It’s money well spent

June 26, 2009

The Wisconsin Humanities Council spent $74,348 last week.

The WHC board meets three times a year to make funding decisions. For months before hand, potential applicants call the WHC office with ideas and questions. Our postman and UPS deliverer know when it’s deadline time because packages start piling up. The applications are sent to the board members, all volunteers, who read them thoughtfully with an eye for the best examples of public programs that use history, culture, and conversation to brighten community life around the state.

As always, the proposals represented a wide range of programs, both in format and in subject matter. Sometimes it is like comparing apples and oranges: a documentary film about the ways a particular section of the Wisconsin River has changed in the past fifteen years alongside a conference meant to bring people together to consider “the economies of neighborliness” and how to strengthen communities.

The rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin near Folklore Village. Photo by Jessica Becker

The rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin near Folklore Village. Photo by Jessica Becker

The meeting was held at Folklore Village, a cultural center located on a beautiful piece of rolling farmland in southwestern Wisconsin. The setting was grounding and helped, I think, to remind board members of what is most important in a time when grant dollars are precious.

Doug Miller, the director of Folklore Village for over twenty years and a member of the WHC board, told a story of a silver thread. It’s a story he shares with the many young children who visit the farm site every year. The thread goes back through time to connect Doug to his grandmother, who shared her jokes and stories with Doug as a child, and the people who passed that wisdom to Doug’s grandmother generations before.

Members of the WHC board at Folklore Village. Photo by Jessica Becker

Members of the WHC board at Folklore Village. Photo by Jessica Becker

As Doug talked, he wove the silver thread around us all, giving us the gift of his songs, his memories, his traditions and his culture. After years at Folklore Village, his collection has grown beyond those of his blood relatives thanks to his deep belief in the value of every person’s cultural heritage and his remarkable skill in listening.

I see the projects that were awarded WHC grant money after deliberation at our meeting at Folklore Village are projects that carry this thread in some way. A few examples:

  • The Milwaukee Public Theatre is gathering stories and historic research on the Civilian Conservation Corp’s work in Wisconsin, which will be presented theatrically for all ages.
  • A photographer and historian are working with veterans of America’s wars and conflicts to create an exhibition that honors the words and images of the veterans themselves.
  • Students learning English will be able to take part in learning journeys, developed by the Kenosha Literacy Council, designed to teach language skills through experiences with history, art, and cultural traditions
  • Youngsters in the Eau Claire area will be encouraged to follow their curiosities, to ask questions, and to think like historians at the Chippewa Valley Museum’s new exhibition, History Quest.

We are all hearing about economic challenges, funding cuts, job losses, and other budgetary troubles. I’m proud, in these times, to say that the Wisconsin Humanities Council is carrying the thread carefully, without losing sight of how easily threads can be snipped, tangled, or dropped. Would I be mixing metaphors to suggest that without these threads, all of them, we’d be left stark naked?

Posted by Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Full Steam Ahead

June 22, 2009

If you’re  a teacher or you have a school-aged child, or maybe you’re just interested in education issues, you might have heard the acronym STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Emphasis on STEM careers and STEM education has garnered federal attention and support, and some educational reformers use the term as a rallying call for change within the American school system.  They say a knowledge-based economy such as ours needs a workforce skilled in these disciplines to prosper — employees with the curiosity, the analytical skills, the working knowledge of computers and other technologies that STEM coursework fosters. You can’t argue with that.

Yet recently I heard someone suggest a one-letter revision to the STEM acronym. By changing STEM to STEAM, we acknowledge the critical role arts learning plays in educating children to their fullest capacity.  In a creative economy — one grounded in innovation and problem-solving — the arts are integral to developing critical thinking skills and to sparking the human imagination.

Listening to Here on Earth on Wisconsin Public Radio last week, I heard a fantastic example of STEAM learning. Margaret Wertheim of the Institute for Figuring, the program’s guest, explains how hyperbolic geometry was discovered by 19th century mathematicians, but at that time “no one knew how to make models of it and had come to believe that you couldn’t make physical models of it” — not until Cornell University mathematics researcher Daina Taimina used her skills with the crochet needle to create one of the first models of hyperbolic space.

Professor Taimina, who learned needlework in her childhood in Latvia, began crocheting the models in 1997, and she’s been at it ever since. [Read more about Daina Tamina in “Knit Theory” from Discover Magazine.]

Crochet hyperbolic kelp. Photo: Institute for Figuring.

Crochet hyperbolic kelp. Photo: Institute for Figuring.

Building on Professor Taimina’s discovery, Margaret Wertheim and her twin sister Christine noticed that, in coral reefs, nature makes its own models of hyperbolic space. And so the Australia natives began crocheting a coral reef hyperbolic model. Ultimately, they wound up spearheading a worldwide crocheted coral reef movement, involving tens of thousands of hours of accumulated labor and a model that fills a 3,000 square foot gallery space.

