Arts Roles

March 29, 2009

I attended a gathering of Native Americans called Three Rivers Pow Wow on March 28.

Representatives from several nations came to La Crosse to share their culture and socialize at the UW-La Crosse campus.

This event was my first live contact with Native American songs and dances. I was not able to understand the words of their songs but the colorful clothes, rhythms and dances touched me profoundly. Unintentionally I closed my eyes and subconsciously felt meaning of their songs and traditions. I started crying without knowing the reason for that sudden sadness. I felt like being taken back in time when men, birds, wind and rivers sang the same tunes. When man was not hiding in cyberspace and human touch and storytelling had different connotations.

From the beginnings of human kind different peoples from every part of our planet had artists in their communities who witnessed, recorded and told their stories, traditions, histories, beliefs, hopes and much more.

The role of artists is of crucial importance for any human society. Performing and visual artists “speak” one, universal human language. Human love, beauty, goodness, adoration, sadness, fears, hopes, horrors, jealousy, greed etc.- artists have been capturing them all in their artworks. From thousands of years old painted caves’ walls that silently tell us life stories of long gone tribes to writers and poets who recorded the history in their books, or songs crying for lost loves and solders in historic battles, artists were always present in shadows to keep events and feelings safe from being forgotten.

Who knows, in few thousand years who will look at paintings, or ceramics, or peaces of clothing from our contemporary artists trying to understand the way of life we are conducting right now?


The 4 P’s

March 28, 2009

A while ago, I watched Jeremi Suri’s Academy Evening presentation, “The Past and Future of American International Leadership,” online at’s digital library.

Professor Jeremi Suri

Professor Jeremi Suri

Suri is a much-celebrated professor of history at the UW-Madison, who appeared at UW-Fox Valley last October to “unpack” the American international successes of the past. His research has led him to distill four qualities–or as he calls them, four “lessons of effective, enlightened and enduring American policy, to help us move forward,” nicely alliterated for our mnemonic convenience: prosperity, partnership, prudence and power.

A lot has changed in the five months since Suri addressed the Menasha audience. We emerged from what seemed like an interminable election cycle with the country’s first African American president. Nations around the world, in response to America’s crumbling economy, have struggled correspondingly. Unemployment and home foreclosure rates have soared, while the Dow tumbled. Words like stimulus, deficit and bailout–and acronyms like TARP and AIG–became part of our daily vocabulary, and numbers like billions and trillions became our reality. International turmoil continued to fester. Sasha and Malia got a puppy.

Professor Suri is scheduled to give his talk again next week, this time in Madison. Given the newer context, the ongoing political developments and the economic intricacies, I expect him to be as fascinating in March as he was in October. Real tests of some of his assertions loom closer than ever.

For brevity, I’ll indulge myself with just one more quote from Suri’s October Academy Evening–in reference to the third P, prudence. He says that a component of exercising the caution and wisdom essential to effective leadership lies in recognizing the “virtues of inconsistency:”

To me inconsistency is like sailing on a lake. You’re constantly adjusting to what’s going on–you still know about where you want to go, right? But any good sailor does not know exactly how they’re going to sail. You have to adjust to the wind, you have to tack back and forth … There’s a virtue in being able to adapt, to understand your conditions, to listen and watch and adjust, with still some sense of where you want to go.

I love a good analogy.

You can catch Jeremi Suri’s Academy Evening presentation this coming Tuesday, March 31, 7:00-8:30 p.m., at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Academy Evenings are free forums offered by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters to encourage public engagement with the state’s prominent artists and scholars. For those unable to attend, the Academy offers a variety of ways to watch or listen to these talks. Learn more here.

Finally, here’s a link to Suri’s book: Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente.

–Tammy Kempfert


March 26, 2009

A group of artists I’m involved with is starting an artists cooperative in Stevens Point. This is the second cooperative effort that I’ve been involved in, and two years of experience in a cooperative arts organization has taught me many things. I have been trying to thoughtfully apply the lessons learned to our efforts to establishing the organization on sound footing.

One of the biggets things that stuck with me is: Don’t Let the Function Define the Organization

Organizations exist for defined purposes. A purpose could be as simple as “make money” or as complex as “to support a vibrant community of fine artists, to provide an opportunity to exhibit and sell regional fine art under a juried system, to enhance professional development among artists, and to benefit the community as a whole.” (Q Artists Coop purpose). The purpose, and mission drive the organization and are what should define the organization. Essentially, what you do and why you do it. The tricky part of that statement is the “what you do” part. “What you do” too easily becomes literal. For instance, I am employed at a retail establishment. What I do there is greet customers, scan merchandise, clean, stock product, etc… However, What I do is strive to better myself as an artist, help others realize they too have an artist within, raise awareness of the importance of art to our lives and society, and make Central Wisconsin an arts destination.

