Thursday, June 12, 2014

Farm fresh art and artisan foods in Fennville

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
June 12, 2014

Dawn Soltysiak in her studio

An art gallery and specialty grocery store in downtown Fennville, is part of the creative package that Dawn Soltysiak offers. At her farm, her kiln is solar powered and there's more space for other artists' works. Zinta Aistars has the story.

Far, far into the green and open country, where the road winds into what the uninitiated call "middle of nowhere" but the initiated term "ahhhhhhh, bliss," is a large red barn and an old yellow house. On the house, just above the curved red brick stairs leading to the wrap-around porch, is the name of the farm: Fernwood. It dates back to 1891.

Dawn Soltysiak has lived on the 32-acre farm at 6322 113th Avenue in Fennville with her husband Rob for 14 years. They are not alone. On the farm with them are 115 chickens, one llama, several peacocks, two sheepdogs, a herd of Scottish Highland cattle, a horse, ducks and bees in hives. 

Inside the big red barn, its side decorated with an assortment of shiny hubcaps and a sign that states "Barn Goddess Parking Only," is more treasure. Soltysiak is not only barn goddess, but also resident artist at Khnemu Studio, housed in the barn along with a shop selling the work of 25 southwest Michigan potters and artists. The studio is named for Khnemu, the god of creation, arts and craft, and fertility in Egyptian mythology.

"I got scared when I saw the listing for this place," says Soltysiak, sitting on her porch with sheep dog Samson leaning into her. She’s wearing denim cover-all shorts and a blue bandana to match, two long braids hanging over her shoulders. "Scared because that’s how much I wanted it. It wasn’t anything like this back then. No plantings, nothing for the animals … but I could see its potential."

Her eye was trained for it. Soltysiak, a Rockford native, worked as a real estate agent in greater Grand Rapids for 12 years, the last year overlapping her move to Fernwood Farm. 

"Pottery, I did that always," Soltysiak says. "It’s how I kept my sanity. But once we moved here, a year later, I walked away from real estate totally. I haven’t kept up my license. I don’t want a back door. Was it scary? Sure. And it’s ten times harder to start your own business than you think, but it’s worked. People give up too easily."

Soltysiak has not only not given up; she’s expanding. In May 2014, she opened an extension of Fernwood Farm and Khnemu Studio in the form of an art gallery and specialty grocery store in downtown Fennville, at 120 Main Street, a couple doors down from the popular restaurant, Salt of the Earth. The new shop is called, aptly,Fernwood 1891.

"I didn’t really dream about opening a shop," Soltysiak says. "It was just something always there, in the back of my mind, something I kept thinking about. When the previous tenant of the space moved out, I immediately moved in."

The grand opening, with its ribbon-cutting ceremony, pottery-making demonstrations, music and food, was a grand success, bringing in about 200 people and double the sales Soltysiak had dared hoped to make.

"We pulled it all together by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin," Soltysiak says with a laugh. "We had old timey music, and people brought along their own instruments and jammed. Family and friends helped with the food, and we had tents out back for the overflow. There was a synergy of people inviting other people."

Keeping that synergy going between Khnemu Studio and Fernwood 1891, Soltysiak employs five people at the shop, and all five are makers. "I call them makers, not artists," says Soltysiak. "Fernwood 1891 is a makers market, makers of things. The potters who work there do so in exchange for kiln time at the studio. My assistant, Erica Shirey, works for pay, but all the others are exchange situations."

Soltysiak walks her farm to show off the ...


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