Countdown to Wendell Berry and the Wisconsin Book Festival

July 30, 2009

Seventy three days from today, Wendell Berry will be appearing at the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison. Berry’s name catches people’s attention: he is well-loved as an outspoken farmer, prolific writer (he’s written 40+ books), and fierce advocate for the importance of connections between people and place.

Author Wendell Berry will be at the Wisconsin Book Festival at 4 PM on Sunday, October 11 (Capital Theater, Overture Center)

Author Wendell Berry will be at the Wisconsin Book Festival at 4 PM on Sunday, October 11 (Capital Theater, Overture Center)

It’s “a coup,” writes Jane Burns of 77 Square, an arts and culture Website for the Madison area, to get Mr. Berry to leave his Kentucky farm and speak to his adoring fans.

Sure enough, the Wisconsin Humanities Council has invited him every year since the inception of the Wisconsin Book Festival, in 2002. This year, it is really thanks to our friends at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, that Mr. Berry accepted the invitation and will be making the journey. He will be speaking on the theme of courage at a time when we all need a boost of inspiration to deal with varied challenges.

“The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and wasteful.”
–Wendell Berry

I’m thrilled that local media are already helping to fan the flames of excitement about Berry’s visit. Being in the business of creating and supporting public humanities programs, I know it’s not always easy to get the attention that events like these deserve.  Big names are the name of the game.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council will host Will Allen in Madison on Thursday, September 17. Location TBA.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council will host Will Allen in Madison on Thursday, September 17. Location TBA.

Will Allen, founding director of Milwaukee’s Growing Power, will also be presenting at a neighborhood-based event in Madison as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival’s outreach this fall. His is another “big name” these days thanks to his work in building an urban farm that serves the surrounding community and that is part of an international movement toward innovative, sustainable agriculture. And, Mr. Allen recently received a McArthur Genius Award.

Together, the star-power names in headlines might overshadow the fact that the Wisconsin Book Festival will have over 50 events, close to 100 authors. But, again, I don’t mind too much. At the Wisconsin Humanities Council, we are used to going under the radar sometimes. The more important thing is that our programs, and events, do what we believe is the most critical thing: use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life in Wisconsin.

For both Will Allen and Wendell Berry, these values are inherent in all that they do.  I am counting down the days, eager to hear what each has to say.

By Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council


Gone Fishin’

July 21, 2009

Work before play was the ethic of the Victorian era, but not everyone subscribed.

A Wisconsin Central Railroad train at the depot in Colby, Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

A Wisconsin Central Railroad train at the depot in Colby, Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Take the fellow known to Ashland County historians only as  “Mr. Merrill of Prairie du Chien.” A few months after the first cars of the Wisconsin Central Railroad reached the Lake Superior shore in spring 1877,  he traveled halfway across the state to board  the train running north from Marshfield to Ashland.  At a spot in the forest yet to be disturbed by logger’s axe or farmer’s plow, but where the locomotive was obliged to stop, Merrill hopped off the train and headed down the trail running due west.

Leaves were already turning in the softening September light. Canoe birch to bright yellow, soft maple in the lowlands to scarlet, hard maple on the uplands to burnished gold. White pine needles stayed green but added a wintry caul of dusky blue.

After a trek of about five miles, Merrill reached his destination, Butternut Lake. One thousand acres of gravel bars and rice beds, rocky dropoffs and reedy shallows, all overlain with a flawless mirror of clear water capturing images of the sky.

He set to his task, but not to work. He laid no traps to extract beaver pelts,  chipped no rocks in search of copper or iron ore, appraised no trees for their content of lumber in board feet,  stretched no chains to mark forties for farms or town lots for sale, scooped up no soil to assess its capability for corn.

He went fishing. In waters yet to be sullied by logging slash or camp debris, or marred by farm runoff, wetland drainage or village trash.  All that and more would come to Butternut and thousands of other virgin lakes in the north, but not in 1877.

Only Merrill of Prairie du Chein, who did very well with his hook and line. The Ashland Press reported that he caught “eighty pounds of musky.”  He probably hooked as much or more of walleye, pike or perch, but even in 1877, the tiger fish of the north was the catch most coveted.  He lugged his haul out to the railroad, packed them in a barrel full of ice and shipped them home to Prairie du Chien where they enlivened the catfish-rich dinner tables of his family and friends.

“Time is the pool I go fishing in,” wrote another lake lover thirty years prior to Merrill’s expedition to Butternut Lake.  For Henry David Thoreau, how we use our time on this earth was the elemental question.

In September 1877, Merrill of Prairie du Chien fished in the pristine pool of Butternut Lake. His choice was well-timed. 1878 would have been too late.

 issued by the Land Department of the Wisconsin Central Railroad in order to promote the sale of railroad-owned land in northern Wisconsin.

An advertisement issued by the Wisconsin Central Railroad promoting the sale of railroad-owned land in northern Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

–Michael Goc


The barbed wire fence between here and perfection

July 21, 2009

It’s a nipped, tucked, Botoxed world we’re living in–at least if you have the inclination and the cash to spare, or if you’re famous enough to inhabit the covers of those magazines in the grocery checkout lane. That’s why I’m always grateful when I see rare images of the rest of us surface in our perfection-obsessed culture. 

