Grandfather nurtured her passion for art on family farm

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Mary Ann Pahnke's art studio is located on the farm that her great-great grandfather purchased in 1898.

As soon as she could write her name, Mary Ann Pahnke soon discovered she had a passion for drawing.

With her sketchbook in hand, she scoured the family's dairy farm looking for any subject that caught her eye.

"If I wasn't milking or working up in the haymow, I would entertain myself by drawing cats or I would make sketches of my dad while he was working or milking cows," Pahnke said.

A new life in America

Over time she filled countless books with her sketches of rural life on the family's small dairy farm south of Fond du Lac. As she created her latest drawing, her grandfather, Edgar Wellnitz, would tell her stories about his grandfather, Friedrich Wellnitz, a farmer who left his homeland to find a new life in America.

With his second wife, Sophia, and his 10 children, the couple set sail from Hamburg, Germany in the spring of 1898. They eventually found themselves in Wisconsin just miles from the shores of Lake Winnebago in Fond du Lac County.

Friends and neighbors stop for a photograph during the barn-raising at the Wellnitz family farm in Fond du Lac County in 1898. It was during such a break that farm owner Albert Wellnitz suffered a heart attack while taking a water break.

Edgar's father, Albert, decided to follow in his father, Friedrich's footsteps and take over the family farm. While building the new barn, the tired workers paused to take a break. Pahnke says her great-grandfather Albert's body went into shock as he drank cold water from the farm well.

"He ended up dying from a heart attack," Pahnke explained. "Edgar's mother asked her two brothers to come help run the farm until Edgar could take it over when he turned 14."

Pahnke says she inherited her grandfather's love for the farm and the land. It's that passion that drove her to capture images of the rural landscape and people that made up the tapestry of her early years.

"My grandfather meant a great deal to me and he was so supportive of my art as long as it never got in the way of my chores," Pahnke said.

At the age of 18, Edgar Wellnitz had already been running the family farm for four years following his father, Albert's, untimely death.

Those growing up on a labor intensive dairy farm were taught that all family members were required to pitch in year round, especially during the summer and fall when they were needed up in the haymow to stack hay or milk cows while dad was out in the field tending to the corn crop.

Well earned R&R

When there was a lull in the workload, the family would head to Lakeside Park, the 146-acre parkland nestled along the southern shores of Lake Winnebago.

“We were farm people and didn’t have much money,” recalls Pahnke, the oldest of five children. “But we could enjoy this grand park. We went there in the 1960s for birthday parties or get-togethers on Sunday afternoons.”

Fighting over window seats, Pahnke and her siblings piled into Dad’s 1952 Chevy sedan to head there in the summer to picnic or swim. When winter came, the kids’ grandparents toured them slowly through the park to enjoy the holiday light displays.

As a child, Mary Ann Pahnke says it wasn’t Christmas until she and her siblings saw Rudolph on top of the lighthouse.

“As kids, it wasn’t Christmas until we saw Rudolph on top of the lighthouse,” said Pahnke, referring to the popular deer perched atop the 40-foot tall beacon overlooking the harbor.

Canvases made of glass

So treasured are her memories of Christmas at Lakeside Park, Pahnke has preserved them on dozens of hand-painted ornaments. Formerly an elementary school art teacher, she expertly uses fine brushes to recreate scenes tied to the park.

Some beloved attractions are a steam locomotive and merry-go-round nearly a century old. The red and white bandstand, featured in The Saturday Evening Post in 1959, is still used by the Fond du Lac Symphonic Band. At Christmastime, a group of wooden carolers claim the honor.

Other park lovers have commissioned Pahnke to paint ornaments with such images for their own trees.

“I’ve heard them say, 'My great-grandfather rode on that big black train', or, 'Can you paint my child into a winter scene or in Santa’s sleigh?'” Pahnke says. “I’m trying to preserve memories for families to help them create family traditions.”

Big Ideas Made Small

Bringing such scenes to life on glass takes long hours. Pahnke first gathers images from the park with her camera, then spreads the photos out on a table in her home art studio, which is located on the original farm.

Using very fine brushes, Mary Ann Pahnke is able to create highly detailed story ornaments.

Next begins the painstaking process of designing elements into her work with those tiny brushes. The scenes are highly detailed, yet small, to fit on standard-sized ornaments.

“My ornaments tell a story,” Pahnke said. “When people cradle them in their hands and begin turning them around they may see Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer coming over the top of the lighthouse then landing in a forest. Or, they’re taken once again on an evening drive through the park in December.”

With a smile, Pahnke adds, “Each year when I see those lights and hear the music, it brings out the little girl in me who believed in all the wonders Christmas held. Those feelings are even stronger when I see it in my grandchildren’s faces.”

Pahnke says she has created ornaments for herself that depict her childhood growing up on the farm.

Artist MaryAnn Pahnke captured her family's 121-year-old farm on a glass ornament.

"I also like to bring the farms back to life, when the animals and people were still on them," Pahnke said. "I like to add a lot detail into the ornaments so when people look at it closely and study it, it begins to tell a story to them."

Pahnke says she is grateful that she is still able to paint. Diagnosed with fibromyalgia over 30 years ago, she was forced to leave her career in the classroom as the disease progressed. She retired as a high school counselor several years ago and still paints today despite chronic pain.

“I’ve found that if I can keep my mind busy and spend hours concentrating on creating something like these keepsake ornaments that bring me happiness, then it’s a win for me,” she said.

Contact information: MaryAnn Pahnke 920-948-7402