One of the problems that existed in the first cooperative was what we did and how it defined us. We conceived, opened and ran a cooperative art gallery. This was the purpose that brought us together. The problem was that was all that we focused on, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. We became so focused on the gallery that we boxed ourselves into that function and definition; and then became overly engrossed to the point of burnout. So much so that we gave no time to exploring new ideas or approaches to our mission and purpose. We lacked focus and a connection with our mission, which in no way specified that we had to own, run or operate a gallery. So despite our mission and purpose, which were imbued with latitude, we were stuck in the rut and definition of the gallery. When the gallery became unsustainable, the organization fizzled.

When I became involved with this new cooperative effort, it was a little like deja vu. I kept thinking that the trap was right there! Here we were, talking about a coop gallery. There’s the cliff! So I started talking about this and about how we should keep a separation between the organization and the gallery. Link them take credit for our efforts, but keep the gallery clearly defined as a specific undertaking by our organization. This may seem like splitting hairs, but the truth is with that fine distinction we could scrap the gallery at any time and move on to something new. The organization is still the organization. It’s as much a frame of mind as it is a clearly deliniated position.

It could be taken that I’m suggesting that you can’t do one thing and do it well. I’m not. If your organization exists to be the best damn gallery in the world, then soldier on! Indeed, there’s something to be said for doing one thing and doing it well. Take Microsoft for example. The one thing they do extremely well is make software. (The merit of that statement is debatable) They do it so well that 95% of the computing world uses Microsoft products. Now Microsoft does many things, in varying degrees of effectiveness, but if you ask just about anyone in the world what Microsoft does, they’ll answer you with Windows, and/or Office. Those products define Microsoft.

For comparison, take a look at Google. Google started out doing one and only one thing. Search. They did it so well that they quickly became the king of search. A title that they still hold. Despite that, if you ask someone what Google does you’ll likely get a multitude of answers. Search will undoubtedly be the top answer, but you’ll probably also hear Gmail, photos, software, documents, news, calendar, and on and on.

The funny thing is, when you look at Microsoft and Google* side by side, they do pretty much the same things. They do them in very different ways, but they both do search, they both do email, calendars, photos, documents, software, news, on and on…

The difference is simple. Microsoft let itself be defined by two things. Windows and Office. For years they focused solely on taking over the world with Windows and Office. They succeeded too. They took over the world and now they’re standing on top with no real clear idea of what to do as all the new companies and innovations keep encroaching on them. By way of comparison, Google took over the world with search, and quickly started doing all sorts of different stuff. They still focus on, maintain and improve their search function, but they don’t let it define them. That diversity of effort and natural growth has led them to a near iconic status and success offering a very similar portfolio of products as Microsoft.

With this idea baked into our organization’s DNA we have crafted a strong and well defined mission and purpose with a clear understanding that what we do is not necessarily who we are. We have built into this organization the flexibility to go back to the mission and purpose and redefine what we do in order to achieve who we are. It’s something I’m very excited about!

-Spyros Heniadis

*Full disclosure, I love and use LOTS of Google products. Not so much Microsoft.

Q Artists Coop recently incorporated and is working with an eye to the future as they prepare to open their gallery located at 1108 Main Street in Stevens Point.

Fertile Ground

March 24, 2009

I spent much of the weekend uncovering my front yard. Discovering the first signs of life, it was easy to let my imagination and ambition soar beyond what I am actually skilled enough to accomplish as a gardener.

First signs of life photo by Jessica Becker

First signs of life photo by Jessica Becker

My goal for this growing year is to add more edible and native plants to the small, shady space in front of our downtown home. Surprisingly, at least to me, there are some that fit the bill. I’m happy to have the UW-Arboretum as both a resource (the annual native plant sale!) and inspiration for working toward this goal.

Arboretum photo by Jessica Becker

Arboretum photo by Jessica Becker

When you visit the Arboretum today, it’s hard to believe that just 75 years ago, the land was mostly derelict farmland. It took vision and hard work (and still does) on the part of many people who believed that human relations with the land should be mutually beneficial. From these efforts, and the underpinning philosophy, we get the slow food, permaculture, and ecology movements that have encouraged me to try growing food instead of a grassy lawn.

One of these visionaries was Aldo Leopold, then a professor at UW-Madison. After helping to found the Arboretum, he went on to work on his own parcel of land, near Baraboo, and to compose “The Land Ethic” (published as part of The Sand County Almanac after Leopold’s death). The Arboretum is celebrating its anniversary all year, and the Aldo Leopold Foundation is working on a film, called Greenfire, that celebrates Leopold’s influence on the American environmental movement.

