I think I was about 10 or 11 when I decided that I wanted to become a naturalist. I wasn’t actually sure how to become one, but ever since I discovered Gwen Frostic, I knew that I wanted to be just like her.
My Mom had bought a couple of her books and some of her greeting cards and I loved her style. They were filled with poetry and original prints of wild flowers, birds and her special signature logo – a tree frog. She managed to make a living doing the three things I loved most, drawing, poetry and the out-of-doors. I thought at the time that this was what a naturalist was supposed to be.
Because Mom knew of my passion, she took me to see her when she came to town to speak at the local Nature Center. I was star-struck. There, in a room full of women (there were no men and I was the only child) Gwen told us her story. She came to Kalamazoo in the 1920’s to go to the teacher’s college (now Western Michigan University) and got a degree in art during a period when few women went to college. After finishing school, she tried creating works of art by working with metal but couldn’t make a living at it.
Looking around for something that would help pay the bills, she bought a used printing press and taught herself to make linoleum blocks for printing. This was the start of Presscraft Papers, and the cards, stationary and books that she created by hand are still made and sold today. She passed away about 11 years ago but her work lives on in the small town of Benzonia Michigan. Her studio is made of natural stone and is a very popular place for visitors who can see the printing presses still printing out her work.
I’ll always admire Gwen Frostic; despite a physical handicap from a bout with Polio when she was young, she used her talent and love of nature to build a successful business. She was outspoken and feisty, and I know that she influenced me greatly. Being a graduate of WMU, she often came to town to speak at the college, to elementary school kids and the community. Whenever she came to town, I would try to go hear her speak. Her message was “if I can do it, you can too” and it always inspired me.
I’ll never forget that day at the Nature Center, when after her talk, my Mom dragged the shy 10 year old right up to the front of the room and told Gwen how much I admired her. It was the thrill of my life when she gravely shook my hand, thanked me for coming and told me to keep drawing.
Now, at 58 years old, I’m drawing again and dreaming of becoming a naturalist, though I’m still not exactly sure how.