Boys of Summer

Inspired by his own days gone by growing up along the shore and today’s moments of boyhood exploration and fun, artist Jim Heiser captures childhood magic in the Great Lakes State. // Art by Jim Heiser
Smooth Sailing

A boy and his bike, a boy and his boat, a boy and his dog — treasured childhood experiences of freedom, exploration, companionship — all are captured by Michigan artist Jim Heiser in the original watercolors and giclee prints he has been producing for 13 years.

For painterly inspiration, Heiser turns to the broad beaches of Lake Michigan, where he can always find long-legged boys bounding into the waves, tow-headed toddlers puttering in the sand, families strolling along the shore, the quiet dramas that take him back 20 or 30 years.

“My inspiration comes from the interweaving of past and present experiences in my life,” shares Heiser, who enjoyed summer vacations on Glen Lake near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as a child. “My own boyhood memories mix with visions of my son growing up on the same shores, with current observations of family, friends and neighbors enjoying each other’s company in this special place.”

Endless Summer

Every year adds another layer of meaning, he says: “We are all connected by our shared experiences of this unique area.”

Today, Heiser alternates between homes in Neenah, Wis., and Northport, Mich., working out of studios in both places, and spending leisure time aboard his 32-foot sailboat.

“Sometimes we would sail back and forth, my father, my son and I,” he recalls. “We would take three or four days for the crossing — really good family time.”

Bike Ride

After majoring in English Literature at Duke University (the same place the artist broke his neck playing varsity football), Heiser studied illustration at Pratt Institute and drawing, anatomy and painting at the Art Students League in New York City, where he was also a freelance illustrator. His role as a packaging account manager to pharmaceutical companies for a Virginia-based Fortune 500 company expanded his knowledge of printing and graphics.

While the foundation for his own work is largely grounded in principles gleaned from the Renaissance era’s Old Masters, Heiser’s figure drawings are most often based on young modern-day beachgoers and their activities — from bouncing on a water tramp, building sand castles and racing into the surf to trekking up a dune, balancing on a breakwall and skipping stones into the surf.

But mostly it’s boating, Heiser says, that anchors his memories of growing up, both of challenges faced and lessons learned: how to right a capsized boat…how to properly fold and stow a sail…the thrill of hooking a prize fish, and triumph of bringing it ashore.


“Certain timeless activities (like fishing with Grandpa) still have the power to grab and hold kids’ interest,” he observes. “Who would have thought that putting a worm on a hook could be so engrossing?”

Capturing the Moment

Heiser works in transparent watercolors, a medium well-suited to rendering the sheerness of water, clouds and sky and deftly translating sun-drenched beaches into giclee prints. (Giclee is a term coined in 1991 for fine art prints made with ink-jet printers.)

“The colors of the Great Lakes area are unique and create distinct feelings in me,” says the artist. “The colors need to reflect the feeling of place. Capturing the time of day and the angle of the light are also important in my work.”

Grandpa Admires Catch

Heiser’s figures occupy the center of the composition and are mostly painted in three-quarter profile, facing away from the viewer, a device which encourages concentration on the same scenery that his subjects are looking at. He conveys their personalities through actions and gestures (an Old Masters’ technique) but often shadows their faces.

“I try hard not to paint a particular individual — I want others to see themselves or their children in my work,” explains Heiser, although he does do a limited amount of commissioned pieces.

Because what he captures is fleeting, he doesn’t paint on site.

“I take many photographs, trying to stay as inconspicuous as possible,” Heiser notes.

“Then back in my studio, I piece them together to recreate the moment as I felt it.

“I’m always happy when someone I’ve never met tells me I have captured some of the best memories of their life.”

While the artist’s original works are sold at Wright Gallery in Northport, Mich., and Edgewood Orchard Galleries in Fish Creek, Wis., giclee prints can be perused at Two Fish Gallery in Leland; By the Bay Nautical Gallery in Harbor Springs; The Pennington Collection in Northport; Americana Gallery in Traverse City; Lilacs and Lace on Mackinac Island; Waterfront Framing and Fine Art in St. Joseph and Local Color Gallery in Union Pier.

To see and learn more, visit Freelance writer and author Barbara Stodola lives in Indiana.

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