Milwaukee artist David Lenz is committed to contributing such images to America’s visual repository–portraits of the people often rejected, forgotten and unseen by our most pervasive media outlets.  Known for his photo-realistic paintings, Mr. Lenz won the distinction in 2006 of placing first in the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Competition, an honor that comes with an impressive cash award and a separate commission to be included in the Gallery’s permanent collection.

Recently our partners at the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters named David Lenz one of seven 2009 Academy Fellows, prompting me to “dust off” an old streaming video from Portal Wisconsin’s digital media collection. It features his Academy Evening presentation, “Everyday People: An Artist’s Tribute.”  

Mr. Lenz is a soft-spoken activist/artist with a compelling tale. Through his videotaped public talk, we get an illustrated tour of his artistic journey,  beginning with his education at UW-Milwaukee and continuing through his evolution from painting Canadian landscapes to portraits of urban children and dairy farmers. He describes how he came to submit the winning portrait of his son Sam to the national competition; and finally, he tells us about his negotiations with the National Portrait Gallery over who might be considered an appropriate subject for the subsequent commission.  

“Sam and the Perfect World,” shown below, is Mr. Lenz’s winning Outwin Boochever portrait. In it, the landscape takes up most of the canvas, but it’s 8-year-old Sam who won’t be denied. Sam, who has Down Syndrome, stares at us squarely from the foreground, on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence.

Sam and the Perfect World, David Lenz, 44" x 46" Oil on linen, 2005. Photo: David Lenz.

Sam and the Perfect World, David Lenz, 44" x 46" Oil on linen, 2005. Photo: David Lenz.

About his attempt to portray his son on canvas, Mr. Lenz says:

How do you talk about all these different things? How do you talk about the love that you feel for your child? How do you couple that with all the discrimination there is out there, and wrap it all up in one painting? So the only way that I know how to do that is with metaphor.

And this painting, like many of Mr. Lenz’s others, is rich with metaphor: the haloed sun symbolizing the divine; a vast, sunbleached Eden, or the “perfect world” we aspire to inhabit; the barbed barrier that denies entry to those deemed imperfect. Yet Sam is real. Sam makes us question our presumptions about self-worth and belonging.

At the time of his Academy Evening presentation, Mr. Lenz had recently settled on the subject of his commissioned painting for the National Portrait Gallery, and he wasn’t at liberty to reveal her to us. His account of the back-and-forth debate between himself and the Gallery regarding who might be “significant” enough to include in their collection makes for dramatic viewing. In fact, I missed my bus home from work, just so I could catch the ending.

Of course, we know now (spoiler alert!) that it’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver, one of the founders of Special Olympics, who appears in Mr. Lenz’s portrait. There are no fences this time, only Ms. Shriver and four real-life Special Olympics kids, whose portraits are finally judged significant enough to hang in a Washington, D.C. gallery filled with the paintings of presidents and other dignitaries.

If you have a chance, watch the presentation. It really is absorbing–and unlike most video out of Hollywood, it won’t make you self-conscious of your crow’s feet.

–Tammy Kempfert


On whatever the heck it is I want as an artist

July 21, 2009

Sometimes, well, no almost all the time, “feel-good-overcome-triumph-my-life-is-great” movies and shows tick me off. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a “my life is so terrible and I don’t have a gadjillion dollars to solve all of my problems wah wah why won’t someone fix it for me” blog. Really, I’m not that trite. I’m happily married, and between my wife and I we make enough money and overall I’ve got a pretty damn good life.

It’s just that when I watch shows/movies like this, I somehow end up feeling simultaneously inspired and like a failure all rolled up in to one overly intense ball of emotion. And then I get angry, because we all know it doesn’t always work out that way. People die, people fail, people don’t even bother to aspire, and that’s just how the world works.

What galls me isn’t the content really, I mean it’s just a show, a production that exists as a piece of art, and the multitude of people who participate in its creation will probably be happy to know that they evoke pretty intense and visceral emotions from me when I partake in them. No, the real problem is that when it comes to my own aspirations, artistic or otherwise, I have been known to get in my own way from time to time.

So I watch something that triggers this emotional response and then I start to feel crappy about achieving my dreams, I wondering if I should be farther along, (wherever that is???) and why right here and now isn’t a good enough place to be just because I watched some stupid show.

Of course, it took me writing all of that to consciously realize this. See I was going to rant a little bit about how not everyone can succeed and blah blah blah, but really, this is about me.

I’m struggling with my desire for success in my aspirations as an artist, as well as my desire as to be an active and positive participant in the various communities that I am part of. I struggle with that against the idea that mabye I want this because I think I should want it. That maybe these are superimposed ideals and desires, that maybe really all I want to do is just BE, simple, unfettered and unencumbered by those desires.

There’s an equilibrium in there somewhere, I just know it, and I strongly suspect that the tranquility and state of being I seek will somehow arrive THROUGH my aspirations and desires.

If I could just get out of my own frikkin way…

Spyros Heniadis


Green County is SO Green!

