Finding new things, Inside and Outside

September 29, 2009

I love discovering new things about the place I live.

My husband and I like to walk out of the house without a goal in mind and wander like tourists, finding new things along the way. We call it flaneuring, a verb some friends with a similar passion contrived from the French word with no English equivalent.

The following elaboration is stolen directly from Wikipedia:

[The term flâneur comes from the French masculine noun flâneur—which has the basic meanings of “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, “loafer”—which itself comes from the French verb flâner, which means “to stroll”. Charles Baudelaire developed a derived meaning of flâneur—that of “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”.]

Occasionally I get the same sort of sensation when flipping casually through books, especially if the book has attractive photos.

Book cover, published by UW Press

Book cover, published by UW Press

When I first picked up Barbara Manger and Janine Smith’s book, “Mary Nohl Inside & Outside,” I felt I’d wandered into a new-to-me neighborhood along Lake Michigan and was peeping into the yard of someone very intriguing.

Mary Nohl, an artist who landscaped her large lakefront property and decorated her house with her own sculptures, paintings, carvings, and designs, is not a complete unknown. The Kohler Foundation owns the estate, which is also listed on the National Register for Historic Places, and Ms. Nohl was posthumously awarded the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.

But, to trip unexpectedly into her world through the pages of the book was for me to see a new side of Wisconsin. The book authors write that Ms. Nohl hated being labeled, so I’ll try to avoid it, but she is one of the many less-than-world-known artists who have graced the Wisconsin landscape with magical fantasy worlds of their own creation. The more I stroll beyond the main route, drive off the thoroughfare, the more of these people I “meet.”

Book authors Barbara Manger and Janine Smith

Book authors Barbara Manger and Janine Smith

For those of us in Madison next week, Barbara Manger and Janine Smith, artist and bookmaker respectively, will be presenting at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Wednesday, October 7 from 5:30 – 7 PM at the Chazen Museum of Art. They will be sharing more insight, I’m sure, into the character of Ms. Nohl and her eclectic body of work.

If you are out flaneuring, maybe you will wander in. Or find something else of interest. You never know!

by Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council


Lineman, Lawyer, Ojibwe

September 24, 2009

Football season is upon us and it prompts me to write about my favorite National League Football team. No it’s not the guys in green and gold from the city by the bay. It’s a team from the earliest days of the NFL that–as far as I know–never played a game in Wisconsin, but had several Wisconsin natives on the roster, and that went by the unlikely name of the Oorang Indians.

oorang_indians

Oorang Indians, 1922. (No. 1) Alex Bobidosh, (2) Jim Thorpe, (3) Ted St. Germaine, (4) George Vetternack. (Ben Guthrie Collection, Lac du Flambeau).

In the fledgling days of the NFL a dog breeder named Walter Lingo wanted to boost sales of his line of Airedale dogs, known as Oorangs. He concluded that, if a Green Bay, Wisconsin meat packer could sponsor a football team to push pork chops he, a La Rue, Ohio dog breeder, could field a team to peddle puppies. He needed a marketing gimmick and found it in an unlikely place.

The boarding schools established by the federal government to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into the majority, white culture included comprehensive sports programs wherein Indian kids learned to play basketball, football and of course, “the national pastime” of baseball. By the opening years of the 20th century, “institutes” such as Hampton in Virginia and Carlisle in Pennsylvania were turning out “All-American” caliber athletes, most notably 1912 Olympic champion and the “World’s Greatest Athlete,” Jim Thorpe.

Lingo filled his roster with Indian school alumni and hired the aging but still famous Thorpe as player-coach. The Oorang Indians first took to the gridiron for the NFL’s 1922 season. On the roster were three young men from the Ojibwe reservation at Lac du Flambeau–George Vetternack, Alex Bobidosh and Ted St. Germaine.  Of the three, St. Germaine was the standout, but not for his ability with a football. Born in 1885, he left Lac du Flambeau to attend the University of Wisconsin, but found the atmosphere more friendly at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where he played football and earned his bachelor’s degree. Then it was on to Howard University and Yale where, in 1914, he acquired a law degree. Even with a degree from Yale, he soon learned that he was more likely to find a job on an Indian college coaching staff than in a white attorney’s office.

