Gifted artist’s legacy a history of Port in brushstrokes  

Shirley Schanen Gruen leaves a trove of paintings inspired by her hometown and the beauty of the lake

By Bill Schanen III, Ozaukee Press publisher

Shirley Schanen Gruen’s life ended last week at the age of 97, but her legacy to her hometown will live for as long her paintings endure. The watercolor and acrylic images of seascapes, fish tugs and shanties, beaches, sailboats and street scenes that are her life’s work constitute a visual history of Port Washington from the mid-20th century into the first decades of this century.

Mrs. Gruen died Dec. 11 at Harbor Campus in Port Washington. 

Paintings signed “S. Gruen” portray the distinctive ambience of a lakeshore community while capturing images that will never be seen again. 

In those paintings, weathered fish shanties stand in a ragged row on the Port Washington waterfront, fish tugs ride the harbor surge on their moorings, scores of people line the breakwater fishing for perch with cane poles, ships unload coal beneath a steel structure that resembles a massive four-legged animal, smoke rises from five towering stacks on the power plant, breakfast diners gossip and drink coffee in the fabled Harry’s Restaurant.

In a career that spanned more than 75 years, Mrs. Gruen began painting as a  high school student and didn’t set aside her sketch pad and brushes until she moved to an assisted living facility three years ago.

Working mostly with watercolor on paper, augmented by acrylic paint on canvas, she produced something more than 550 paintings. So prolific was she that the exact number is not known, her son Gerald A. Gruen Jr. said. Individuals and institutions over a wide area own many of them.

Admired not only by collectors with Port Washington ties, her works have won numerous awards at juried shows.

Mrs. Gruen was born on Dec. 2, 1923. She grew up in the Grand Avenue home of her parents, the one-time Ozaukee County district attorney William F. Schanen and Laura Schanen. She was the youngest in a family that included her brothers William Jr., who founded Ozaukee Press, and Robert, a lawyer who was killed in World War II, and her sister Bette, who died at a young age of cancer.

She graduated from Port Washington High School and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studied art in California and taught painting and portraiture at the then Port Washington branch of the Milwaukee Area Technical School before marrying Gerald A. Gruen. The wedding took place on Feb. 1 during the famous 1947 snowstorm, which was so severe that only one other couple was able to attend the ceremony in the rectory of St. Mary’s Catholic Parish in Port Washington.

The couple raised their son and two daughters in Glendale, where Mr. Gruen was to become the city’s mayor. They moved to a home in rural Grafton in 1976 and then to downtown Port Washington in 2004.

Regardless of which address she called home, Mrs. Gruen spent many of the summer days of her life at the Schanen family cottage on the Lake Michigan shore near Sucker Brook north of the City of Port Washington. Her love of Lake Michigan in its ever-changing moods and the beaches that border it inspired many of her paintings, with titles evocative of the sea, such as “The Blue Wave” and “Nor’easter.”

Sailboats appear frequently in Mrs. Gruen’s paintings, not only as objects of beauty, but as representations of a favorite pastime. She was an enthusiastic sailor and often a member of the crew on her son’s sailboats. At a long-ago Port Washington Yacht Club winners’ dinner, she was given the racing fleet’s Iron Stomach Award, which was whimsically named but intended as an honor for a sturdy sailor who defied seasickness in sea conditions that laid others low with mal de mer.

While her husband ran a successful real estate business, Mrs. Gruen went into business herself, opening a Franklin Street gallery that thrived for 39 years. Many a visitor to Port Washington left with a Gruen art print emblematic of the port’s maritime character.

Mrs. Gruen demonstrated her affection for her birthplace in more ways than with her painting. She led a successful effort to preserve the historically significant bridge over Sauk Creek between Fisherman’s Park and Coal Dock Park. The bridge, built in 1925, was the last king post pony truss bridge remaining in Wisconsin and was in danger of demolition when the west slip peninsula that was once known as fish shanty row was gentrified.

Mrs. Gruen was a founding member of the Port Washington Historical Society and served on its first board of directors. While others knew her as a gifted painter and devoted supporter of her hometown, her family knew her, in the words of her son Gerald, as “a cheerful, optimistic person who loved her family, Port Washington, Lake Michigan, sailing, her art and the color blue.” 

Shirley Gruen is survived by her children, Gerald A. (Jean) Gruen Jr. of Port Washington, Lorelei (Kirk) Hosler of Melbourne Beach, Fla., and Lorna (Bill) Nagler of Sarasota, Fla.; grandchildren Deirdre Coder and Brett and Ty Hosler; and great-grandchildren Evelyn, Breane, Cassandra and Arthur.

Mrs. Gruen was preceded in death by her husband Gerald, her sister Bette Schanen and brothers Robert Schanen and William F. Schanen Jr. and his wife Marie.

For those wishing to send memorials, the family suggests the Port Washington Historical Society, the Environmental Defense Fund or the University of Wisconsin Foundation.

No service is planned; private burial will be at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Port Washington.


1 Comment

  1. We love you, Grandma, we will miss you always.

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