July 16, 2009

I don’t say that lightly. Green is all the rage. Businesses are green (or they are not), travel is green (or it’s not), schools, people, intentions, habits, on and on….But Green County is literally really bright green.

Green County Stirring the Pot 016

Green County farmland. Photo by Jessica Becker

I drove from Madison to Monroe yesterday afternoon to attend the second in a series of community picnics on the lawn of the Monroe Art Center. The series is called “Stirring the Pot,” and was funded in part with a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. It was a gorgeous summer evening, and the drive there was delightful. Cara Carper, a Green County Extension Agent, told me on the phone before hand to turn right at the cheese factory onto County Road N. There were more cheese factories than I could count. Green County could also rightly be called Cheese County.

Families were gathered on blankets enjoying dinner in the glow of sunshine. I settled in to watch a guest chef from Blackhawk Tech’s culinary program demonstrate how to make a balsamic reduction sauce, which she suggested could be drizzled over whatever is in season at your local farmers market. A couple tables were piled high with fresh produce and the farmers were there to tell you about. I brought home some blue potatoes and the season’s early broccoli.

Representative Brett Davis serving samples of salad prepared by Peppercorn Catering. Photo by Jessica Becker

Representative Brett Davis serving samples of salad prepared by Peppercorn Catering. Photo by Jessica Becker

The gathering drew together an inspiring, and inspired, community that is growing more organized in its regional efforts to promote better nutrition in school lunchrooms, fight Wisconsin’s obesity problem, and break up the rural food deserts by connecting farmers with consumers. I was happy to meet Representative Brett Davis, who was also there to show his support and give his own cooking demo.

The event’s organizers hope to get people thinking more about the food they eat and to make more “sustainable” choices. Sustainable, at this point, being sort of another word for green. Which is what I was thinking about as I drove home. The sun was just on the horizon and as I headed north, back into Dane County, the fields were a fire of green. It was breathtaking.

I pulled over at the crest of one hill to marvel. A farm dog ran toward my car as I stepped out to take a picture. “He’s friendly,” the dog’s owner assured me from a distance. “It’s just so pretty, I couldn’t help myself,” I explained as I lifted my camera to capture the moment.

Barn in Green County. Photo by Jessica Becker

Barn in Green County. Photo by Jessica Becker

The farmer nodded and smiled.

By Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council


Finding Grandpa

July 13, 2009

Abigail Helser, a Wisconsin 3rd grader, has won the national Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators contest in her grade level with her autobiographical submission “Finding Grandpa.”

Abigail, a 3rd grader from Wisconsin, one first prize in the Reading Rainbow Young Artists and Illustrators Contest. Photo: Wisconsin Public Television.

Abigail, a 3rd grader from Wisconsin, won first prize in the Reading Rainbow Young Artists and Illustrators Contest. Photo: Wisconsin Public Television.

This year, nearly 800 Wisconsin children in kindergarten through third grade submitted their originally written and illustrated stories for judging in the contest. Local first-place winners in each grade are submitted to the national competition. At Wisconsin Public Television’s newly designed kids page, you can view narrated slide shows of all the state winners. Later this month, the national Reading Rainbow site will feature Abigail’s story.

Way to go, kids!


Like a Lion

July 10, 2009

A friend just told me she wants to be like a lion. She’d been reading blogs about happiness, which is apparently also a theme recently on this blog. I’m in my mid 30s, so I figure I now have some of the wisdom of experience, but also enough time left to shape a future for myself based on that wisdom. I’m into happiness.

In recent conversations amongst friends, the common concern I’ve been hearing, expressed in various ways, has to do with finding, or making, time to pursue all the exciting opportunities out there, encourage self-growth, nurture friendships and family bonds, and do it all in a relaxed, enjoyable way? Basically, figuring out an equation for a happy life.

On some level, it comes down to breadth vs. depth. I have always been attracted to breadth. I love what I do professionally, creating and supporting public humanities programs throughout Wisconsin, because I get a broad scope of the state and am always learning new things. But, I watching Andy Roddick last weekend, I do wonder where I’d be right now if I’d spent forty hours a week hitting a tennis ball to perfection…

My grandmother was a big influence on me growing up. She often told me that she had never been bored a minute of her life. She attributed this gift to her endless curiosity and the richness of life. Her balanced formula for happiness included daily naps, regular card games with friends, and complete confidence in her god and her self.

Like a lion in the sun. Photo by the author.

Like a lion in the sun. Photo by the author.

When my friend said she wanted to be like a lion, she was aiming toward a level of relaxed confidence. Lions are so inherently confident of their place in the world, and of their capacity to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, they are comfortable relaxing in the shade plenty of the time. Unlike smaller, less self-confident creatures who are chasing their tales, lions are not afraid of missing the action. They seem to know what they are here to do and they do it well.

At the Wisconsin Humanities Council, we’ve been giving some thought to what it is we do well (oh, the joys of strategic planning!) and what each of us at the Council enjoys about our work. In my hours away from the office, I have also been thinking strategically in order to find more time to lie in the shade. Or the sun, depending on the day. They both make me happy.

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