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

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.

Always Bring Binoculars

March 11, 2009

Getting caught without binoculars is, to a birder, a “cardinal sin.” That’s according to Andy Paulios, a DNR bird conservationist recently featured on Wisconsin Public Television’s On the Trail: An In Wisconsin Special. While Paulios may not have intended the pun, he is serious about protecting bird habitats in Wisconsin–both on public and private lands.

In Wisconsin producer Jo Garrett followed Paulios to Cook Arboretum for a segment of the program, which airs on WPT Thursday, March 12, 7:00 p.m. Carrying binoculars might be a nature lover’s version of the Scout motto, “Be prepared,” but experienced birders come to rely on their ears at least as much as their eyes, Paulios says. An acadian flycatcher, for example, will trill “peet-zaah!” and an Eastern towhee will loudly chirp “drink-your-TEEEA!” (Surely, though, the Wisconsin translation of towhee-speak must be “cheddar CHEEESE!”)

Cook Arboretum near Janesville is a stopping point on the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail that links the best places for observing birds and other wildlife around the state. In Wisconsin viewers can follow the trail with Garrett to see and hear great blue herons, saw whet owls, sandhill cranes and other birds that make their home here–and just this once, no binoculars necessary. It’s well worth a watch, especially for those who crave the birdsong of spring after a long Wisconsin winter. (The entire special is streamed online as well.)

As for the trail, it reaches every area of Wisconsin by highway. Maps and guides are available through the Department of Natural Resources.

Making Lumber And Men

March 6, 2009

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In the last half of the 19th century the Wisconsin economy was dominated by the lumber industry. At its peak in 1890, the cutting, transporting and milling of lumber generated ten times as much wealth as dairying. Had Wisconsin issued license plates for buggies in 1890, they would have proclaimed us America’s Lumberland.

Lumbering was Wisconsin’s first big business, the largest of the large caps, as the financial journalists say. It required vaults full of capital, a work force one-hundred-thousand strong, transcontinental marketing, transportation and financial networks, plus a steady stream of technological innovation.

It was also the machine that ate the North Woods. By 1897, after about fifty years of earnest effort, the lumber machine consumed an estimated 115 of a possible 130 billion board feet of pine in our state. Just pine. Hemlock for tanning, oak for railroad ties, hard maple for flooring, plus additional woods of other species cleared for agriculture or construction added tens of billions more.

On an average working day in the 1870s, the Knapp, Stout & Co.  sawmill on the Red Cedar River at Menomonie could roll out a pine plank one inch thick, twelve inches wide and fifty-seven miles long. In eight days, Knapp, Stout could cut enough one-by-twelves to lay a line of boards the entire length of the 418 highway miles from Kenosha to Superior.

The industry made lumber, but it also made men. In spring, the work shifted from the cutting of trees in the woods to the shipping of logs to mills by waterway or railroad. Many of the lumberjacks, also known as fellers because their job was to fell (i.e. fall) trees, followed the logs and spent the summer as mill hands.

Other fellers returned to the farms they had left the previous autumn. For a generation or two it was common for Wisconsin farm families to send teenaged sons to the woods for the winter. Instead of idling around the kitchen stove, those boys could be contributing cash to the family purse. As a result, many a young Karl, Stanislaus or Sven made the transition from boy to man in a lumber camp. It was part high school locker room minus the showers–and smelled like it; part college frat house, with ranks, rituals and razzing; and part military boot camp, where strength, endurance, teamwork and adherence to the rules as dictated by the bull of the woods foreman, were necessary for survival.

Gangly boyish bodies filled out under a regimen of strenuous physical labor fueled by a high-carb, high-fat diet. Bunkhouse philosophers, older hands who had made logging their life’s work, perched on the rightly-named liar’s bench nearest the stove and passed down the wooly tales of logging lore, the how-tos of woods work, and the traditional culture of Victorian masculinity. Mentors by default, they opened minds cocooned in rural isolation. Some of the wisdom shared was truly wise, much of it was bunkum, and a lot of it was the kind of guy talk not be shared with Mom or Sis, who had to stay at home.

