Saugatuck/Douglas Commercial Record

Joyce Petter: 50-year door to art



“The gallery is her,” wrote Fred Blazer in The Commercial Record 25 years ago. “She” was Joyce Petter.

“If she ever leaves to retire into a comfortable life surrounded by her art and memories, the world of art in her small Midwestern town will never be the same.”

Blazer was touting Petter Galleries’ 25th anniversary being the largest, most-influential art house in West Michigan, not just the Saugatuck-Douglas area. Now, 50 years since Joyce ventured forth, it’s still growing.

Daughter-in-law Juli Petter, who in 2015 has transformed the historic 161 Blue Star Hwy. ground and gardens into the now-J. Petter Wine Gallery, has added the former Armstrong-DeGraaf International Fine Art Gallery, 403 Water St, downtown Saugatuck, to her collection.

The Douglas flagship location in the old River Guild Gallery Center now has 24 rooms within 12,000 square feet, represents 130 artists with 1,400 plus pieces plus an in-house wine bar and shop.

Its former outdoor sculpture garden on the corner of Main Street and Blue Star has been revitalized with new three Kevin Barrett steel sculptures. Indoors the artist has two new paintings. “Turbulence” and “Crystal, both made with epoxy acrylic and urethane paint on aluminum, on display and for sale also.

A Barrett sculpture moved from in front of the former Armstrong-De Graaf now appears there. The downtown Saugatuck shop boasts a large new aluminum sculpture by him in its place plus a smaller one inside with other works.

At an open house Saturday, June 10, Joyce, now 96 and retired as much as she can be, plans to attend. All are welcome.

Longtime signature artists Gert Olsen, Nina Weiss and Lisa Vanderhill plan to unveil new works, while local musicians John Otto and David De Haan will fill both indoor floors with live music.

Petter, a stay-at-home mother with five children, said in 1973, “The youngest is off to school, I’m starting a gallery.” Having traveled the world seeking art and culture, she felt U.S. artists needed better representation here.

She told daughter-in-law Juli she chose Saugatuck for its physical beauty and art ambiance, both of which she has fought for decades to keep alive. Petter’s children worked in the gallery. Some liked it more than others, but all learned from her.

At home today Petter is surrounded by art she loves: Inuit, Asian and especially American. Her scrapbook hosts 50 years of memories.

Her first location was in a corner store at 134 Butler St., downtown Saugatuck, across the street from The Sand Bar. She called it Prajna, a Sanskrit word literally meaning “best knowing,” or “for the people.”

Over time it transformed in her style. Eventually Sandra Randolph of Good Goods sold Petter the entire building and renovations started.

First she created a garden space where scores of Marro’s restaurant pizzas were consumed after openings showcasing artists from across the U.S. Petter wanted a place where people could enjoy their environment, stay long enough to learn about the community and have enough faith in the quality of art they would buy a painting. For many it would be their first. More followed.

As the gallery gained success a barn, upstairs deck, and ultimately The Door — former church rectory portal and with striking leaded glass — were added.

Inside, works from the likes of Fran Larson, Petter’s first of what became 40 signed artists, could be found. In the 1980s and ‘90s she added Weiss, Olsen, Vanderhill, James Munce, Eve Whittaker, Michael Maitner and Robert Klunk, all still actively part of the gallery today.

Petter opened another gallery in East Grand Rapids and started a craft one on the corner of Culver and Water streets. All have since been consolidated into the Douglas flagship gallery.

After an influential art trip to Boston, Petter started Columbus Day weekend and President’s Day Winter Break Gallery Strolls involving multiple local shops. Her phrase “The Art Coast of Michigan” was born.

Petter and friends saved the Saugatuck painter’s pallet sign still seen at the city’s Lake Street entrance from Blue Star, collaborated with the Ox-Bow Art School, with Saugatuck High School art teacher Christa Wise created the Art-a-Loan program for Saugatuck Public Schools, served as Saugatuck Area Business Association president, and worked with neighbors to prevent a McDonald’s (what she called “generica”) from locating downtown.

Then Gov. Jennifer Granholm honored Petter with a State of Michigan Special Tribute Award and praised her for being a passionate champion of her community.

Through the first 20-plus years the galleries flourished and local tourism grew. Finding need for more space and parking, Petter spied what seemed perfect.

The old River Guild Gallery Center, built in the late 1920s as a lumber yard, reopened with extensive renovations by Hoerman as the River Guild Gallery Center. By the late 1980s it was called Gray Gables and was available.

With architect friend John Hurst, Petter renovated it and found proper doors including carved wooden archways and mantels. Then she discovered another portal. Hidden behind drywall was the original front door Hoerman carved, with his logo included. It now hangs within the gallery. Next came The Barn and Garden.

When Petter retired in 2006 her daughter Connie first ran the show, followed by a short stint with Joyce’s friend Arthur Frederick, who combined it with his Button Gallery.

In 2013, now daughter-in-law Juli Petter left what she calls the corporate grind to transform a section of the main floor to showcase handpicked boutique wines, the Petter Wine Gallery.

In 2015 Juli became the owner and director of the renamed J. Petter Galleries, including Joyce’s expansive two-floor collection. Now Juli’s daughter, Mackenzie Hans, perpetuate the tradition — joins her mother perpetuating growth there too.

All are welcome to celebrate June 10, free.

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