Here’s an excerpt of the interview with Dr. Wertheim:

The crochet reef project for us comes out of our combined interest in both theoretical ideas — math, science, logic, etc. — but also our love and deep engagement personally with the techniques of handmaking, and the commitment of physical labor, and physical time that it takes to do those things. It is whole body, whole mind, and I think in some sense, whole being.

It’s a project that resists our inclination to divide and classify. Instead, it invites further thought about relationships, not only about the relationships between geometry and fine craft but about conservation and what we traditionally regard women’s work.   Now, there’s an idea that has some steam.

To hear the full interview, visit Here on Earth‘s audio archives and select the June 17, 2009 program.  And for more stories on the relationships between science and art, browse NPR’s Morning Edition series “Where Science Meets Art.”

–Tammy Kempfert

Kitchen Sink Patriot

June 16, 2009
Photo: The Fox River Patriot

Photo: The Fox River Patriot

The recent edition of the Wisconsin Magazine of History includes an article by historian Paul Buhle entitled Wisconsin’s Comic Art. It is a preview of his upcoming book on the subject.  Buhle writes about classic newspaper comic creations from Wisconsin–Henry, The Gumps, Gasoline Alley–and also covers the “underground” comics that emerged in the late 1960s and ’70s.

The most important Wisconsin contributor to this genre was Milwaukee native Dennis Kitchen. He published heavily illustrated “alternative” tabloids as well as comics magazines in his home town, in Madison and, most notably at his Kitchen Sink Press near Princeton in Green Lake County.

I’ll let Buhle brief you on Kitchen’s contribution to comics world wide.  My interest is in Kitchen’s work in central Wisconsin.

After moving his Press to a remodeled cow barn off  Swamp Road, Kitchen partnered with fellow Milwaukeean Mike Jacobi to found a tabloid newspaper called The Fox River Patriot. The title bespeaks the time and place. It was the Bicentennial year of 1976, old fashioned Yankee Doodle patriotism was recovering from its Vietnam era swoon, and Princeton, where the Patriot’s office was located, is on the Fox River.

But Kitchen and Jacobi never intended to publish just another local newspaper. Like the Fox River, which flows from Portage to Oshkosh and Green Bay, the Patriot was designed to be a regional resource and, in time,  it was distributed in ten counties.  It combined elements of the new glossy city magazines and “alternative” tabloids like Isthmus in Madison and The Shepherd Express in Milwaukee, but its editorial content was focused on rural living. The typical Patriot reader was one of the growing number of people who lived in the country but did not farm.

The Fox River Patriot was arguably the first “alternative” newspaper devoted to rural, non farm living in Wisconsin. I worked as a reporter and editor for about five of its eight years of life.  Articles on gardening, horticulture, landscaping, small-scale forestry, small stock-raising,  weather lore, fishing, cooking and preserving home-grown produce, filled the pages, as did serious pieces on groundwater contamination, wetlands preservation, even the potential threat of storing nuclear waste in Waupaca County.  We covered local history and legends,  reviewed musicians and artists, profiled colorful old timers and interesting newcomers.

Photo: The Fox River Patriot

Photo: The Fox River Patriot

Patriot articles on recycling, energy conservation, wind and solar power– living “green”– would prove useful today.  Green, however, was  merely a color then, and one that appeared frequently on the cover.

For among the many features that made the Patriot special, it was the only rural “alternative” publication in the country with covers and inside graphics designed by Kitchen Sink Press comics artists. Dennis Kitchen, Pete Poplaski, even Robert Crumb, contributed.

By the mid-1980s, the wheels of time and place had turned.  “Alternative” became mainstream. Differences between  rural and urban living faded into today’s shared suburbia.   The Fox River Patriot faded with them.

–Michael Goc

It’s the people!

June 9, 2009

You don’t have to be from Mineral Point to get asked about the place.  It is a small southwest Wisconsin city that is getting discovered by more and more people and for good reason.  Folks often go there for its natural beauty, history, arts, architecture, workshops, culture, theater and a dandy farmers’ market.  I go there for welding supplies and vehicle parts.  We all get the same thing: extraordinary people who are glad you’re there.

The restored Mineral Point railroad depot (Credit: Joy Gieseke)

The restored Mineral Point railroad depot (Credit: Joy Gieseke)

Mineral Point is one of the oldest cities in the state.  At one time it was relatively large, a hub of commerce related to mining.  Many Cornish folks came from England from about 1830- 1850 and the ties to Cornwall exist today.

The Cornish could also build, and Mineral Point has scores of beautiful buildings, large and small. These include St. Paul’s Mission Church, the gorgeously restored train depot, the Gundry House, and historic buildings on Shake Rag Street, some of the oldest in this part of the state.  Many are made of stone, the first of these being built in 1834.  Stone was cheaper and more plentiful than wood.  This was a land of prairies.

Many know Mineral Point for its artists.  There are some fine musicians in that bunch as well, so if you stay a few days you’ll probably have an opportunity to hear some great tunes at any number of venues.    But the artists themselves and diversity of their craft lures you from shop to shop.  Watch them work; talk to them about why they do what they do.  This is a small town.  Connecting is part of being here.

