What Happened when “City Girl” Catherine Lange Turned to Nature
There was the moment at the Opening Reception when I was leaning against the doorway in between the two galleries, surrounded by my art and seventy-five people, many of whom I didn’t know, who were admiring it. That’s when I felt a lifelong dream had been fulfilled.”
That transcendent moment took place in Washburn, WI, in 2014, at age 65. But there were a few years and several transitions on the road from deciding to leave Chicago in 2006 and settling in Washburn, Wisconsin, beginning in 2012. There was a four month stint with the Mayo Clinic that gave her a taste of “smaller-town” life (in Rochester, MN…smaller compared to Chicago) and offers for full-time work there and in Chicago.
And there was “a guy” along the way that may have been an original impetus to move to Wisconsin. But upon moving to Washburn, Catherine found she loved the community. “I got up here as a ‘city girl’ and was struck by the majesty of Lake Superior, the gorgeous hiking trails, snow trekking. And so many artists.” And so she stayed even when the relationship that brought her there ended.
Through it all, Catherine still ran her graphic design business, remotely, with a steady supply of projects and referrals from former Chicago associates and others. But that yearning to create art was always smoldering beneath the surface.
“What art could I possibly create to have my own show?” she pondered. She cycled through the various arts in her mind… “Painting? Not ready. Sculpture? I could never do sculpture…” It was a friend who reminded her that she was a photographer. “Why not do a photography exhibit?” he suggested.
The Birth of “Why This Place”
That conversation sparked the idea that took her across the northwestern, Chequamegon Bay region of Wisconsin, to create the portraits, landscapes and essays for the aforementioned exhibit in 2014 and the subsequent self-published book, Why This Place? The Chequamegon Bay & Beyond—Through the Eyes and Hearts of People Who Live Here: Photographs & Photo Essays by Catherine Lange that came out in 2016.
The original concept for the photography exhibit was to capture the natural beauty of the region on camera and to combine that with Lange’s love of doing “environmental portraits” of people—showing a person inside of their environment. “It’s the details around them that often tell more about who a person is.
“I wasn’t inclined to go out exploring on my own, so I asked 16 people to take me out to their favorite places in nature. I started with people I knew, but then others started to make suggestions.”
One of the first subjects was the son of a friend, an eight-year-old boy who had a vision of a place he remembered from when he was three and visited Madeline Island. “He’s running down the trail along the cliffs, and each time he sees a way to climb down he peers over…’it’s not this one’ he shouts and runs to the next. ‘This is the one’ he finally shouts with glee. Even his mom didn’t know how he remembered this special place, only visited once before.”
Another person featured was a 83-year-old dairy farmer and owner of Tetzner’s Dairy Store. “It’s a store that still operates on the honor system to buy milk, cheese, ice cream…you write down what you bought and leave the money in an envelope.” From him, she got stories of growing up in the depression. “He still lives in same house he was born in.”
Her Walter Mitty Moment
“I was 65 when I climbed up the ladder on an 80-foot-high silo and overcame my fear of the water by boating to Manitou Island and to Bark Bay.”
The former was to photograph the 83-year-old dairy farmer. His son thought she might get a better feel for the landscape from the higher perspective. After anchoring herself to the narrow metal landing, she settled into absorbing the beauty and snapping photos, only to find upon her descent that she had been up there a full two hours. “It was breathtaking,” she said.
As for her fear of water, “I’ve had a terror of being out on open water my whole life. Lake Superior is very deep and very cold. There are many shipwrecks in Lake Superior.” But she had to get out to Manitou Island to photograph a woman who was a park service volunteer there. She forewent the inexpensive route, “a small boat with a young guy who wanted to pick up another guy and load him and his kayak on our boat, and then take us all to the island.”
She chose instead to charter a boat through one of the cruise lines, with a caveat that she could reschedule if it was too windy. They set her up with the captain who does the safety training for all of the other captains. Over the course of the hour-long ride there and back, her lifelong fear of open water started to dissipate…she even took the wheel. “For a few minutes I was the captain. It was huge.” And also helpful, for when she had to go out again, shortly thereafter, to photograph a person who teaches people to kayak and then leads them on tours to the Apostle Islands—his favorite place was in his kayak on the water.
Her Paris Hilton Moment…NOT
Actually, Catherine achieved her dreams with hard work, volunteering, networking, personal sacrifice and persistence. Kind of the way that “old” people tell “young” people they should do it. Apparently because it works no matter your age.
“As soon as I moved up here I started teaching Tai Chi and started meeting people that way.” (She started studying Tai Chi in her 20’s, started teaching in her 50’s.) She volunteered to be a board member of the Chequamegon Bay Arts Council and did their newsletter pro-bono while serving on the board. From there she was appointed by the Governor to serve on the Wisconsin Arts Board (WAB), where she recently volunteered to create graphic legislative reports for state representatives to see how local arts organizations in their districts were benefitting from WAB grants, which come from state funds matched by NEA funding.
The passion project itself required great sacrifice. She applied for and received a grant from the Chequamegon Bay Arts Council. “It didn’t cover everything, but it gave a ‘stamp of approval’ that helped in getting access to people and places (including a Native American cemetery as well as wild rice wetlands with the permission of the tribal chairman at a nearby reservation).
But there’s no way to glamorize the logistics. Lange booked the gallery space herself, hung the art and bought the refreshments. There was scheduling the interviews and going out to take the photographs—three times for each: the subject in their daily environment; the subject in their favorite place in nature; a landscape shot of their favorite place. There was producing and mounting the show and writing the stories.
August and September of 2014 were not so much fun, as she pushed getting the show done for the opening, while also maintaining a living with clients.
Then there was the exciting “compliment” of “oh…you should turn this into a book!” Most offset printers required her to print 500 copies, costing easily five figures. And then there was the part where she actually had to design and produce everything in book format. Thankfully she found Ingram Spark where she could print 150 copies and sell them at $20 each at local bookstores. “If I hadn’t [given up sleep and] found that online source I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
Catherine Lange, Local Celebrity
While Lange swears she will never again publish another book (here in print, so I can laugh with her later), she has enjoyed some local notoriety from the project.
Over 300 people visited during the initial exhibition. 11 local bookstores have carried the book. She got an article in the local paper to announce the opening. “I’ll meet someone for the first time, and they’ll tell me they saw the article, or that they just gave the book as a wedding gift, or received it as a Christmas gift,” says Lange. “I think it’s because it’s sharing photos of places that everybody loves up here.”
Social media also has been a way to connect. Lange has both a personal and a page for her creative services on Facebook. “Facebook conversations are pretty big up here. I can reach a lot of people in my community that way.”
What’s next for Catherine?
“Everything I’m doing is on a continuum of everything I’ve done before. With age I find I have nothing to lose. It’s more like…this is who I am. It’s about authenticity—you find your authentic self.”
Her dream took her beyond her comfort zone, so now she thinks, “Okay, I did that, so what’s next?
“It’s still on my bucket list to get back into painting, but I’ve also picked up beginning skills in mosaics, so I’ve got that cooking, too.”
Addendum…The Short Version Catherine Lange Bio
Self-described, from her website:
Catherine Lange is an independent photographer, graphic designer, and editor, who currently lives in northwestern Wisconsin and serves on the Wisconsin Arts Board. She teaches Tai Chi and is a Reiki master. Originally from Chicago, Lange earned a B.A. in Visual Arts from DePaul University and completed graduate study in photography at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design. Lange has worked in communications, publishing, and the graphic arts, including roles as production associate for Aperture in New York; publications manager for The University of Chicago Law School, Chicago Board of Education, and Chicago Park District; and managing editor for a Chicago publisher.