Tamarack, a hidden gem among Leelanau’s commercial galleries

By Madeleine Hill Vedel

Sun contributor

You can’t drive through the tiny lakeside village of Omena without stopping to check out the gallery which has been a fixture there for more than 40 years. Tamarack Gallery, opened by David and Sally Viskochil in 1972, was originally located in a building owned by Sugar Loaf and then moved to its current Omena location in 1976. Though David, the joyful and warm-hearted frontman—committed to his artists and his clients both—died unexpectedly in 2005, Sally, with the capable assistance of Len Cowgill, has kept the gallery open and flourishing since.

“They’re number one on my list,” says potter Eric Jensen. “I’m a self-employed artist for around 40 years, a little more than that. We go back a long ways, around the neighborhood of 1975/76/77. The clinching element, is that they’ve always been really good for business too. They do what seems a little improbable to me—a gallery sitting up there by itself, a bend in the road where there’s little else—not the art gallery district of New York. And they’ve made it work.”

Landscape painter Stephen Duren agrees.

“Tamarack is a hidden gem among commercial galleries in Michigan,” he says. “It is one of the few second-tier galleries that holds art that transcends what you would typically find in a tourist space. It is not a tourist gallery. David’s taste was unique and refreshing, an aesthetic that Sally and Len continue to promote.”

David and Sally’s recipe for starting a gallery was rather unusual one: two art degrees (one in art history and the other in lithography), a stint in the Peace Corps, and the stress brought on by a particularly low point when every stitch of their belongings (but for a bag of dirty clothes and old shoes) was stolen from their car during a visit to friends in Chicago. “We started the business because we couldn’t find jobs,” Sally explains. “We were driving around the country looking for work. We struggled for a while, then came back to Traverse City and decided that since this is what we knew, we’d try opening a gallery. We made this map which kept us alive for a while—the first year, just a couple of months—grossing $3,000 in sales that first year.”

From a starting group of 10 artists, and the commitment to pay them first (before the electric bill or taxes), driven by the discerning eyes of David and Sally, there is now a rotating roster of about 65 artists represented in the white, historic storefront, its large picture windows and little porch facing the lake, welcoming the light streaming in. There you will find the traditional arts (painting, sculpture, photography), crafts (wooden bowls, jewelry, blown glass), folk art, outsider art, and many things in-between, from the witty to the soul-stirring to the (relatively) functional.

Contented client J. Carl Ganter shares, “Rather than pining for an ephemeral toaster, we took an unconventional route and registered at Tamarack Gallery for our wedding because art is timeless. It’s fun to look around the house today and remember the friends and creativity behind the gifts (in choice and creation), some simple, some elaborate. And we did get the toaster… mischievously transformed by Michigan artist Dewey Blocksma.”

For years, Sally and David worked seven days a week, never taking vacations. Living in their apartment above the gallery “made it easier.” Their goal when choosing artists was to look beyond the local and regional (although they do represent a number of local artists), and to establish long-lasting relationships. “When we selected someone’s work it was because we truly believed they had something special to offer, and they as an artist would grow, and be able to get through the hard times when work doesn’t sell. It was our philosophy and commitment always to the artists. We also built wonderful relationships with customers, knowing some from when they were little kids, to today, when their own children are getting married.”

Suttons Bay resident Karl Bahle concurs. “I’ve purchased more art at Tamarack in the past 40 years than at any other nearby gallery.”

The death of David was a blow to Sally, as well as to the community surrounding it. But, she says, “It just keeps going on. Both as an institution, but also as something fresh and interesting. Len, [though he’s] a very shy person, does a fabulous job managing the gallery for me, maintaining it at the level we had it, if not going beyond. I let him make a lot of decisions. He does all of the displays, changes things around, alerts me when people send work, he weeds it out and sends me only the best ones. Makes my job easier, I also have Marianne Vick – an amazing artist in her own right, who worked with us while David was still alive.”

When they moved to Omena, David and Sally, along with their daughter Sara, made the choice to engage in their community as much as their gallery schedule would allow. David was on the school board for 16 years. Sally volunteered with the Northport girls’ basketball team, the local 4H club, and “anything to do with horses” according to artist Dewey Blocksma. For the annual village parade both Sally’s famous cherry pies (upwards of 100 some pies) and their creatively trained border collies were regular participants. Of particular note was their participation in assisting in the raising of funds to move and refurbish the Putnam Cloud House from the local Villa Marquette Jesuit Retreat to its current location, and function as the home of the local historical society.

“I remember going to Tamarack way before I was looking for galleries,” says local artist and illustrator Glenn Wolff. “It was such a cool place to visit. When they finally accepted my work, I felt it was and still is the best gallery in the area. David had a great eye seeing things—pointing out what I’d done, really supportive whenever I came in with new work. Sally was always there too, always supportive. Now that it’s being managed by Len, an artist himself I really respect—a really good thing for the gallery to have the artist’s perspective. Everything is tastefully done, not too cluttered. I think it’s been between 15-20 years I’ve worked with them. And what’s really interesting for me is that I even left for a year or two, and then came back. I had been struggling financially and thought I might do better elsewhere, but that didn’t happen. Sally let me back in. It was that kind of support that I thought was incredible.”

Entering the gallery, you are greeted by layers and textures in every direction, on the wall, on the shelves, in corners, out front in the yard, hanging from the ceiling, inside glass cases. Where some traditional galleries feature one artist each month, the Tamarack prefers to have an ever-changing presentation of a plethora of artists, with only the side room kept to feature a single artist.

“We used to do openings a couple of times a year,” said Sally. “Now we do one a year. We feature one artist in the summer time, their featured show in the side room with a reception. In the main room are our house artists, though work moves through and out and gets changed around. Usually for our receptions, Stephen Duren, a landscape artist, comes with his jazz band and they play for his openings.”

This year of the pandemic there will be no large reception as the gallery is not yet ready to welcome a crowd. However, according to gallery manager Len, “the year has been much better than expected. Entrance control wasn’t much of a problem, only two or three people would ever be in here at a time. They were all great about wearing masks and social distancing.”

Passionate in his tribute to Sally and David, Dewey Blocksma says, “Sally and David also collected the work of their artists. They’re advocates, loyal to the artists they represent. They stick with the people they choose, for years and years. That’s why they’re so highly respected in the art community. Their interests and ours would coincide—Sally has an interest in music, so I would make violin women; or in women’s rights, so I would make boxing women. We share concern for the environment, so I’d make a Thoreau in his pond. Over a period of years, we’ve been on the same train, gathering once in a while in the dining car, while we watch the world go by, having great conversations.”

The gallery is currently open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sundays from 12pm to 5pm. It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. However, it will soon be open all week when Marianne Vick is back to work this summer. “The world is slowly righting itself,” writes Len.