Breehan James’ ‘The Cottage’ Celebrates Wisconsin’s ‘Up North’ Vacation Culture – Tone Madison

A detail of one of the untitled paintings in Breehan James’ ‘The Cottage’ exhibition. Photo by Breehan James.

The exhibition of charming and nostalgic paintings is in place at the Arts + Literature Laboratory until August 13.

In his exhibition The cottage, on view through August 13 at the Arts + Literature Laboratory, artist Breehan James documents the timelessness and beauty of America’s “Up North” by creating intimate outdoor gouache portraits of her family’s vacation cabin in Forest County, built in the 1960s by his grandfather and siblings. This place full of nostalgia is a portal connecting the past to the present, stretching from generation to generation, bringing viewers back to the playful energy and happy innocence of youth.

An untitled painting by artist Breehan James shows an exterior view of a wood-paneled vacation cabin surrounded by pine trees.  A sign hanging above the cabin door indicates
Photo by Breehan James.

Born and raised in Oshkosh, James has vivid memories of growing up knowing the great outdoors camping in the woods, kayaking to boundary waters and visiting his family’s cabin up north. Although she is currently based in Maine, she finds herself drawn back to her home country. “The longer I live away from Wisconsin, the more I realize just how much his nature exists within me,” James says. While pursuing her MFA, her thematic inclinations always brought her back to her childhood home, and the body of work that makes up The cottage was born out of this obsession. “I will always be a Midwesterner. It’s a part of me. It’s who I am,” she says. Now that James is exhibiting at Madison, she finds it heartening to hear personal stories from people who have shared the same memories of their own cabins – or cabins or vacation homes or whatever people choose to call them – and their own experiences with idyllic, buggy, rustic vacations in varying degrees in Wisconsin.

James plans to self-publish a book in 2023 that combines these paintings and a personal essay reflecting on the cottage she spent so much time in during her childhood holidays. “I want to offer the reader a sort of escape, a respite, a distraction from everyday life,” she says. Having a physical book provides tangibility to these works. Moreover, the work has an interiority. The paintings are sectioned so as to paste important objects from different rooms, and leafing through the pages of the book would give the same experience as walking through the space itself.


In the paintings, the rustic red cottage is nestled among a grove of trees. Its yellow double-hung windows are playful, decorated with white sheers embroidered with yellow daisies. James’ grandmother made the curtains herself, and although she is long dead, she lives through the works of her own hands. In the same way, James’ grandfather saw through notes written on the walls – instructions on how to operate the pump and rules about the cabin, including: “Please do not put ANY PRODUCT IN PAPER, with the exception of toilet paper in the toilets. Thank you!” He also lives through the framed photos of him on the walls from 40 years ago.

Soft light seeps into the hardwood floors of this private paradise, and although no one is in this series of paintings, the space is brimming with life embodied in the inanimate objects lying around. On the walls hang a payphone, canoe paddles, a physical map of Forest County, with roads outlined in blue and red, and framed photos of northern cardinals and American robins. Loved ones inhabit the space through these random things – from the fireplace and owl figurines atop the bookcase, to antique light fixtures that haven’t been changed since the cottage was built, to a ceramic fish technicolor with a potted plant inside. They too become characters who come to life and tell a story, giving us a glimpse into the life of James’ family. “Documenting these objects is a special way to connect with the people who have passed away,” James says. The lack of people also allows us to appropriate the space and to feel welcomed there. James’ atmospheric approach brings viewers into a space that is both private and communal. Such is the nature of the house. James’ paintings also look outside the cottage, where nature expands. She notices an abundance of wildlife – the frog, the dragonfly, the plants sticking out of the water, and the rows of pine trees lining the dirt roads that lead to the house and the dock. Although the chalet is isolated, it is never really isolated, as it is surrounded by the teeming life of the woods. The woods are vibrant and lush and they have an ethereal beauty, which offers healing to the human soul. Perhaps that’s why the people of Wisconsin stray from their own realities with a compass pointing north. In its admittedly domesticated and nostalgic way, a trip to the North takes people back to their primitive roots – watching the fire, counting the stars, chasing the sun. In The cottageJames gives viewers a taste of that peace.

An untitled painting by Breehan James shows a fireplace set against a brick wall and tired floor.  To the left is a shelf and a yellow curtain patterned with images of birds.  To the right is a picture of an outdoor scene hanging on a paneled wall.  Photo by Breehan James.
Photo by Breehan James.

Although I’m not from Wisconsin, James introduced me to the familiar warmth of Midwestern culture that will stay with me long after I leave this place. These gouache portraits of a humble home bear witness to the benevolence that this region embodies. The cottage is an image of home for Breehan James, and in this commemoration she welcomes us with a fireplace lit and ready, even though we are strangers.

About Jermaine Chase

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