He was already thirty-seven years old when he suited up as a lineman for the Oorangs. When he strode onto the field in 1922, Ted St. Germaine became the first and probably the only attorney at law to play for an NFL team and certainly the only Native American lawyer to ever knuckle down on an NFL line.

The Indians were not much of a marketing gimmick and were even less of a football team. They survived two seasons, won three games and lost sixteen. When the 1923 season ended so did the team. The Flambeau men came home to their reservation. Bobidosh became a renowned master of Ojibwe traditional bark craft and, in the 1950s traveled, along with a supply of saplings and birch bark, to Anaheim, California, to build an Ojibwe long house at a new style amusement park called Disneyland.

Coach Jim Thorpe and lineman Ted St. Germaine, Oorang Indians, 1922. (Ben Guthrie Collection, Lac du Flambeau).

Coach Jim Thorpe and lineman Ted St. Germaine, Oorang Indians, 1922. (Ben Guthrie Collection, Lac du Flambeau).

St. Germaine became a tribal judge and, in 1932, was the first Native American admitted to the bar in Wisconsin. When Franklin Roosevelt initiated legislation to end the assimilation and allotment policies that had, one, taken children away from their parents and forced them into boarding schools and, two, carved up communally-owned reservation land into individual holdings, Congressional hearings were held around the country. The spokesman for the Lac du Flambeau delegation at the Hayward, Wisconsin, hearings, was Ted St. Germaine. He argued for Indian self-government and tribal control of natural resources as stipulated in the treaties of the 19th century. Some of these concepts were incorporated into the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, but the Ojibwe’s treaty rights governing natural resources were not recognized in Wisconsin until the 1980s.

Ted St. Germaine was long gone by then, as were the Oorang Indians, and the well-intentioned but inhumane policy that brought them together.


The pigs know…it’s all about dirt

September 23, 2009

A friend of mine just started farming his parent’s land and he invited me out to help dig potatoes last weekend.  Before we got down on hands and knees in the dirt to unearth the tubers, he said the pigs needed a shower.

The three dudes, as he calls them, were weighing in around 200 pounds after about 8 months of eating. On Sunday, when I arrived, they were lumped together in the shade. Pigs don’t sweat, my farmer friend told me. When he got the hose out, they came trotting out in a hurry to splash around and get their snouts down in the newly created mud puddle.

As I spent the next hours harvesting purple, red, and gold potatoes, all found like prizes hidden within the rich soil, I thought about Will Allen.

Will Allen is a very successful farmer in urban Milwaukee. Will inspires people to garden, to grow food, and to improve their landscapes and lives. And he says, with impressive conviction, that to grow food in poor or tainted soil is irresponsible.

His main message is this: It’s all about the dirt.

Will Allen bought the last parcel of agricultural land in Milwaukee and, back in 1993, connected with teens from the surrounding neighborhood to provide work restoring the soil and the greenhouses to grow food. It was an area of the city where people needed jobs and that offered residents no other options for fresh veggies. That was the beginning of Growing Power.

To hear Will go through a brief history of the past sixteen years is jaw-droppingly inspiring. Now he travels the world sharing his techniques for creating huge quantities of high quality soil, putting it to high-density use, fertilizing it with worm castings, and changing the landscape for the better.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council brought Will Allen to Madison last week as a pre-event for the Wisconsin Book Festival (October 7-11 in Madison). The room at the Goodman Community Center was overflowing with fans, followers, and some new faces (now known as the recently converted). Forget about fire code, people were crammed in there! By the end of his talk, Will had everyone happily yelling “Soil!” when he asked, “What is the key to feeding everyone healthy food?”

