Wilderness Voices: John A. Spelman III, Artist and Printmaker

All images republished with permission from:
John A. Spelman III, Artist and Printmaker: From Appalachia to Minnesota’s North Shore
by Scott Husby and Tracey Cullen

Sometimes a voice for the northwoods is not recognized until long gone, and sometimes it takes an artist’s emphasis on our towns, our industry, and our own impact on a place, to cast light on the wilderness nearby. John A. Spelman (1912-1969) lived in Grand Marais and Appalachia and points between, evoking emotion from seemingly ordinary structures, making a life in education and in printmaking. His work was recognized by few in his time, and he’s remembered still on the North Shore for his work to share art with students and the community. A new book and exhibition at the Johnson Heritage Post Art Gallery celebrates the evolution of his work.

He was particularly inspired by the fish houses, boats, and related equipment of the commercial fishing industry that was vital to Minnesota’s Lake Superior communities in the 1930s. Most of the remnants of these once busy fish houses are gone. Today, Spelman’s pencil drawings and linoleum-block prints remind us of a lifestyle that was often difficult, and interwoven with weather and water.


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Likewise, his prints of lumber mills and logging camps show us a moment in time, when logging in the Superior National Forest was thriving and also increasingly debated. A print of Hedstrom’s East Bearskin Camp captures what is now just traces of a lumber camp within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and a reminder of the history of wilderness protection.

Quetico Superior Wilderness News asked the authors / exhibit curators to share more about their experience and reflections on Spelman’s work.

Tell us, how did you find out about John A. Spelman III and his work?
Scott: I first saw a Spelman linoleum-block print back in the early 1980s, on someone’s wall here in Grand Marais. It made a real impression on me at the time, although which print this was I can’t recall. Many years later I came across other Spelman prints in a magazine about Appalachia, and this kindled an interest in both of us to learn more about the artist, and how his life had come to straddle both Appalachia and the North Shore of Minnesota.

What inspired you to learn more about him?
Tracey: We began asking acquaintances and friends in Grand Marais about Spelman and learned that he had spent most of his life here, and that several had vivid memories of him as a somewhat eccentric character, a brilliant artist, and an art teacher in high school. What few seemed aware of, however, was that he had also spent a few years as a young man teaching and making art in Kentucky. We decided to take a trip to Kentucky to see where he taught and to search for his artwork in university archives—and the discoveries there were inspiring. Most of his artwork, however, is of the North Shore, and we concentrated on collecting those pieces for our exhibit and book.

Were there any surprises along the way?
Tracey: One surprise has been the discovery of many fine pencil drawings Spelman did both in Appalachia and the Minnesota Arrowhead region—these could serve as an exhibit in themselves! We were also pleasantly surprised to learn the great impact he had on the communities he lived in. Spelman spent time in Appalachia in the 1930s, and died in Grand Marais in 1969, yet many people still treasure their memories of the artist and especially his artwork.

What do you see as his most lasting legacy?
Scott: Spelman’s work records aspects of life that have largely disappeared from the landscape of the Lake Superior North Shore. And his images are striking examples of of relief printmaking.

More Information

Book: John A. Spelman III, Artist and Printmaker
by Scott Husby and Tracey Cullen

Learn more at the Cook County Historical Society

Clearwater Reflections (detail)

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