Have you noticed the vitality of the arts in the Upper Peninsula? As with any example of robust health, many factors have combined over time to create this success. One woman who played a key role in this by example, educating, and organizing, is Anita Meyland.
Anita was born on March 5, 1897, to an artistic Milwaukee family. Her father, Fredrick Elke, learned how to paint frescoes, painting on wet plaster, and his work decorated many area churches.
Anita graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1917 and became an art teacher in Milwaukee. Upon marrying English teacher Gunther Meyland in 1924, they moved to Marquette where he had been hired by the normal school, now Northern Michigan University.
Although others called Anita “the grande dame of culture” in Marquette, “patroness of the arts” and even “bohemian,” the words she most often used to describe herself were “teacher” and “dilettante.”
Anita loved to teach.
She taught art in the Marquette and Ishpeming schools. She brought a group of women painters together who met every week for eleven years, studying a new painter each week,and then learning to paint in that style. She created “The Paintbox,” a children’s program held on Saturday mornings for any child who wanted to attend. She taught adult education art classes within the school system and for the elderly residents of Pine Ridge. She’s best known for organizing and naming Marquette’s first “Art on the Rocks” show in 1950, showing the work of ten local artists, most of whom she had trained. Her work with the Lake Superior Art Association and the Art on the Rocks show earned her countless awards, including the naming of the gazebo at Presque Isle Park (the site of Art on the Rocks for many years) after her.
It’s more surprising that she would embrace the term “dilettante.” We’re now in an era that venerates specialization. The term “dilettante” suggests a dabbler—someone who never takes anything too seriously. Anita would vigorously disagree. She never stopped learning new things and never stopped sharing them.
So, in addition to her painting, Anita learned to weave, and organized an Upper Peninsula weavers group. She studied pottery, and 200 pots from her own collection formed the basis of a pottery exhibit at NMU in 1980. She learned, and then taught classes in scrimshaw, quilting, spinning, pewter, ironwork, beading, candle-making, and woodcarving.
Nor did Anita limit herself to the visual arts.
She was a charter member of the Marquette Community Concert Association, and active in the Saturday Music Club. She wrote a play for Marquette’s Centennial in 1949. A newspaper article from 1984 describes her eagerly preparing for the upcoming U.P. Young Authors conference, planning a theme based on cats—ranging from T.S. Eliott to Garfield.
What about Anita Meyland as “bohemian”? Scrapbooks from the early years of the Lake Superior Art Association include a 1963 invitation to “Vida’s Vignettes—An Evening with Vida Lautner, Artist.” The Tuesday evening event began with a reception at 8:30, followed by a talk at 9, “art and punch on the rocks” at 10:30, “the vernissage” (showing) at 11 p.m., and then at 3:00 a.m. “Comes the Dawn.”
There were people who thought the name “Art on the Rocks” was inappropriate because it suggested drinking. Anita was not inclined to change it. In a 1978 interview, she was described as “a little indignant” at the prospect of a return to provincialism in the arts, saying “I’m afraid we’re going back in that direction.”
Above all, Anita Meyland believed you should never stop learning, and never stop growing. Anita continued pursuing her multiple artistic interests right up until her death on March 7, 1995, just two days after her 98th birthday.
Ann Hilton Fisher grew up in Marquette and remembers Anita Meyland in her lovely home on Pine Street. After a career as a public interest attorney in Chicago, she and her husband have retired to Marquette where she volunteers with the Marquette Regional History Center. This article is adapted from a presentation given at the History Center’s 2019 cemetery tour.
Excerpted with permission from the Fall 2020 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2020, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.