And what do soil, dirt, and farming have to do with the a statewide cultural organization like the Wisconsin Humanities Council?

Dena Wortzel, the director of the WHC, may have said it best when she explained, “For our part, what we hope to do is help folks in Wisconsin use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone.”

The event was planned to bring people together to talk about what’s going on, what people are excited about, and how new ideas can be realized. This conversation, on-going and building, is part of a history, heritage, and legacy in Wisconsin.

“I don’t know if it is in the air, the water or the soil,” Dena continued, “but for more than a hundred years, Wisconsin has been home to visionaries of land and community, from John Muir to Aldo Leopold, to Will Allen – as well as less publicly known, but equally passionate people like all of you.”

I’m with Will on this one: it must be in the soil!

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council


Homecoming Weekend

September 19, 2009
Medaris_2

Before. Detail of Whitehorse sculpture, prior to removal. Photo: David Medaris, Isthmus Publishing.

High schools and colleges everywhere will hold homecoming celebrations this month and next, but the only one I plan to attend has nothing to do with football.

Next Saturday, September 26, neighbors in east Madison will gather to commemorate the return of a much-loved work of public art to a tiny lakeside park. “Let the Great Spirit Soar” is a Harry Whitehorse sculpture, commissioned in 1991 by the City of Madison Committee for the Arts, the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission and the neighborhood. Here in the Elmside division where the sculpture is located, we know it as the Effigy Tree.

Having suffered significant damage from years of Wisconsin winters, the piece was twice removed from Madison’s Hudson Park for repair by Ho-Chunk artist Whitehorse. Last year, neighbors worked with Whitehorse to propose and finance a more permanent solution. They raised the money to transfer the piece to a Milwaukee foundry, where it was cast in bronze. Now the sculpture, originally carved from a lightning-damaged hackberry tree, has come home.

The Ho-Chunk Nation has generously offered to sponsor Saturday’s event, Elder Gordon Thunder will emcee, and the Thundercloud Singers will perform.  But as much as neighbors love the sculpture, it’s more than art we’ll be celebrating. Like the Effigy Tree itself, the festivities honor the ancestral Indian mounds that tie the Ho-Chunk Nation to this land. The sculpture marks the location of three mounds: bear, lynx and panther effigies.

Last year, I wrote a Portal Wisconsin article on Wisconsin’s Indian mounds, in which I referred to the Effigy Tree conservation effort. In the course of my research for that piece, I discovered a map of mounds that had been lost to urban development. It indicated that my neighborhood in Madison’s Elmside addition is the original site of a cluster of linear and conical effigy mounds. In fact, I believe my own house might sit atop what was once a large bird effigy.

Though I haven’t been able to relocate that map, I do own a reproduction of a real estate poster distributed in the late 1800s proclaiming the Elmside addition to Madison “the Saratoga of the West.” Lots in this “Garden of Eden” could be had for as little as $200, or nearly $5000 today (as calculated by the Web site measuringworth.com). That’s quite a deal by 21st century standards, especially given that my random search of land values (without improvements) in the neighborhood revealed prices around 20% more than that.

whitehorse

After. Detail of Whitehorse sculpture, repaired and cast in bronze. Photo: Tammy Kempfert.

However, I think it’s wise to recognize the hidden costs. Thanks to investigative journalists like Barbara Ehrenreich and Michael Pollan, I think a lot about the real costs of cheap labor, cheap food and cheap land, those hard-to-measure tolls that never appear on the price tag. And while there’s not much I can do to change the fact that a sacred site was lost to my current dwelling, I can participate in efforts to honor and preserve the three mounds that remain.

In making a case for recasting the sculpture in bronze, Effigy Tree Project spokesperson Ann Brickson has said, “Permanent materials remind us of our permanent obligation.” I interpret her comment as referring not only to the sculpture, but to the mounds. And on Saturday, I expect we’ll reaffirm that responsibility.