A special treat for theater lovers is the new Alley Stage, an outdoor, intimate 200-seat venue that features original plays professionally performed.  The setting alone is outstanding.

Historic houses on Shake Rag Street (Credit: Joy Gieseke)

Historic houses on Shake Rag Street (Credit: Joy Gieseke)

And if you like to bicycle and love stunning scenery, check out the new Cycle Southwest Wisconsin web site, a compendium of 28 diverse bicycling loops, many of which pass close by.

Mineral Point has also become known as a place to learn and have fun doing so.  The Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts offers a potpourri of classes: Drawing, mosaics, painting, metals, glasswork, gardening, and a whole lot more.  Join them for the Country Garden Tour on June 20 and take-in an original play at the Alley Stage that evening.

The natural connection between local food and local art presents itself every Saturday morning with the Mineral Point Farmers’ Market.  It’s busy but not crowded, and you can find a wide variety of products.  Like anyone else in this city the Farmers’ market people want you to be here – they love sharing.

This reminds me of sports.

Conversation is important in small towns and we like the athletic rivalries we have with our neighboring burgs. So if I wear something that identifies my school when visiting, there’s a good chance I’ll become engaged in a “discussion” about some big game or maybe a few of them.  And it may have been 25 or 50 years ago.  Sports in these parts are the family thing to do.

My oldest son won his regional event so earned the right to wrestle in the Mineral Point Sectional Tournament a few months ago.  Going to wrestle in Mineral Point is like a pee-wee football team playing the Packers.  Point is and has always been very, very good.

Three wrestlers advance to the state tournament and my kid took fourth.  We were a bit dejected but, what the heck, we thought we might as well get a burger while we’re here.  We did not know that we were stopping at the place where the Mineral Point wrestling families celebrate, and when the crowd came through the door we weren’t sure what to expect.

Veggie Babe (Ruth Rolfsmeyer) at the 2008 Farmers' Market

Veggie Babe (Ruth Rolfsmeyer) at the 2008 Farmers' Market

But it was like the artists and the musicians and the folks who do the workshops and the woman who sells me my auto parts.  We were immediately embraced and the conversations began.  They were glad we were there.  Two parents in Pecatonica green amid a sea of Pointer blue, and I think every single Mineral Point parent came over to us at some point to congratulate us: “The PEC kids did well” (all two of them).  “I’m sure you’re proud.”

I still think about that.  Local or visitor, motorhead like me or arts aficionado…..whatever.  It didn’t matter.   There are tons of things we can come up with to highlight differences but here folks just thought about what we had in common and we enjoyed each other’s company.

So you ought to visit Mineral Point.  It is loaded with things that will please almost anyone, all within walking distance.  But with all it has to offer, the attraction is the people.

Make sure you’re not in a hurry.  You’ll want to spend some time in conversation.  Folks will be glad you came, and they’ll want to get to know you.

Rick Rolfsmeyer

Wisconsin Rural Partners

Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)

Wisconsin: One out of 56

June 5, 2009

I’m not a Wisconsinite by birth, but I play one at work. I was born in Ohio but have lived for twelve years in Wisconsin, eight and a half of which I’ve spent working for the Wisconsin Humanities Council. At this point, I claim the state as home.

Every year I represent Wisconsin at a national conference with my peers from the state humanities offices around the country. This year, we were hosted by the Georgia Humanities Council in Atlanta and spent three days discussing the value and importance of the humanities in a thriving democracy. 

I am always proud to share what the Wisconsin Humanities Council has been doing. The states are all so different—in size, population, history and culture—and I’m amazed by the diversity of programs offered.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council, like the sister offices in all 50 states and six territories, is a unique organization. We receive seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which keeps our doors open, our phones working, and funds the projects we support through grants to libraries, schools, museums, historical societies, and others groups around the state.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council works to support and create programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

President Obama recently announced his intent to nominate Jim Leach as the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Leach has served as a respected member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa for 30 years. For the state council offices, the appointment is important because the Chairman of the NEH makes decisions that affect how much money each state has to use for grants, literacy programs, teacher workshops, and other initiatives that fulfill the missions of the councils.

The final session of the conference was about programming for youth. A representative from Alabama talked about a week-long summer course in literature, history, and writing for African American high school seniors to improve their chances of attending college. Another person, from North Carolina, explained a social mixer for 20-30 year olds in Greensboro funded by the state council where philosophical ideas were dramatized in hip, creative ways. In California, we learned, filmmakers and humanities professors worked with kids under age 18 to create documentary films about their experiences growing up in California.

I am coming home to Wisconsin with these ideas percolating, thinking hard about what it means to serve “everyone in Wisconsin.” Kathleen Mitchell, who represents the state councils at the National Endowment for the Humanities, charged all of us at the meeting to use our talents and resources for the youth of our states. After all, as the mission of the NEH says, our democracy depends on it.

In 2010, Wisconsin will be the proud host of the annual meeting for Program Officers from the State Humanities Councils.

Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs for the Wisconsin Humanities Council