Artist's gift keeps on giving

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Her epitaph was her way of life: “Here lies one doubly blessed. She was happy and she knew it.”

I like that, just as I have always enjoyed each visit to her nature sanctuary on the Betsie River.

It is a 250-acre slice of northern Michigan nature, perhaps an odd site for one of the most successful printing operations in the state’s history.

For years, it was a place where you could see the owner-artist at work, methodically and creatively plying her trade. She was lovingly described as the “sassy grande dame of the Michigan art, nature and business” scenes and “as uniquely Michigan as the state’s mitten shape or the Petoskey stone.”

She must have liked such descriptions, perhaps almost as much as the thousands of visitors who continue to make the yearly trek to her nature shrine that is home to Presscraft Papers, better known as Gwen Frostic Prints.

The story of Gwen Frostic, of course, is a classic Horatio Alger tale, a rags-to-riches sort of spellbinder that delights those of all ages.

Frostic was a native of Michigan’s Thumb area and grew up in Wyandotte, where she founded her printing operation, eventually moving it to the beautiful Crystal Lake area near Beulah in 1964. A childhood illness reportedly left her with a cerebral palsy-like condition that noticeably affected her speech and motor skills.

She, however, had a distinct disdain for being labeled as “handicapped,” preferring instead to apply her business and creative genius to building a multi-million-dollar printing empire that contines to hum today.
From the display room of her printing operation, shoppers can enjoy the warmth of a huge fireplace and natural fountain that are nestled near a fleet of Heidelberg presses that stamp out napkins, notepapers, placemats, books, and postcards in a rainbow of colors, using the original blocks created by Frostic.

She studied art at Eastern Michigan University and Western Michigan, later working in the tool and die operation at the Willow Run bomber plant during World War II. In 1978, then-Governor William Milliken declared May 23rd as “Gwen Frostic Day” in Michigan. Some eight years later, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, an honor she gracefully took to her passing on April 25, 2001, one day before what would have been her 95th birthday.

Her love of nature and wildlife are lasting legacies depicted in every image stamped by the massive Heidelberg presses.

“I work with nature because it treats me equally,” Frostic once said.

Fittingly, she would become a first among equals at Western Michigan University, her alma mater. It was there that she left a bequest of $13 million, reportedly the largest single gift in the school’s history. The generosity was reflected in 2007 when WMU named its school of art after her.

The university, according to reports, has “channeled much of her gift to foster artistic pursuits, including the English Department’s Gwen Frostic Reading Series, School of Art facilities, and student scholarships in art and creative writing.” Funds also are designated for business scholarships and three Gwen Frostic Medallion Scholarships, which are awarded to incoming freshmen and are valued at $40,000 over four years.
There, as WMU officials continue to marvel at the scope of Frostic’s philanthropy, the late artist’s words carry double the meaning:

They are happy and they know it.