Please join our homecoming celebration! The public is invited to the ceremony, beginning at 1:00 p.m., September 26, at the corner of Maple Street and Lakeland Avenue in Madison. A portion of Lakeland Avenue will be closed during the festivities.

Finally, if you would like to know more about the history of the Effigy Tree Project, David Medaris has chronicled the campaign in Isthmus Weekly, a Madison-based paper:

The Harry Whitehorse ‘Effigy Tree’ is in peril

The Effigy Tree departs overlook above Lake Monona

The Effigy Tree returns to its home on Lake Monona

–Tammy Kempfert


On the Seat of a Yellow Bus

September 9, 2009
schoolhouse

One room school, Eau Claire county, 1930s (Wisconsin Historical Society).

We no longer think of yellow school buses on country roads as signs of progress in education but, in the 1950s, they stood for more than transportation. Buses,  not  yet painted yellow,  marked the demise of the thousands of one room schools that had served country kids for a century.

Wisconsin, like other northern states, made an early commitment to creating a public school system accessible to all children–rural and urban, native and foreign born.  Any resident between the ages of four and twenty could attend public school.

Since the state’s population was predominately rural until the 1910s and local transportation moved no faster than a horse could walk, even  mid-sized counties like Sauk, Winnebago and Chippewa had schools by the hundreds.

Each school was supervised by a citizen board that built and maintained the school house,  purchased furniture and equipment, hired the teacher and levied taxes on themselves and their neighbors to pay for it all.  Their work was overseen by a superintendent elected by county voters. Some were county seat politicos with little interest in the job except that it was a job.

The large majority–as an examination of the annual reports they were obliged to submit reveals–were hard-working, conscientious apostles of education who traveled the back roads  to cajole, exhort, persuade local boards to improve their schools and, when necessary,  threaten to withhold county and state funding from those that failed.

They must have succeeded. By the turn of the 19th century, Wisconsin, again like other northern states, had one of the highest literacy rates in a country that itself possessed one of the largest percentages of literate residents in the world. And this was in a nation of immigrants for whom English was a second language mastered largely at school.

Times changed and schools had to respond. The basic readin’, ‘ritin and ‘ritmetic of the rural school curriculum was not adequate for the mid-20th century.  Fewer than one half of rural school students went on to complete high-school.

The long and difficult battle to create the “integrated” school systems  our children attend today was not completed until the early 1960s.  The one room school became a revered icon  of nostalgic musing, but its time had passed, as if carried away on the seat of a yellow bus.

–Michael Goc


Surviving and Thriving as an Artist III, or “A continuation of the discussion with Tina”

September 8, 2009

Oh, this is an exciting and stimulating intra-blog conversation! I love it!

Tina, don’t feel bad for using me as an example, in fact I’m glad you highlighted this particular viewpoint, it’s a perfect dovetail into Labor day!

I should also state that I want to sell my work, in such a way that the equation I highlighted in my other post results in X equaling a year or two per sale!

However with that being said I can’t change the latent manifestation of guilt when I’m making a sale of my work to an enthusiastic admirer and fan. There is a deeply ingrained part of me that feels something this wonderful shouldn’t require an exchange of monetary value, that same part of me really just wants to share what I’ve created.

But let’s face it, I live in the real world, and as we artists are wont to say at times, “I have a real job.” (A particularly useless and stupid phrase in my opinion.) Which is to say that I have an alternative revenue stream, it’s just not the most ideal revenue stream in terms of allowing me the time and freedom to pursue my artwork unfettered.

And I think that’s the really salient point I was trying to make, which Tina highlighted beautifully in referencing the way creativity manifests itself in so many facets of life and work. You could ask many of those factory or other workers how they express their creativity and they may look at you a little funny because when you start talking about art and creativity to large swaths of the populace they immediately assume you only mean things like drawing, painting, music, etc…

Despite the depth and breadth of the creativity they unconsciously express they don’t think of themselves as creative.

