Versatile, dedicated Spörck top Conservancy volunteer
For instance, a worn paper sign on the back wall of what was once the grainary for the Firestone farm warns, “Sorry, we have no public restrooms” — which is obvious because you can see light streaming through the walls.
A stud away is another sign. It says, “Public restrooms behind the barn in the orchard. Anywhere there.”
Then there’s the owner, Leif Spörck, who at 6-foot-7 carries the tenacity of a kitten in the body of a lumberjack.
And then you see his artwork. Clean and simple, yet with depth to carry emotion.
Is this all possible?
Meet Spörck, a self-made artist who has carved out a very successful — and surprisingly stressful — living by cutting outdoor scenes into clay, pressing them into plaster, then baking and hand painting them. His work is displayed at the Spörck family’s 13- acre farm along M-22 at Horn Road, and in a small shop he rents in Fishtown in Leland.
“He stores stuff, he moves stuff, he will do whatever we ask of him,” Conservancy public relations director Carolyn Faught said. “He spent all day setting up the (recent ‘Friends’) auction. He spent all day with the mushroom hunt.”
Spörck, the sturdy volunteer, attends meetings throughout the year in preparation for the Conservancy’s Friends Picnic and Auction, then takes a couple days off to help set up and tear down tables and chairs. He is the one who knows how best to arrange donated pieces of art to appeal to perspective bidders, then donates three of his tile art masterpieces to the cause.
Spörck, the outdoor lover, teams up with Epicure Catering to guide up to six people who bid up to $7,000 for a spring mushroom hunt that culminates in a delicious feast in Omena. He also guides an ice fishing trip on Kehl Lake.
And he gives of his artistic talents, providing at a steep discount the custom made ceramic tiles that line the circular wall at the center of the Conservancy’s Village Green park in Leland. One custom tile goes up for each major donation.
Giving back to the community is something instilled in Spörck by his paternal grandmother from Cincinnati.
“She always put an emphasis on service, on how important it is to serve your community,” Spörck said. “That echoes over time in my mind. It connects you to Leelanau County.”
You’d think Spörck might live a life of leisure, working at the beckon of inspiration. That’s not true. He gave up a career in law to follow in his father’s footsteps as an artist, and expects full well to succeed.
That’s where the stress comes in.
“If I had all the times people told me to smile, I couldn’t count them because I’m always working. The first 5-6 years of this, it was misery because it was so much work. I’m hard on myself,” he said.
Some of that desire to win may be a hangover from his days of playing basketball. Sports fans remember Spörck as the Suttons Bay basketball star who was dunking as a freshman, scored 1,113 points by the time his prep career ended in 1997, and saw time on the varsity for two years at Hope College.
His career and life seemed on a fast track to the top. But heading into his junior season, Spörck felt that athletics had come to dominate academics as priorities in his life. He quit the team. Then after graduating from Hope with a degree that prepared him for law school, Spörck instead moved back home to Leelanau County to become an artist.
His parents, Karl and Beverly Spörck, who are divorced, were supportive. Soon Leif was selling tiles the likes of which had not been seen in this area at art fairs and out of a small shed on the family farm. His father, who studied pottery at Michigan State University, sold his work in the adjacent, well-worn grainary.
“When I first started, I wasn’t influenced by any other thoughts about tile work,” Spörck said. His tiles were vibrant, alive. He started with a few designs, including a signature outline of Leelanau County along with casts for trilliums, mushrooms, and lakes. He’s added dozens more designs, some with outlines of other counties such as Oceana and Marquette. He has created some larger tiles including a rendition of Fishtown that sells for $85. Standard size tiles sell for $36.
And he takes on requests for custom tiles that naturally sell at a higher price.
Reminiscent of his father’s career, which started in 1975, Leif Spörck’s work caught on gradually as curious passersby were lured to stop by a nondescript sign and the country setting.
Now the two artists have switched outbuildings, with Leif’s work occupying the larger grainary. Karl’s pottery and carvings are found in the smaller shed.
“When (Leif’s father) first started, he didn’t know what to expected. People started stopping and buying stuff,” Leif recalled. “I grew up here, and I remember it being busy some days, and every day the business seemed to get better.
“Then it got to the point that he did a good business. Every fall, the shop would be empty. He didn’t have any pots left.”
Spörck appreciates the freedom offered by his parents in making life decisions.
“They always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do. When I wanted to go to law school, they encouraged me. They didn’t talk about it much because that was something I was doing. When I decided not to do that, it wasn’t a problem at all,” Spörck said.
His biggest challenge was in learning how to sell his art. Some artists, enthralled in new-found attention, can go on and on about their work.
“I’d already experienced what it was to be a basketball star, to stand out,” Spörck said. “A lot of artists, maybe that is their first experience in notoriety.
“But I was all about the business aspect. I started to learn that I needed to talk about my tiles, to tell (patrons) about my thoughts. The most difficult transition was in being able to explain my work.”
Spörck feels compelled to create art that is true to nature, especially as found in Leelanau County, and meets the design of his patrons. The two influences are generally compatible.
For instance, a recent order called for a “lightly stained” frame around one of his tiles. The purchaser would have chosen a different shade.
“I’m worried about my business,” Spörck said. “To be on edge like that all the time. That is stressful ... at the end of the year, I feel success. When I get a big order finished, I feel happy. But for the most part, it’s stressful.”