Curt Meine, who narrates the film and is a nationally known conservation biologist, has been working with the Wisconsin Humanities Council over the past years as we’ve been exploring the state’s rich legacy in conservation. Curt has asked aloud: Is there something in the water in Wisconsin? Why do so many national figures in the movement have their roots in, and take their inspiration from, Wisconsin’s landscape?

Greenfire will be shown in four communities in the spring of 2010 as part of the WHC’s Making it Home film festivals. These festivals are being coordinated in connection with the Gaylord Nelson Institute’s Tales from Planet Earth environmental film festival. The UW-Madison institute’s namesake, Senator Nelson, is another person we are proud to call homegrown. His legacy, Earth Day, is right around the corner (April 22).

Learning about what plants are native to my region, which ones will handle the regular August drought, survive under a blanket of snow, and even produce colorful and tasty berries next spring, is connecting me intimately with my home landscape. At the same time, I’m making the land a reflection of my interests and efforts. It feels very organic. Oh yeah, Wisconsin is a big player in that movement, too.

Home Front

March 23, 2009

The Sauk Prairie River Arts Festival is an annual multi-media, multi-location event centered on the River Arts Center in Prairie du Sac. Vintage America is the theme this year and the focus of the visual art, historical exhibits, lectures, reenactments and tours is the “greatest generation” of the Great Depression and World War II era.

badger_ammunitions1As a volunteer with the Badger History Group, I participate in the River Arts fest as a guide on bus tours of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant. Few places in Wisconsin are better suited to present the impact of World War II than the “powder plant” first constructed by the U.S. Army on ten thousand acres of the Sauk Prairie in 1942. The impact of the plant, however, extends well beyond the 1940s and that decade’s war.

Badger produced smokeless propellant, the high explosive that ignites inside the barrel of a rifle, machine gun or artillery piece to send a slug or another explosive charge on its way to a target. Badger also produced rocket propellant, the solid fuel that pushes a missile on its course, and “ball powder” the specialized propellant fired by the M-16 automatic rifle–standard issue for the U.S. Army introduced for Vietnam and still in use today in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Badger operated for a few years during World War II and the Korean War, and for a decade during the Vietnam War. In the intervening years and after 1975, Badger remained on standby as part of the American Cold War arsenal. In wake of the so-called peace dividend earned after the demise of the Soviet Union, the Army decommissioned the plant in 1998 and began the slow and deliberate process of withdrawal.

In the years since, much of the plant–fourteen hundred structures, thousands of pieces of equipment, hundreds of miles of piping, a small town’s worth of utility lines and roadways–has been dismantled, scrapped, decontaminated and demolished. This deconstruction presents a challenge to the tour bus guide who must explain that the pile of shredded lumber outside the window, the mound of smashed concrete, or the row upon row of naked concrete footings in the grass, were once key components of the “arsenal of democracy” that defeated the Nazis and contained the Communists.

On the bus at Badger, I share the dilemma faced by tour guides at Stonehenge, the Roman Forum, and a Mayan city in Guatemala. How do we bridge the gap between what was and the remnant that remains?

The gap closes near the end of the Badger tour as we enter the ball powder manufacturing area. Dozens of buildings, stenciled identification signs still readable, line the road. Lengths of pipe, utility poles and wires, railroad tracks and tram lines still stand as visual aids to the script.

I am able to point to this industrial cluster and say, “here is the arsenal of the United States for the Vietnam war.” By the widest of measures, more of the ammunition fired by American troops in Vietnam was produced here than anywhere else. The rifle rounds sprayed into the jungle by soldiers firing M-16 automatics, the mortar shells aimed at Viet Cong bunkers, the rockets roaring out from pods mounted on helicopter gunships, were powered by explosives made here, at this spot, in that building, just outside the window of the bus. The tourists crane their necks, stand at their seats, aim cameras for their first careful photos. The gap disappears between what was and what remains.

When we think of the United States in the Vietnam years, the images–often as manufactured as the term “greatest generation”–that we see are of long-haired student demonstrators, defiant war resisters and demoralized veterans. That is the home front of incomplete memory.

That home front memory is completed at the Badger powder plant, where the gap is bridged between what was and what remains of the arsenal of the United States during the war in Vietnam.

–Michael Goc

Local food, local art, small town entrepreneurs

March 22, 2009

Taking an occasional drive is a family tradition. We love to explore, and long ago took the advice of a friend to follow the squiggliest lines on the map. This time we squirmed our way to a fairly new and exceptional little store in Platteville we’ve been meaning to visit.

