Frostic strived for was simplicity, and I believe that she found that simplicity by never swaying from who she was and continuing to do what would make her happy for the rest of her life, perhaps not knowing that she would leave a legacy behind after she was gone.