The Flying Pig Gallery

The cliché “when pigs fly” is the perfect turnabout for the Flying Pig Gallery and Green Space in Algoma. Nestled at the foot of Door County, the art gallery and 15 acres of surrounding natural gardens is creative, eclectic, sustainable and what art is meant to be in every way.

Beauty is a concept with blessedly blurry boundaries, according to co-owners Susan Connor and Robyn Mulhaney, who as artists, gardeners and business people have a systemic disdain for anything fake, stilted or wasteful.

“I made a comment once to my friend, who ended up being my business partner, that I had a vision,” Mulhaney said. Less than a decade ago, she had confided in Connor she doubted she’d ever have her own business. After they had found the land, planned and were building the gallery, Conner reminded her of those profound doubts that were about to be swept away.

“I thought, ‘oh my gosh, that’s what we have to name it’,” Mulhaney exclaimed. “Our pig flew!”

Thus began the high-spirited celebration of the arts and gardening embodied by The Flying Pig, where the whimsy of folk art is just one artistic trough in the pen. Seasonal gardens and music, a creative staff and the mood of the visitors themselves all contribute to an energy that gives the place a life of its own.

“We think of it as celebratory because when people stop here they leave feeling like they’re part of something,” Mulhaney said.

The two hope this is why visitors love to sip organic coffee, tea, cold beer or fine wine surrounded by original amateur art in an eco-eclectic environment. The bright and airy gallery is filled with a full range of human expression from two-dimensional and functional art to jewelry and sculpture sits amid natural gardens, marshes and a pond that beckons to visitors of all ages. Their customers include amateur art lovers, regional regulars, seasonal visitors, those who come seeking comfort and peace, and even children who enjoy their catch-learn-and-release resident wildlife population.

On the other side are the artists featured in The Flying Pig.

Typically, artists aren’t good business people, so their gallery is a conduit to get their artwork to the people, Mulhaney said. She and Connor gravitated toward folk art after being inspired by folk art galleries in the south.

Folk art is the product of untrained, amateur artists. The works are raw, naïve, honest and unexpected because these untaught artists create out of their hearts, souls and compulsions, Mulhaney added. It isn’t unusual to see visitors smiling, or to even hear them laugh out loud as they connect with the artist’s message or interpretation.

“Artists are really storytellers. With our gallery we also strive to tell the story of the artists and why they create what they create,” she said. “That helps to develop the emotional bond between the purchaser and the artist.”

The organic process of how the gallery and grounds evolved around the art is part of the tale of how The Flying Pig became Wisconsin’s first Travel Green Wisconsin certified retail business to incorporate a geothermal passive solar system. With both an artistic and environmentally aware eye on the advantages of natural light, the gallery’s architectural design was inspired by the old feed mill in downtown Sturgeon Bay. Plans for an attached green house and directional orientation shifted to make the building energy efficient. The result is a two-story structure topped with a cupola, but the inherent temperature swings of glassed space eliminated the greenhouse.

“The cupola just looked cool, but as it turns out it’s an important component of our heating and cooling system,” Mulhaney said. “When we decided to use solar energy we had to change a few things.”

They searched hard for environmentally friendly materials, which weren’t easy to find just a few years ago.

“I’m so envious of the materials and options that are available today that weren’t around when we were building,” Mulhaney said. “We’ve also improved as a green business since opening by switching to green packaging and paper products, using fair trade supplies and putting compostable containers in the coffee bar. The gardens are chemical free and we use a windmill to aerate the wetland pond.”

But recycling – or re-recycling – began with the purchase of three shacks from a neighboring artist who had moved and repurposed the tiny seasonal migrant crop-picker shelters from farther up the Door County countryside. So far, one of the shacks has been converted into an outdoor staging center for art demonstrations and summer music performances. Inside and out, they are constantly striving to improve, Mulhaney said. This year they will put a green roof on one of the shacks. This past winter was waste free, meaning whatever they used was recycled, reused or repurposed in some way. It led to the birth of Betty, a pig made of non-recyclable waste. Yep, another pun on eliminating wasteful environmental pork.

On yet another level, is art nature? Yes. Is art human’s interpretation of nature? Yes. Is art human coexisting with nature? Well, yes. Is art that place where humans find harmonious contentment in the natural world? Without a doubt, yes! The Flying Pig is a destination garden.

“I think we unintentionally offer what Mother Nature offers up plus my free-form style of gardening,” said Mulhaney, a self-taught master gardener who prefers to see plants in context, not in a catalog or greenhouse. “I’ve always been willing to get in the car and drive three to four hours to experience a space, so I asked myself where would I shop as a gardener and return to every year? It’s how a gardener grows, Mulhaney said seriously embracing every nuance of another playful pun.

The 15-acre site was a blank canvas. Mulhaney has developed display gardens and sculpture gardens on four of the acres with the help of a creative and dedicated staff ranging in age from 16 to 65. They’ve built corduroy paths made of timbers in the marsh, stained sheds, and laid paths of reclaimed pavement from downtown Sturgeon Bay.

“Our gardens are not just for beauty, or sculpture or art,” she said. “They’re test plots. We’re learning from them and that’s the fun of it. We’re not growers, we’re retailers. We’re a very funky garden center.”

Toward the rear of the property is an existing marsh and pond that has its own magnetic power.

“Once people know the pond is back there, they just want to get to it, so we accommodated that,” Mulhaney said. The wetland has marsh marigolds, cattails, coy, dragonflies, frogs and a fully-natural symphonic ecosystem with a windmill-powered aeration system. Adults like to gather there with friends to relax, or hear live performances in the summer. But equipped with nets to help catch, learn and release the resident creatures, the area is particularly child-friendly.

“The kids are just enthralled,” she said. “After all they are our future customers, artists and gardeners.”

This entry was posted in Museums & Galleries and tagged Features and Profiles