In an area like West Michigan, where art and nature so oftentimes mingle in harmony, there is still perhaps no place quite like Ox-Bow. This school of art and artists’ residency lies on the historic, century-old campus nestled between the Kalamazoo River and Lake Michigan in Saugatuck, offering a remarkably serene nature experience to accompany your next outdoor art excursion.
“The experience of being at Ox-Bow is so different from taking a class at a community center or institutional art center, because the environment is just spectacular,” said Shannon Stratton, the executive director of Ox-Bow. “It’s a beautiful campus that’s at the end of a peninsula. We’re on a protected dune ecosystem. It’s a beautiful place to come and be inspired and make art.”
The classes at Ox-Bow are eligible for college credit, so many students make it a habit to participate in a workshop series every summer. These programs are incredibly prestigious, with professional artists from all over coming to campus to share their knowledge and talents. Considering Ox-Bow’s original history of being a getaway and escape for Chicago-area artists over a century ago, it is fulfilling to see the school still serving as a haven for artists and art enthusiasts alike.
“We’re primarily an arts school, which means serving artists from different stages in their creative journey,” Stratton said. “But we do try to create points of engagement for the public to participate in and be on our campus.”
And now, with the spooky season of October comes a slew of new events through Ox-tober, Ox-Bow’s own autumnal themed arts program. Whether attending the “Ox-Bow Family Goes to Heck” family day or “Pop-Up on the Porches” art sale, guests will be able to explore the campus’ historic main building and surrounding hiking trails, including a stop at the crow’s nest overlook, which offers a scenic view of Lake Michigan and its neighboring dunes. The pop-up market includes a cash bar, also, so guests are encouraged to enjoy a refreshment as they explore the provided collection of original jewelry, ceramics, drawings and paintings available for purchase from regional artists.
“It’s a very diverse population of artists,” Stratton said. “All of whom are on-campus together during that time period.”
These upcoming Ox-Bow events, including their rotating workshop series which features classes on such things as woodfired ceramics and broom-making for witches, follow a long history of teaching and apprenticeship for artists in Saugatuck. Since the 1870s and 1880s, when the Ox-Bow inn was first built, visitors have always lodged on the grounds with a desire to get away from it all, solely focusing on their creative spirit and voice. This notion continues through Ox-Bow’s seasonal summer artist staff and college student fellows, all doing part-time work with Ox-Bow and taking advantage of the facility’s expansive studio spaces and resources. Resident artists are housed for a shorter period of time (about three weeks), and they continue their work while also learning more about Ox-Bow and the greater Saugatuck community.
“Ox-Bow has been this crossroads for over a century for American art and artists,” Stratton said. “It is a really interesting story to tell—the importance that the Midwest has played in the larger story of American art and the figures that have gone through Ox-Bow.”
Part of that story is the tremendous impact women have had on Ox-Bow’s school of art, as well as the national stage for American art as a whole. That history is proudly shown as a part of Stratton’s latest exhibition, She Started It, located at the organization’s Douglas location only a few miles south of campus. This storefront, the Ox-Bow House, is a community-focused hub for art supplies, archived photographs and artpieces, themed attractions and, now, She Started It.
“There have been a lot of really significant leaders of the organization in its history that were women,” Stratton said. “Maybe they shouldn’t have been thought of ‘ahead of their time,’ but in the context they were in, they were really making incredible strides for women artists.”
In conjunction with Douglas’ Halloween parade, Ox-Bow’s “Cavern Tavern” party will also take place at Ox-Bow House on October 28, and anyone passionate about the holiday shouldn’t miss it. As this storefront continues to grow and its local programming expands, Stratton looks forward to hosting visitors and artists from all over at both their main campus and this Douglas location.
“We’re 113 years old, but we’re still the best kept secret of West Michigan,” Stratton said. “We wanted to figure out how to do something in the community and be more accessible.”
Featuring mostly Michigan artists alongside Ox-Bow alumni, a winter market will also begin Thanksgiving weekend and continue until the end of the fall student semester. So, whether you’re looking for early holiday gifts, family-friendly Halloween experiences or beginner-level artist workshops, take a look at what Ox-tober has to offer at ox-bow.org/oxtober.
“Ox-Bow is an incredible part of the American art legacy, particularly in the Midwest,” Stratton said. “Come and be a part of that magic in whatever way most interests you.”
Ox-Bow School of Art
3435 Rupprecht Way, Saugatuck