Now before people start jumping all over me for accusing the masses of being mindless cogs, I’m painting broad strokes here, and I’ve worked in factories and other settings and experienced this firsthand. Trot out the words creativity or art(istic) in a setting that doesn’t overtly champion it and people will largely claim to be uncreative and unable to draw a straight line.

But I digress again, because when we do recognize that creativity within ourselves and embrace it as part of the fabric of our lives, we start to pursue it for the joy of it and it quickly becomes something we have to do and want to do whenever and however long we want. That’s what I mean by pursuing our creativity unfettered. Speaking for myself, I just want to be able to do it and not have to worry about money in any aspect of it. And yet the monetization and pursuit of sales as often gets in the way of that unfettered pursuit as does my current alternative revenue stream.

So when Tina points out the creative professionals who happily get paid for their work, I’d be willing to bet that for as many paid projects as these and other recognized creatives are involved in there are projects that they do unpaid for the pure joy of doing them.

And yes, I understand the correlation between the two, that being paid for one begets the ability to do the other unpaid.

That’s what I want!!

Which is where this dovetails nicely into the post I started working on the other day as I continued to marinate on all of this.

Back in around middle school I discovered author Piers Anthony and read every book of his I could find. I eventually came upon a series of his called, “Bio of a Space Tyrant”. Out of one of those books came a quote that over the years I have always tried to apply. I have distilled the quote down over the years to this.

“Don’t let the means become the ends.”

For years I carried around the quote thusly:

“Money is a means to an end. Do not let the means become the end.”

But money is interchangeable with anything, power, art, sales, whatever. Insert your favorite vehicle and you instantly have a new nugget of wisdom.

The guilt I feel in selling my work is attributable to the fact that my goal in life isn’t to amass as much money as I can get my hands on. My goal in life is to enjoy my life. Both goals require varying amounts of money to achieve based on personal definition, but the distinction between the two is very different. (I don’t make any assumptions as to the motivations of other artists that sell their works, whether or not their chief desire is to amass wealth.)

Right now, financially my wife and I are in a very good place with our current revenue streams. As such, with goal number one I would be very happy at my current and future prospects of amassing wealth. At goal number two though, the revenue stream is introducing some burdens on me that are both time consuming and a hindrance to that unfettered expression of creativity that I yearn for. So in terms of goal number two, you might say some adjustments are necessary.

So where am I going with this? Part of the problem is that I don’t know. Nothing worth doing is ever easy and the path I’m taking seems less so as I’m increasingly unwilling to invest my time or energy into things that don’t interest or enrich my life, including revenue streams. (existing or potential)

Which is a function of me not allowing the means to become the end. I’m not interested in doing something just so I can make money.

The other part of the problem is that in being unwilling to just pursue this to a maximized monetary conclusion I may be limiting myself. Realistically what I am interested in doing is ferreting down some of these different ideas that I’ve raised and exploring where they go in an effort to re-define (for me at least, and anybody who happens to be interested) why and how artists survive and thrive when their main pursuit is expressing their creativity.

Case in point. I had the privilege of exhibiting at the LuCille Tack gallery in Spencer, WI last October, and during the opening reception a young high school girl was absolutely in love with one of my pieces, you could just see her light up in reaction to the work. A beautiful thing to see, and yet her experience of that piece of work was limited to the one month the exhibit was hung.

As a high school girl she couldn’t afford to buy the piece (I was selling for $150 at the time) and if she expressed the desire to own it, her mother who accompanied her to the show was unwilling or able to make the purchase for her.

And yet it was clear as day to me that the girl valued that piece of art I had created. It was just as clear that the arbitrary assignment of value I created to satisfy the market based system that everyone accepts as status quo became the barrier to the possibility of assigning a different kind of value to the art, the exhibition and my creativity.

So it’s with that in mind that I have to stand on my belief that monetary value is a poor measure of value for art. In a market based system, you are forced to accept the means as the end because when you bring something to market the understanding is that you wish to receive a prescribed amount of money in exchange for what you’ve brought to market.

