The easy answer is that Northern Michigan art is art done by Northern Michigan artists or art done in or about Northern Michigan, but that, while true, is hardly satisfying.
A great deal of NMA (How many times in one post do you expect me to write it all out?) expresses, presents or otherwise deals with the beautiful lakes, woods, hills, sunsets, etc. that attract so many of us to this place or keep us here despite the call of family, fortune and reason. [The photo on the left is Sunset Bench by Northern Michigan Artist Market artist Carson Wright.] On the other hand, many outstanding and well known artists in NM utterly refuse do paint, draw, photograph, carve or even imagine anything that even obliquely suggests a bay or (egad!) any solar presence approaching its surface. “Trite!” “Done that! “ Or, dare I say, “Derivative!” they disdainfully exclaim. Yet they are certainly all NM Artists and their creations entitled to inclusion as NMA.
Perhaps it is not the subject matter but the inspiration that defines NMA. I have often wondered whether there are so many artists per capita in NM because the beauty of the area attracts those who already have a well developed artistic sensibility or whether it ensnares otherwise sane people who have come her for other reasons and forces (inspires) them to become artists. Either way, does NM constitute a calling muse that is the unifying and categorizing force that defines NMA? [This painting is Out of the Void by NMAM artist Will Espey.] Surely the ubiquitous sand dunes or, in season, snow drifts do not bar the entry of other muses not of NM origin into the region and into the hearts and minds of its inhabitants. Are all NM artists somehow immune to the songs of these foreign muses and susceptible only to the tunes played by their cousins of more domestic origin? Of course not. NM Artists and hence NMA is not nearly so parochial.
To be fully inclusive, perhaps we should consider the argument of some that NMA is not a standard of subject or inspiration but one of quality. Such people might suggest that the local product is just not as good as that originating in other regions south of the 45th parallel or outside the embrace of the Great Lakes. To them I would say that a belief that the exotic is uniformly superior defies logic and experience. As for logic, such a belief would argue that pasta consumed in Italy is of lesser quality than that enjoyed in the US because it is generally made with domestic (i.e. Italian) ingredients. As for experience, a simple tour of the Northern Michigan Artists Market and the many examples of NMA contained therein will convince any honest observer of the quality of NMA.
So after all that, we return to the definition we started with. Perhaps it is not so unsatisfying after all. There is great variety in NMA. It cannot be defined by subject or inspiration or quality. Perhaps the answer really is as simple as Northern Michigan Art is art by Northern Michigan artists, in all of its variety of splendor, spirit and wonder.