Experiencing the Paine Art Center and Gardens of Oshkosh Wisconsin with Kids

Unless you happen to be REALLY into airplanes, it’s not likely that you’ve ever heard of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, other than a passing reference to some kid’s overalls. It turns out that Oshkosh, home to the largest airshow in the world, also happens to have an amazing art museum. The Paine Art Center and Gardens is housed in an incredible English Tudor style estate. At the time of our visit, the Paine was hosting Wonderland, a gorgeous photography exhibit, which ran through October 29, 2017.

Paine Art Center and Gardens


Back in 2013, I first came across the breathtaking work of Kirsty Mitchell via a well targeted Facebook promotion. My Modern Met had picked up the emotional story of a detail-obsessed photographer who was creating fairy tale images based on characters and costumes of her own creation, as a tribute to her deceased mother. She had assembled them into a book titled “Wonderland.” The images were captivating. I began following the artist’s story. Shortly after the release of the initial video I saw, the artist herself developed breast cancer, not long after announcing her pregnancy. Her creativity, excitement, joy and pain all came to the fore of her work again: the cycle of life, repeating itself.

By the time I encountered her work, the first edition of the Wonderland book was sold out. I signed up for the waiting list and ultimately received my 2nd edition copy around Thanksgiving 2016. The book is an amazing feat unto itself. Oversize, weighing in around 10 pounds, page after page of lush photographs reveal glorious costuming. Mitchell’s own dense writing explores themes of family, love, loss, discovery….. humanity. I dove in, shamelessly crying over the gorgeousness of the images and the poignancy of her musings.

Mitchell is incredibly focused and controlling over how her work is presented. She only had gallery showings lined up in her native England. Imagine my shock, then, when I learned that the only U.S. exhibition of Wonderland would be held up at the air show capital of the midwest, Oshkosh! The Paine Art Center was the first to contract an exhibit. It seemed completely unlikely a setting – until we arrived and realized there is truly no better place.

Paine Art Center and Gardens


The Paine was built as a personal residence to a lumber baron and his wife. No expense was spared in the effort to use the home as a showcase for the skilled talent of the Paine millwork shop. Due to the stock market crash of 1929, the construction was halted and delayed; ultimately neither Mr Paine nor his wife lived in the building. Instead, it was bequeathed to the city of Oshkosh, Wisconsin as a gallery and museum.

Designed as an English Tudor style estate, the elegant and imposing warm limestone home seems completely incongruous amongst the otherwise typical early 20th century industrial Oshkosh building stock. No expense was spared, from exterior detailing to interior finishes. The rooms retain period appropriate furniture, art and household accessories as a living museum display. The main gallery, just off the entry, hosts rotating art exhibits. It was the perfect setting for the elaborate details and emotional intensity of the Wonderland series. Heavy carved wood doors, elaborate timber ceilings and oversized fireplaces create an environment of mystery and gravitas perfect for the mood of the photographs on display.

Paine Art Center and Gardens


The best discovery was that the Paine Art Center and Gardens itself is extremely family friendly! We arrived on an overcast Sunday morning in September to discover the lawns set with a number of bocce courts. A non-profit fundraiser had taken over the extensive gardens and grounds with a tournament!

After a brief dawdle, we entered the museum, and headed downstairs to the Family Discovery Center. Two large mosaic lions greet visitors, providing exceptional distraction with details. Finding teacup fragments, military medals and letters on the beasts enchanted our little one for almost an hour. A puppet theater lets little thespians develop their ventriloquy skills. Interactive exhibits educate about varied topics like perspective, historical restoration and even composting.

The composting component is key, it turns out. The Paine is famous for their extensive gardens, which have been expanded even further this year. An abundant riot of hydrangeas, roses and dahlias explode across the main entry terrace. Further out, secretive paths open onto tidy symmetrical galleries, and then transition to lush paths, interrupted by rose gardens, fountains and lawns. More than once, we commented that the photographs of the exhibit we’d come to see could have been taken in these gardens themselves: a perfect marriage of place and exhibit, sensibility and style.

Our adventure to Oshkosh began like most fairytales: a simple task to complete, with a deadline. We discovered more magic than we could have imagined. A mysterious home, surrounded by an enchanted garden. A place that welcomed play and introspection, and a city that offered more than you’d expect. The charm of the Paine, and Oshkosh, have woven a spell and we can’t wait to come back to explore more.

Paine Art Center and Gardens

Know Before You Go

  • Paine Art Center and Gardens, 1410 Algoma Blvd, Oshkosh, WI 54901
  • Hours: Open Tuesday Through Sunday
  • Website

Photos by Tyler Mallory

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