Certainly I could choose not to sell and enter a different class of artist, but I’m not interested in hoarding my art, I want to share it with the world, I want to reach the people like that young girl, I want to know that what I’ve created can elicit an emotional response from people and I want those people to have unfettered access to my art, as I want unfettered license to create it.

So imagine now if I held an exhibition where I did one of two things.

1. I gave all of the art away. Free. Zero cost. The vultures would show up, a large majority of the work would go to people who don’t appreciate it, and would in fact be angling to monetize it themselves, and my overall body of work might lose poignancy and impact by those who feel that giving the work away free actually devalues it monetarily which would then somehow equal a devaluation of the art itself.

2. I didn’t price the work, and simply said, “make an offer, any offer.” You can imagine the range of offers you might get, from the vultures offering $1 to a collector trying to score a deal. The real result would be discomfort because the universal way we ascribe value to art is with money, and nobody has a real good answer on how to do that.

For the auction house it’s as much as we can get for it, sometimes ethically, sometimes not.

For the artist it can be any of the ways Tina cited in her post, each subjective and arbitrary in their own right.

For the art buyer it can range a from size based, (that’s bigger, it should cost more) assessment to a financial assessment to maximize investment value.

Which could be considered the ultimate compliment or bastardization depending on how you look at it, since it is commonplace to consider art a monetary investment.

Now what does that mean?

Spyros Heniadis


Dilemma: Selling or Not Your Art

September 7, 2009

Happy Labor Day!

We do not question if workers in factory need to be reimbursed for their work.   For some workers their work represents just manual labor, but for others, results of their work represent pure art.  They take pride in what they do and joyfully use their creative talents.  They might  manufacture a car that for some collectors in future would represent a piece of art.  A hairdresser can consider creating a new hairstyle a work of art born from her creative genius. A baker can consider his/her cake an eatable piece of art.

I bet that Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect who designed the graceful Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum (www.mam.org) did not have a problem receiving monetary reward for his services.

People usually do not feel humiliated when they are reimbursed for their for profit or  non-for profit work.  In any case, they usually get reimbursed for their work, talent, time, service, etc.   They do not feel that they undermined their hairstyling, baking, manufacturing, designing, consulting, social service, etc. talents because they put price on their labor/service.

So why some artists like Spyros (please, forgive me for using you as an example) who confesses in his last post “usually feels somewhat embarrased guilty about selling his  work” ?

I had many arguments with a lot of visual artists about the same dilemma: selling or not selling artwork.   I think that answer is simple.

First of all, it is a very personal decision.  Nobody has to sell his/her artwork. One can make art for his/her own satisfaction and hide it from others. The others can show their artworks at “not for sales” exhibits or donate their art, or just ask potential customers to pay as much as they wish for their art.   Would that be less “humiliating” then honestly valuating artist hard work and trying to make decent living while using artistic talents and pouring your souls in artworks?

Why not recovering your fixed and variable costs of producing artwork, adding some $ for profit, etc. that could finance your lifestyle or pay for further improvement of your artistic skills?  There is nothing shameful in doing what you love, use your unique talent for that and  enrich other people’s lives with your fine art or product (yes art is a product of your work).    It is not shameful to be reimbursed for any kind of work.  Artists choose any of the numerous  methods to figure retail prices (or wholesale price ) like the “Ad Hoc Method;  Going Rate: Rules of Thumb;  or Cost-plus methods.”

It would be wonderful if all artists have other sources of income and just create art “for love of it.”  However, we need to stop thinking that it is somehow offensive to put a price on art.  I visited The Hilligoss Galleries in Chicago few weeks ago.  Some paintings cost there more then $100,000. I do not believe that their painters feel offended when they look at those numbers.

Artists work very, very hard. They deserve to be rewarded for that hard work.

–Tina Skobic