story by JENNIFER WEST | photos by HEIDI HODGES
The gallery grounds are covered with flower beds, turtle stepping stones and gardening paraphernalia. The sun beats warm against the red siding of the building, and once you open your car door and step into the parking lot, you feel like you’ve found a countryside nirvana.
It’s easy to see how a craftswoman would find inspiration in this environment.
Up to the entrance you go, and as soon as you pull open the door, the soft, earthy odor of leather hits you. A little unexpected, perhaps. You touch a handbag and slide your fingers across its satiny texture. All around you hang beautiful bags in every size and shape, some with hand-painted embellishments, some with added panels of texture, many in deep, rich hand-dyed hues.
But all designed and made by Mary Ellen Sisulak, the owner and resident artist at Turtle Ridge Gallery.
The gallery, which opened in 1986, is one of the Door’s premier leatherworks shops. Loyal customers come back season after season to see Sisulak’s newest creations, which are typically inspired by the flora and fauna of the nearby nature conservancy.
“I use turtles the most,” Sisulak said of her gallery’s namesake, “but I also use wildflowers and just about any kind of plant. The luna moth is one of my all-time favorites.”
This year, her collection is inspired by woodland spirits, reflecting the mystery of the “enchanted woods.” In the newest Turtle Ridge Gallery look book, models wear exotic headdresses and elaborate costumes as they hold Sisulak’s leather and fabric creations.
“It’s not the usual fashion shots,” she says. “We photographed it right here to make it really special and really appealing to people because this is where the inspiration is coming from. It’s kind of making our work into imagery.”
But although Sisulak’s current work is focused on sophisticated handmade items, her career started with more humble beginnings.
Sisulak, who studied art—primarily painting—at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, stumbled into leather arts as a necessity of sorts.
“I had sewn since I was a kid, and I started making some things for myself because at the time, there wasn’t much to carry your art supplies in,” she said.
She began selling her functional backpack designs to other art students, making the first sales of what would become a career in leather.
After graduation, she took a trip to Ellison Bay to visit a friend (now husband) Rob Bussler, and she realized the artist-friendly community could be a good place to start a business.
“I came up here to visit and said, ‘Hmmmm. Maybe I could sell some work,’” Sisulak said. “I just hauled all of my stuff up here and started working.”
The couple eventually purchased 20 acres, where the studio now sits. They hunkered down and committed to pursuing a sustainable lifestyle in their Ellison Bay residence.
“We grew our own food for everything. That’s kind of what started the craziness of the garden near the shop,” Sisulak says, explaining her unusual mix of leather craft and gardening interests. “It’s just part of the whole experience of living here, and it’s one of the reasons why we wanted to live here.”
That philosophy, of being respectful of the land and living sustainably, spills into the gallery. The building is heated with a water heater and features super-insulated panels. Its south-facing windows provide ample natural light and added heat in the slower winter months. The leather purses each tout vegetable-tanned, environmentally friendly leathers, which, as Sisulak says, “are really lovely to work with.”
And although leather is still the gallery’s primary component, Sisulak has expanded into other media, which gives her clientele more options. You’ll find hand-dyed fabrics, original artwork, fabric wall hangings and more, all created by Sisulak with design and production support from her husband as well as Turtle Ridge employee Asta Zukauskiene.
“I’m branching into more fiber these last couple of years,” she says. “We have a lot of repeat customers, and we’re always searching out for new items because our things last so long. I figured out how to digitally reproduce my paintings on silk, and then I started doing some rock and bark textures as digital images, and then I started thinking about dyeing fabrics. I had done a lot of these things at the university, so I have a lot of skills in my toolbox.”
The gallery, which is open year-round, also hosts trunk shows for visiting artists. Sisulak, who has exhibited in juried arts shows around the country, enjoys bringing new talent to the Door.
“We know so many artists from doing so many shows for so many years,” she says. “It’s great to expand the horizons and get some new customers.”
During the slower winter season, the gallery also hosts a Frostbite Party and Sale, which is themed and always interesting. Sisulak and her hardworking staff—affectionately called “Team Turtle”—develop costumes for the January event and provide light refreshments to guests. It’s a sale party worth attending, not only for the bargains but also for the camaraderie.
“There’s always something for everyone here,” Sisulak says. “We also have lots of little pieces of leather leftover, so we can make bracelets and other small items.”
Take a dig through the tiny drawers in the gallery, and you’ll find plenty of those small items Sisulak talks about. Cuffed bracelets and change purses. Small embossed bags and even belt buckles. There really is something for everyone.
So the next time you take a ride through Ellison Bay, don’t be so hasty leaving town. Take a drive down Mink River Road and stop in at that cozy studio with the pleasant gardens.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll end up taking a Turtle Ridge masterpiece home with you.