Wisconsin made its passage into the industrial age by way of the logging camp, the place where many of its boys became men.

The Gift of Communities

March 6, 2009

I got to go to New Glarus last week. This may not sound like a big thing but I am a rural guy who does not get out much. I was asked to go to a community event with the thought that it might be replicated in my neck of the woods. Kind of like I was a UN observer, but on a smaller scale, of course.

New Glarus is a great community in Green County, and although it has all kinds of things to do and buy and eat, you will often get a single-word response when you ask people what they know about the Village: Swiss!

Very Swiss.

The event was an annual Gift of Community celebration, and it was superb. It reminded me of the power of appreciation – the kind of community-building that occurs when we take a little time to recognize the folks who make our places better places. All nominees for various awards were cited, and it struck me that, even though there were winners, there were no losers. It was fun. It made people feel good. It charged human batteries. I got a free dinner.

Interloper that I was, it took a while to get acquainted with folks at the table. I was made quite welcome, but there was one little worry in the back of my mind. A question I anticipated and feared. Our conversations grew warmer and more personal and then it happened– the dreaded query was unleashed: “So………are you Swiss?”

Not a head turned nor an eye glanced my way, but I felt every nearby ear sharpen in anticipation of my response. Mom had not prepared me for this kind of stress. Mustering what I could, in fear of instant alienation, I squeaked my response. “No, I’m German.” I felt myself turn pale.

But I lived. Actually, I continued to be warmly accepted, and the conversations got more cordial and went every which way. I met new friends, and even heard someone remark that a neighbor of theirs had met a German once, too. He wasn’t such a bad egg.

Rural communities can be a lot like urban neighborhoods. They have unique identities–art and culture unique to their people, to their location and their history. A community’s uniqueness is a welcome sign. Come be part of us for a while.

So thanks to the good people of New Glarus for the lesson learned. I, too, received the gift of community, and I was reminded how neat it is for us all when we take the time to shine the spotlight on the neighbors whose everyday contributions are the bricks that build big, figurative edifices of warmth and inclusiveness.

I hope my little community and arts organization can do something like this soon, too. How about yours?

Ricky Rolfsmeyer

Executive Director, Wisconsin Rural Partners

Hollandale WI (pop. 283)

A Strong Support Group of Peers

March 1, 2009

The Artist’s Magazine published in its April issue Christine Sharp’s interesting article “Surviving Tough Economic Times.” Sharp offers 12 suggestions on how to survive the recent economic downturn. Starting a supporting group is listed as the first of her advices. She writes: “… a supportive group of artist friends can really help boost your mood, your sales, and your creativity.”

My artist friends agree that being surrounded by creative people who share same interests, hopes, and frustrations is inspiring, helpful and extremely important not just during recession, but also during prosperous economic times.

Wisconsin artists have been cooperating and forming different supporting groups for years. They are organized around local art centers, art cooperatives, artist critique groups, art alliances, studio groups, etc.

In order to help the local artists to not just share creative support, but improve their business skills, and to strengthen the western Wisconsin economy, UW-La Crosse Continuing Education and Extension and SBDC jointly developed two professional development programs: Learning Communities of Artists: Best Business Practices, and Artists Planning for Profit to provide education and management support to visual artists and art organizations. Two ten month programs were designed to strengthen artist’s professional and business capacity to build sustainable art businesses and to achieve financial success without sacrificing creativity. The participating artists learn in a learning community environment. Many of the learning outcomes are self-selected and self-directed, respectful of scheduling and learning style preferences. The participating artists have been successfully introduced to the tools of general business management and a strong network of peers. They recognized the need to adapt and embrace the new ways of conducting and marketing their art businesses in order to gain or maintain the competitive edge.

They will celebrate their participation in the programs by showcasing their new artworks during one-day CABIN FEVER ART SHOW & SALE.”

The show will be held Saturday, March 14, 2009, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the Cleary Alumni and Friends Center, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Campus. For more information please see: