WASHBURN, Wis. – “All we hear about is the North Rim. We don’t hear about the South Rim,” Jamey Penney-Ritter said. “But we have all these beautiful little places here that people love, and when you find that out and keep coming back, it’s almost like you’re hooked.”
If you have a Northland travel poster on your wall, on a magnet or on a mug, chances are it was designed by Penney-Ritter. This is especially likely if it’s a small town, state park, or local landmark that isn’t usually advertised at travel agencies or airports.
“No one had ever done travel posters, really, in this area,” Penney-Ritter said last week, sitting in her comfortable studio at 14 E. Bayfield St. “People are very excited. has so many little towns around here.”
The walls of Penney-Ritter’s boutique, Bemused Gallery & Studio, are entirely lined with prints of his designs. They’re all made to the same vertical rectangle dimensions, and most of them are inspired by vintage travel posters with the name of a place printed in bold letters over an illustration of an iconic site.
Some of the sights are very familiar: Skylift, Split Rock Lighthouse, Madeline Island Ferry. Others are a little more specialized: the Gordon Fire Tower, the Raspberry Island Lighthouse, the giant muskellunge in Hayward’s Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. “I like to say this is the largest collection of northern Wisconsin travel posters in the history of the world,” Penney-Ritter said, “because it probably is.”
Penney-Ritter’s best-selling poster this year might also feature the most obscure reference to his work. It depicts the Stanberry Railroad Bridge, which crosses US Highway 63 between Hayward and Spooner. The artist has faithfully rendered the bridge with his eternal graffiti message: “Spooner strokes”.
“I put this out while I was on spring break, April Fool’s Day,” Penney-Ritter laughed. “So I’m in Charleston, and my phone is blowing up because people are like, ‘Oh my god, I need this.'” One couple, she said, bought the poster as a wedding gift.
It turns out that the artist’s very first poster image was inspired by a wedding. As a gift honoring a relative’s wedding, Penney-Ritter created a stylized image of the couple standing on the shore of Bayfield with Madeline Island visible in the background. She designed it after the 1930s travel posters she had seen advertising her former home, Bermuda.
The enthusiastic reaction got Penney-Ritter thinking, “Maybe I’m onto something.” That was eight years and 160 posters ago. “I should retire when I have a thousand posters,” she said. “That’s the long-term goal of the to-do list.”
Penney-Ritter’s style dates back to the Art Deco era of the early 20th century, when poster artists influenced by Cubism and Futurism stylized scenic vistas with clean lines and flat tints of color. The travel posters created by the WPA’s Federal Art Project in the 1930s and 1940s are a touchstone, especially when it comes to the designs that Penney-Ritter created for Wisconsin state parks.
Each poster takes Penney-Ritter approximately 12 hours to create – longer if they are more complex. (Her Lift Bridge poster took about 30 hours, she said.) Penney-Ritter, who is also a photographer, usually starts with a reference photo and draws on it using Adobe Illustrator.
Where did she acquire her digital drawing skills? “I like to say streets and alleys, because I didn’t go to school for that,” said the artist, who went to college in her hometown, studying communication arts. and sociology at the University of Wisconsin Superior. After graduating in 1997, she worked in the media, moving with her husband Jason first to Bermuda (“because, why not?”) and then to San Diego. After two decades away, the couple moved back to the South Shore, where Penney-Ritter took a marketing job with Big Top Chautauqua.
Penney-Ritter did not give up her day job until her art became a sustainable business. “The art is the easy part,” the mother-of-two said. “The business is the hardest part. I could do this all day without making any money, but I don’t want to be a starving artist.”
Last year, she was ready to rent a boutique and a studio. Bemused is located on the first floor of a stately Romanesque Revival building that originally housed the Bayfield County Bank; the inventory closet is literally a safe. “The original outer door is in the museum,” Penney-Ritter said, pointing to the Washburn Area Historical Museum across the street.
Perhaps because the museum and nearby Legion Park attract so much attention, locals tend to forget the Bemused building exists. “When I tell people where I am, they’re like, ‘There’s no building there,'” Penney-Ritter said. “He’s 133. I’m sure he’s there.”
Over the next few months, Penney-Ritter’s work will also be on display at Duluth International Airport. The travel posters “seemed so well suited to the airport,” said Tricia Hobbs, senior economic developer for the City of Duluth. “People come home to this wonderful area or visit it, and so it was really great to be able to represent a lot of these remarkable places that they know and love or are discovering, perhaps, for the first time. “
Thirty-two of Penney-Ritter’s prints are on display in eight display cases at the airport, in a second-floor lobby outside security. One of the exhibits is a new poster depicting the airport itself. “This is a 1956 Northwest Airlines aircraft,” said the artist, who was inspired by a mid-century aesthetic suggesting a more glamorous era of air travel. “As soon as it was put into service, the airport architect ordered one.”
In what Penney-Ritter describes as “an almost backhanded compliment”, he is often asked if his posters are antiques. “I’m like, oh, no, they’re babies. Even the ‘old ones’ are only eight years old. I made (every poster) look old, but they’re new.”
Penney-Ritter’s designs gained a taste of national fame in 2020 when the popular Twitter account @ratemyskyperoom awarded U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin a full 10/10 and cited Wisconsin’s “brilliant series of prints on display behind the Democrat during a remote appearance on MSNBC.
In La Pointe, Wis., Madeline Island Candles offers a selection of Penney-Ritter creations, including some of those for which Baldwin has received accolades. Co-owner Michael Childers said the images were “very popular” with customers.
“People come back and they get them year after year,” Childers said. “One of the most popular prints we offer is the Big Bay City Park Lagoon. It’s something they’ve experienced and can take home as a souvenir.”
Although she’s only been in her studio for the past year, Penney-Ritter said, “I feel like I have growing pains and need a bigger building.” She hopes to stay in her current shop for as long as possible, but with posters cluttering up every square foot of display space, “I need three more walls.”
Demand for hyper-local posters shows no signs of letting up: Even as she sat down to demonstrate her design process, Penney-Ritter’s phone rang with an alert that indicated another sale via her website . Local businesses contact her regularly to order custom posters, and whenever she travels to sell her work at art fairs or events like the recent Festival of Sail in Two Harbors, she has to plan ahead. .
“If I go to a show in a city and I don’t have a poster with the name of that city,” she said, “I don’t hear the end of the day.”