The Driftless Market is named after a unique geographic characteristic of the region, not one my kids. The store seems at the center of a region known for its deep river valleys, and the terrain reflects having escaped glaciation the last time that was the happening thing. The region’s topography makes a drive on any road a neat experience, and perspectives from the same road will vary widely with the seasons.

Like one of those old neighborhood stores your folks took you to when you were a kid, the market has a community feel to it as soon as you enter. You’re likely to be helped by an owner, any one of a small group of intrepid colleagues who together took the plunge into retail a few months ago.

Have a refreshment and chat. Maybe some soup or a wrap from the deli. Check out the photos, or a watercolor over by the window. (The tables are by the art – marketing genius!) The handmade cards alone bring lots of customers. Jewelry, mosaics, fiber art, stained glass, ceramics, rosemaling, woodworks…………..local writers even! Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.

I asked Heidi, one of the owners, if the art was mostly local. She said she knew every artist. Don’t ask me why I think so – but we could tell. All this different stuff felt the same, like over 40 different members of the same family. And there are already almost 50 local food suppliers.

Locally-produced foods dominate the grocery and deli – and as homey as the place is, this is a full-service store. If it isn’t local, it will likely be organic or from the greater area. It is hard to think of something that isn’t here. Great pizzas – the yogurt will devastate you. Bottled milks from Barneveld, Emu meat from Fennimore (true story!) and sprouts grown in his room by a UW-Platteville college student. You can see his pic: “student with sprouts”. I bet the Louvre doesn’t have a “student with sprouts”.

The Sham Wow guy would say, “But wait, there’s more!” They were just finishing a soap-making workshop when we visited, and classes are augmented by occasional tastings and readings. This is a neighborhood place defined by a community of sellers and buyers more than geography.

In retrospect I thought the owners as unique as the products. Running a retail store takes a huge amount of work, so what would prompt folks to add this to their current work or give up the day job to launch such a venture? It was a way for a farmer to sell more of what she grows or for an artist/farmer to leave the university job to engage her passion and meet the greater demand for food and art she saw at the local farmers’ market. For all it was the right time. I think it was a mission. I admire the commitment and entrepreneurial panache it takes.

Business is good and building. Word of mouth is bringing friends with more friends and folks from farther away. People talk it up when they get back home. Check them out at

Make some time, go follow some squiggles. Driftless Market is a neat place to visit and your area most likely has stores that similarly attract community-minded folk – people who think a marriage of locally produced food and art is satisfying and oh, so fun. Wisconsin is rich in places like the Driftless Market and the people who create them.

Rick Rolfsmeyer
Wisconsin Rural Partners
Hollandale, Wisconsin (Pop. 283)

Inquisitive Eating

March 17, 2009

Foodways are living tradition—diverse, meaningful and enduring—for those who pause to understand and appreciate them. ~Terese Allen

I just had the luxury of spending three weeks in Thailand and Laos. The excuse for the indulgence was my honeymoon. The purpose of the trip, or at least a strong driving force, was to eat. My husband and I love the fresh and exotic flavor combinations of southeast Asia, and we did our best to sample everything!

One of the reasons I enjoy traveling is trying new food. I know others share this passion. I noticed in a recent issue of Wisconsin Trails magazine that many of the destinations around the state were highlighted for their regional food specialties. In Wisconsin, where our farms, forests, lakes, bogs, and rivers provide edible products year round, there is always something to try if you ask the locals for recommendations. I also keep a copy of Mary Bergin’s book, “Hungry for Wisconsin: A Tasty Guide for Travelers,” nearby so I can find those exceptional and tasty treats when I’m on the road!

Happily, I am going to be spending lots of time thinking about food, and the foodways unique to Wisconsin, in the coming year. For the Wisconsin Humanities Council, I will be directing the tour of Key Ingredients: America by Food. This is an exhibition, produced by the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program, that traces the history of food production, consumption, and culinary traditions throughout the United States. Six small, rural communities in Wisconsin will host the exhibition, starting in October of 2010, and will take the opportunity to explore these ideas in their own region. Along with the host communities, I will learn a lot about the foods of Wisconsin, and undoubtedly get to taste some new and interesting dishes. One thing I know already: I don’t have to fly half way across the world every time I want fresh and exotic flavors!

photo of the author by Mark Scalf

photo of the author by Mark Scalf

Heads up for fellow Wisconsin food fans: “The Flavor of Wisconsin: An Informal History of Food and Eating in the Badger State” comes out (revised and updated!) in May of this year from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

P.S. The Wisconsin Humanities Council is accepting applications from rural communities with populations under 10,000 to host Key Ingredients. Applications are due April 15, 2009.