Peachbelt Studio Grand Opening Article 2006

The Local Observer May 26, 2006 


If you’ve ever eaten at the Everyday People Café, sipping a glass of wine and glance on the walls you will see some extraordinary art. You are experiencing Dawn Stafford’s paintings. Dawn says, “That’s where people often see my paintings first.”

Margaret Balmer and her son, Matt Balmer, the mayor of Douglas, are the owners of Everyday People Café. “When I first moved here 14 years ago,” Stafford says, “Margaret hired me on as wait staff at Douglas Dinette, the predecessor of Everyday People Café. Margaret bought two oil paintings from the first solo show I had in Michigan. I am very grateful for her continuous support of my art through the years. She is a great woman on many levels. It’s no surprise that their restaurant is an area favorite. Everyday People IS good people.”

On Saturday, June 3rd, from 6:00 to 9:00 pm, Stafford is hosting a Grand Opening Celebration in honor of her new life adventure as artist and entrepreneur! All are welcome to stop by, enjoy some catered refreshments, and see the little historic schoolhouse in the 21st century. The Peachbelt Studio and Gallery is located on the SE corner of M89 and 63rd street, just four miles west of Fennville.

In November of 2004 Stafford purchased the Peachbelt Schoolhouse from George and Anne Sherrard. It became a labor of love as she refurbished the interior and restored the storm windows for the coming winter. The following autumn she added a new wood shingle roof and recently, a new driveway and well. April 12th 2006, she received a Heritage Preservation Award from the Saugatuck/Douglas Historical Society for her care in using materials consistent with the historic style and character of the building.

The schoolhouse is now Stafford’s full-time painting studio so beware of wet paint. Her hours are Fri-Sat-Sun, 11-5 pm, or by chance you may catch her during the week. She paints large and small canvases of landscape, floral and still-life with lots of fruit. “Sometimes I have to laugh,” Says Stafford, “at the fact that I drive to the countryside to go to work. Is it work, or am I dreaming?”

The old schoolhouse influenced her immensely. She says, “I feel a sense of place here that is both timely and nostalgic; this building has a spirit and a voice all its own. There are burn marks on the hardwood floor where the round oak stove once stood and patterns in the floor where the desks were nailed down. The original glass is still in the tops of the windows and the bell can be rung from a rope in the entryway.” She smiles and goes on to say, “In the backyard the old wood shed still stands, with graffiti carved into it by the school children of the past. There is also graffiti etched into the brick of the school itself. Two privies used to stand out back, one for the boys and one for the girls.”

Over the past 14 years Stafford has created hundreds of oil paintings. She is a diverse artist, using oil paints on linen, canvas, paper or wood and she frames and mats all her own work. Her art is both accessible and engaging. She offers a sense of comfort through her use of color and composition. She says, “It’s about connecting with people in a world that is separating more and more all the time. I’m hoping the work I do and my newly opened studio/gallery helps to bridge that gap.” Some of her most recent paintings were inspired by the vineyards of Fenn Valley Winery. The new work portrays the wine grapes hanging from the vine just before harvest.

In addition to Stafford’s paintings, The Peachbelt Studio and Gallery is proud to exhibit the figural sculpture of Jill Lareaux, an artist whose work Stafford has admired for many years. The relationship between the artists and their work is clearly complimentary. Lareaux’s one-of a-kind sculptures are made of fired clay and/or mixed media. Selected works are available cast in bronze.

Stafford, born in New York, studied at Swain School of Design in Massachusetts. Painting, drawing, clay, textiles and wood were just some of the mediums she explored in her studies. She graduated in 1991, and in 1992 moved to Saugatuck, Michigan, home of Oxbow School of Art. Since 2000, she has taught classes at Oxbow as well as offering winter classes in the Saugatuck/Fennville area.

Jim Schmiechen, the historian, explains on the Peachbelt Schoolhouse website that the school is the oldest and best preserved one room schoolhouse in Allegan County. It has not been moved or changed in size since it opened its doors in 1868. At one time the school was adjacent to a cider mill, a blacksmith shop, a general store (until the 1920’s), a second general store-post office, and a knitting factory. The school got its name, Peachbelt, from the fact that the road (M-89), ran through important peach orchards connecting fruit farms with two of the principal points of export, the ship docks in Douglas and the trains in Fennville. Sometime around 1898 the siding was removed and the building was brick veneered. In 1961 the school was annexed to the Fennville Schools and the schoolhouse was used until 1968 for single grades. In 1971 it was sold and became a church for migrant workers. In 1971 it became an antique store.

Stafford’s paintings can now be found and viewed at the Peachbelt Studio and Gallery, and on her website: For more information call 269-561-5561.

by Colleen Rae-correspondent