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Celebrating 51 years as an artist

Doris stands in front one of her many renditions of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald print that hangs in her studio/home in West Duluth. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)1 / 4
Doris Sampson’s abstract works fill one corner of her studio wall space. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)2 / 4
The tools of the trade, paintbrushes and pencils fill many cups beside Doris Sampson’s workspace. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)3 / 4
Doris Sampson saved the newspaper from the day that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sinking was reported. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)4 / 4

Duluthian artist Doris Sampson never officially went to school for art. This year marks Sampson's 51st anniversary as an artist. She considers herself a functional or "hawsepiper" artist. A hawsepiper is a nautical term for a ship's officer who worked their way up through the ranks and did not attend officer school.

"It means that you worked your way up the ranks the hard way. You learned by doing," Sampson said.

The term is an appropriate fit for an artist best known for her paintings of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the Great Lakes freighter that sank in a Lake Superior storm on Nov. 10, 1975. Sampson remembers hearing the story on the news and she saved a newspaper featuring the story, but she didn't pay much attention to it at the time.

"I wasn't a follower of the freighters yet. And I had two kids under the age of 10, so I was busy," Sampson said.

It wasn't until Gordon Lightfoot's song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" debuted nearly a year after the sinking that Sampson began to be artistically inspired.

"I started to imagine what it would be like, what the lake would look like, how the waves would look. So I started painting and made my first painting of the Fitzgerald in 1976," Sampson said.

Later in 1978, when Gordon Lightfoot performed a concert in Duluth, Sampson received permission to show him the painting.

"We had a very nice conversation. He thought it was a good work. I don't remember the specifics, but he seemed appreciative," Sampson said.

Sampson donated that first painting to the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in 1983. Sampson has done several other renditions of the Edmund Fitzgerald, as well as other paintings of maritime scenes and ships. She didn't initially start out interested in local scenery.

"It wasn't until I took a few watercolor classes with Tony Yaworski in Superior that I started getting interested in local scenes for subject matter. He used to paint a lot of waterfront scenes and the freighters on the shore," Sampson said. "At the time, I wasn't the least bit interested in ships and boats and things like that."

Sampson works primarily as a painter and a photographer. She mostly works with oil, acrylic, pen and ink and pencil. She doesn't work with watercolor any longer but still uses some of the techniques she learned in her classes. Although she never went to school for an art degree, she did take some classes at University of Wisconsin Superior to learn some contemporary techniques.

"Every time I learn to do something new, it becomes a part of me," Sampson said.

Sampson was born in Detroit in 1943, but her family moved back to Minnesota when she was just 6 months old. She spent her first six years at her grandparents' farm on the Iron Range, then started school at Jefferson Elementary in Duluth. She said she always liked art throughout her school years and she still has some of her first pieces.

"I actually have art going back to when I was 11 years old. I have one piece I did as a child. It was a pencil portrait of Audrey Hepburn," Sampson said. "I kept it because I have this vision of founding an art museum and being able to show my work from childhood up to the present."

Sampson also doesn't show her work in local galleries. Initially she mostly showed her work at art and craft fairs. Today, she tends to sell her artwork online or by appointment tours of her residential art studio. Though, she can always be found at the Gales of November festival.

Looking back on her career makes Sampson nervous. At 73, she said her biggest worry is "being able to finish what I've started."

"That's how I look to the future. I want keep my nose to the grindstone to get things done. I want to finish books I've started to write, I want to make videos of me painting, and I want to make that art museum. So I just keep going."

To see Doris Sampson's artwork visit her website or visit her Star of the North Studio Gallery (by appointment only) by calling (218) 624 1646.

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

(218) 720-4176