Carving a Life: Gwen Frostic

One of the great pleasures of getting to know Margaret and her work is to discover, here and there all over the country, other women—kindred spirits—who also were turning to Nature for inspiration and frankly, aspiration. Many made their living from their knowledge of natural history, whether by teaching it to others, through writing, through their art, or by designing gardens and by other means. Though often the money earned was needed for daily life expenses—certainly Margaret was dependent on her own earnings to live—one gets the impression that love of Nature was preserved inviolate and kept a private delight that sustained them no matter their circumstances. Margaret and women everywhere went out into fields and woods, to riversides and ocean beaches, tide-pools, and mountain meadows, to feed a hunger, a curiosity and a need quenched nowhere else but in wild places. Though often unknown to each other, they formed a kind of tribe we can recognize when we come across their life stories.

Good friends introduced me to one such woman whose story is unusual to say the least, but who carved an independent life for herself along a path strewn with wild flowers, birds and woodland creatures familiar to the sisterhood. Gwen Frostic was born in 1906 in Sandusky, Michigan and lived her whole life in that state and now is so associated with the Wolverine State that she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986, and even has an official day honoring her on May 23. The School of Art at Western Michigan University is named for her, as is a Woodland Shade Garden in Grand Rapids. She was granted several honorary degrees in recognition of her long career of artistic work. But beyond Michigan she deserves to be better known.

Gwen was reputedly a crusty personality but her art, for which she was renowned, is delicate and intimate. She especially drew inspiration from her native flora and birdlife for her linocut images, which graced her trademark stationary items, calendars, prints and other items. Studying her designs feels like a walk in the woods, a trip to the river where flowers might spangle the tangle of ferns or a bird alight on a branch just ahead. You imagine her eye taking in the sight, memorizing it and reducing it to its essence and then reproducing it so that it is reanimated, alive again and sealed in the moment. Her work is fresh, full of delight and appreciation of form and the suggestion of movement. Looking at it, you want to go for a walk and see what you too might find.

As a young child, Gwen suffered an undiagnosed severe illness, which left her with the marks akin to cerebral palsy: damaged hands, a limp, and other impediments which would have discouraged many another person who didn’t have her steely strength. She never let her physical state slow her down or prevent her from learning to use her hands to form exquisite art in her own unmistakable style. She ran her own business, created her own studio, and fashioned her own life. She took chances and made a great success out of her own hard work and genius. Her studio out in the woods beyond the tourist town of Frankfort on Lake Michigan was a magnet for anyone who knew her art.

Although she died in 1986, her artwork is still available for those seeking it out. The calendar I have that showcases her images is helping me count the days in this difficult year. Some day, when the possibility of travel opens again, I plan to visit her part of the world and explore her landscape and marvel at the wild flowers, trees and birds that inspired her and that she brought to the attention of so many who saw Nature revealed through the work of her hands and attentive eyes. Her life story is an inspiration. Her art is a timeless delight!

To learn more about Gwen, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwen_Frostic

https://web.archive.org/web/20010506005958/http://www.freep.com/womenhistory99/qgwen1.htm

And especially see her still thriving business website at https://www.gwenfrostic.com/

5 thoughts on “Carving a Life: Gwen Frostic

  1. Interesting! She must have been a very strong woman, to succeed with her physical disabilities on top of the restrictions women generally faced then. My mother was born in Michigan in 1906 too, so I even further related to her. Thanks.

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  2. The references I included were fascinating! She had a will of iron, apparently, and just did what she wanted to do. And did well! And yet her art is so….almost sweet. Contrasting her personality and life challenges with the images she produced…a very interesting contrast. There were so many women working in what might be termed “nature work” that when put altogether, were a force of nature unto themselves!

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  3. Thank you again for introducing us to another formidable woman! The artwork shown at Gwen’s website is lovely. I am currently reading The Library Book by Susan Orlean which is also full of tough women making it in a hostile male environment. Tough as nails, formidable, iron willed, crusty. Women not willing to be pushed around or limited. Uplifting with today’s lens.

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