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Breehan James’ “The Cottage” celebrates “Up North” Wisconsin vacation culture

A detail of one of the untitled paintings in Breehan James' show "The Cottage." The painting shows a land-line phone mounted on a wood-paneled wall. To one side is aroad map labeled "Forest County, WIS." Photo by Breehan James.
A detail of one of the untitled paintings in Breehan James’ show “The Cottage.” Photo by Breehan James.

The show of charming, nostalgic paintings is up at Arts + Literature Laboratory through August 13.

In her exhibition The Cottage, showing through August 13 at Arts + Literature Laboratory, artist Breehan James documents the timelessness and beauty of the American “Up North” by creating intimate Plein-air gouache portraits of her family’s Forest County vacation cottage, built in the 1960s by her grandfather and his siblings. This place so rife with nostalgia is a portal connecting the past to the present, reaching from generation to generation, taking viewers back to the playful energy and blissful innocence of youth.

An untitled painting by artist Breehan James shows an exterior view of a wood-paneled vacation cabin surrounded by pine trees. A sign hanging above the cabin's door reads "The Last Resort" and a green gas tank is visible on the right-hand side of the cabin. Photo by Breehan James.
Photo by Breehan James.

Born and raised in Oshkosh, James has vivid memories of growing up well acquainted with the great outdoors through camping in the woods, kayaking to the Boundary Waters, and visiting her family’s cottage up north. Even though she’s currently based in Maine, she finds herself drawn back to her home state. “The longer I live away from Wisconsin, the more I realize how its nature exists inside me,” James says. While pursuing her MFA, her thematic inclinations always led her back to her childhood home, and the body of work that makes up The Cottage was borne from this obsession. “I’ll always be a Midwesterner. It’s a part of me. It’s who I am,” she says. Now that James is exhibiting in Madison, she finds it comforting to hear personal stories of people who have shared the same memories of their own cottages—or cabins or vacation homes or whatever people choose to call them— and their own experiences with idyllic, buggy, varying-degrees-of-rustic Wisconsin vacations. 

James plans to self-publish a book in 2023 that combines these paintings and a personal essay reflecting on the cottage she spent so much time in during childhood vacations. “I want to offer the reader a kind of escape, a respite, a distraction from the everyday,” she says. Having a physical book offers a tangibility to these artworks. Additionally, the work possesses interiority. The paintings are sectioned in a way that collages important objects from various rooms, and flipping through the pages of the book would give the same experience as walking through the space itself.

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In the paintings, the rustic red cottage is nestled among a thicket of trees. Its yellow double-hung windows are playful, decorated with sheer white curtains that are embroidered with yellow daisies. James’ grandmother made the curtains herself, and even though she has long passed, she lives on through the works of her own hands. In the same way, James’ grandfather lives on through notes written on the walls—instructions on how the pump works and rules about the cabin, including: “Please do not put ANY PAPER PRODUCTS, except toilet paper in the toilet. Thank you!” He also lives on through the framed pictures of him on the walls from 40 years ago.

Soft light seeps into the hardwood floors of this private paradise, and although there are no people in this series of paintings, the space brims with life embodied in the inanimate objects lying around. On the walls hang a payphone, canoe paddles, a physical map of Forest County, with roads outlined in blue and red, and framed photos of Northern Cardinals and American robins. Loved ones inhabit the space through these random things—from the fireplace and the owl figurines atop the bookshelf, to the antique light fixtures that have not been changed since the cottage was built, to a technicolor ceramic fish with a potted plant inside of it. They, too, become characters that come alive and tell a story, giving us glimpses into the lives of James’ family. “Documenting these objects is a special way to connect with people who have passed,” James says. The lack of people also allows us to make the space our own and feel welcomed in it. James’ atmospheric approach brings the viewers into a space both private and communal. Such is the nature of home.

James’ paintings also look outside the cottage, where nature is sprawling. She takes notice of an abundance of wildlife—the frog, the dragonfly, the plants coming out of the water, and the rows of pine trees bordering the dirt roads that lead up to the house and down to the dock. Although the cottage is secluded, it is never truly isolated— because it’s surrounded by the teeming life of the woodlands. The woods are vibrant and lush and they hold an ethereal type of beauty, one that offers healing to the human soul. This may be the reason why Wisconsinites get away from their own realities with a compass pointing north. In its admittedly domesticated, nostalgic way, an Up North trip brings people back to their primal roots—staring at the fire, counting the stars, chasing the sun. In The Cottage, James gives viewers a taste of that peace.

An untitled painting by Breehan James shows a fireplace set against a brick wall and a tired floor. To the left is a shelf and a yellow curtain patterned with images of birds. To the right is a picture of an outdoor scene hanging on a wood-paneled wall. Photo by Breehan James.
Photo by Breehan James.

Although I am not a native of Wisconsin, James allowed me to experience the familiar warmth of Midwestern culture that will remain with me long after I’ve left this place. These gouache portraits of a humble abode demonstrate to me the kindness that embodies this region. The cottage is an image of home for Breehan James, and in this commemoration, she welcomes us in with a fireplace running and ready, even though we are strangers.

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