My Favorite Place to Paint: Julie Jilek and the Mysteries of High Cliff

From ancient burial mounds to one of the most striking geological features of the United States, Julie Jilek’s favorite place to paint has much to intrigue the painter. But Jilek also loves it because of her personal history.

“I’ve been going to High Cliff State Park all my life,” says Jilek, who lives in the Fox Cities area of Wisconsin. “I used to go hiking there with my family. We had a sailboat at the marina, and in my teenage years, that’s where I hung out. When I moved back to the area as an adult, there was something about it that made me feel like it’s magical.”

Jilek mentions the diversity of features in High Cliff, including the Niagara Escarpment, a land formation stretching from Western New York to the Wisconsin-Illinois border. Its ledges and cliffs have shaped the way humans have used the land in the area since prehistoric times. Jilek says the limestone cliffs, with their myriad cracks and fissures, are irresistible for someone who likes to draw. Thick vegetation contrasts with the escarpment, and Lake Winnebago beckons with its picturesque shoreline.

“High Cliff State Park (Lake Winnebago),” by Julie Jilek, 2012, oil on linen, 10 x 18 in.
“High Cliff State Park (Lake Winnebago),” by Julie Jilek, 2012, oil on linen, 10 x 18 in.

Jilek is just 20 minutes away from the 1,100-acre park, so she’s there at least once a month. She doesn’t always have drawing or painting materials with her. “Sometimes in winter I’ll just go there and read a book in my car because it’s sunny,” says the painter. Even when she goes to High Cliff with the intention to paint, she first walks around the park for a while. “I like to go and just experience it,” says Jilek. “I just wander before I paint. I need to gather the sense of the space before I put it on canvas or paper. So I walk the trails, see the lake.”

“High Cliff State Park,” by Julie Jilek, 2016, charcoal and Conté on paper, 11 x 14 in.
“High Cliff State Park,” by Julie Jilek, 2016, charcoal and Conté on paper, 11 x 14 in.
Lake Winnebago
Lake Winnebago

Wisconsin is known for its harsh winters, but Jilek loves High Cliff State Park year-round. “Every time of year is great to visit it,” she says. “That’s what I love about Wisconsin; it has all the seasons. I don’t know that you can appreciate one season without the others. Summer is probably my least favorite at High Cliff. Spring has that feeling of rebirth after a cold winter. Fall is beautiful because of the leaves and the light. Winter offers long, dark shadows and crunching through the snow.”

“High Cliff in Fall,” by Julie Jilek, 2011, oil on linen, 16 x 20 in.
“High Cliff in Fall,” by Julie Jilek, 2011, oil on linen, 16 x 20 in.
“High Cliff Ledge,” by Julie Jilek, 2011, charcoal and Conté on paper, 11 x 14 in.
“High Cliff Ledge,” by Julie Jilek, 2011, charcoal and Conté on paper, 11 x 14 in.

Because of the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Winnebago, High Cliff State Park has a variety of settings and subject matter for an artist. There are even effigy mounds where early nomadic Native Americans buried their dead in earth formations suggesting the shapes of animals. These mounds are set in the woods, and although a path through them invites visitors to examine and learn more about them, Jilek has never painted the mounds. “Maybe I unconsciously hold some respect for them, because they are burial mounds.” An old lime kiln and quarry offer ruins and additional motifs, and the dense woods give painters more elements with which to work.

“Lime Kiln Trail,” by Julie Jilek, 2010, oil on linen, 12 x 16 in.
“Lime Kiln Trail,” by Julie Jilek, 2010, oil on linen, 12 x 16 in.

Jilek landed a project in which she painted Wisconsin’s state parks, and she traveled extensively in her state to do so. “I saw places that I wouldn’t naturally see and paint, and High Cliff is still my favorite,” she says. “It’s a spiritual thing that I feel when I’m there. It takes such a long time to know, and maybe that’s why I like it so much.”

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