Believe it! Or not?

September 30, 2010

My husband teases me because, one time, while sitting around a campfire, I said that I don’t believe in outer space. A few years later, I became a wide-eyed believer in a theory cleanly articulated in a television special about how ancient aliens with superior knowledge of science and engineering had rocket ships that landed in different places on earth, where they then taught the natives to build pyramids.

Sometimes I don’t really agree with myself.

But beliefs are like that. Maybe you can remember when you stopped believing in magic or the Tooth Fairy, but as adults we carry most of our beliefs around unexamined.

Wisconsin Book FestivalThe theme of the Wisconsin Humanities Council’s Wisconsin Book Festival this year is Beliefs. There are more than 120 authors and presenters who bring with them, no doubt, more than 120 ways of seeing things.

For example, Katharine Hayhoe, who is outspoken as both a Christian and a climate scientist. She will be talking about her book, “A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith Based Decisions.”  The Website publicizing the book offers a quiz with four questions. The questions, which require a Fact or Fiction response, have been written to encourage an initial examination of our beliefs.  The Bible explicitly tells Christians that planet care is part of their calling. Right? I wanted to believe this one, but I’m guessing Ms. Hayhoe will break it down for me on Saturday, October 2 (10-11:30 AM at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts) .

There are also a number of authors of memoirs and autobiographies as part of the Festival this year. Reading a book about another’s life has always been, for me, one of the ways I’ve gotten out of my own skin. This often results in a widening of perspective and a change in what I believe. Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong woman who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. She writes about what most of us will never experience, yet her voice and story resonate with many of the over 200,000 Hmong who have settled in the U.S. since 1975. I look forward to hearing from someone believed by some to be one of Minnesota’s most important writers. She will be presenting, along with Judy Pasternak, on Saturday, October 2 (5:30 – 7 PM at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts).

Unique to this year’s Festival is the performance of a new play, written by Wisconsin author David Rhodes, called “Happy and the River.” The play honors the Wisconsin Senator from Clear Lake, Gaylord Nelson, and the St. Croix River that he worked to protect. All year, as part of the 40th anniversary celebration of Earth Day, there have been teach-ins throughout the St. Croix River watershed where people have come together to think about their community’s environmental legacy, assets, and current challenges. It is a concept based on the practical and participatory model of organizing Senator Nelson used to catalyze Earth Day from an idea to a worldwide peaceful demonstration. While the play celebrates a man who worked hard for what he believed in, the Madison teach-in before the performance gives us a chance to think about how our values, and beliefs, shape the world we live in today. (1:30 – 2:30 at Madison Public Library Main Branch).

Throughout the Festival, participants are encouraged to share a bit of themselves. There are pens, Post-it Notes, and easels with with prompts like: Recommend a book that has shaped your beliefs. If your worldview could be summed up in a phrase, what would it be? Share an idea from the Festival that sticks with you.

It’s hard to predict now what I will remember most, which ideas I’ll find most intriguing, which authors most inspiring. I just never know, from day to day, what will float my boat, so to speak, rock my world, or leave me guessing. But I will recommend a book: Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi.

Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

The Man Behind Madison’s Name: James Duane Doty

September 27, 2010

by Brian D’Ambrosio

James Duane Doty was born in Salem, New York, in 1799, and died in Salt Lake City, Utah, in June 1865. During his 66-year lifespan, his distinguished life included overseeing the creation of Wisconsin and giving the City of Madison its name.

After studying law as a teenager, Doty moved to Detroit, Michigan and took on the role of secretary of the territorial council and clerk of court. Two years later in 1820, he took part in the Mississippi Headwaters expedition under the famed military officer and politician General Lewis Cass. The expedition “explored the upper lakes in canoes, stretched 4,000 miles, and enacted treaties with regional Indian tribes.” Afterward, he spent nearly a decade as a land speculator and U. S. judge in northern Michigan, holding his first court at Prairie du Chien military settlement. There, in 1830, he ordered a congressional-appointed commission to blaze a cavalry road from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien.

Four years later, Doty became a member of the Michigan legislature, where he assisted in dividing the Michigan Territory into the three Territories of Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. Doty had hoped to govern the Wisconsin Territory, but was met with extreme disappointment when President Andrew Jackson appointed Doty’s rival, Henry Dodge, to the position.

Despite this setback, Doty continued create what would soon become the City of Madison — and the state’s capital. After contracting to have the land surveyed, Doty began to create plans for a city nestled between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. He chose the name Madison in honor of the fourth president James Madison. Doty lobbied for recognition of his city and proposed that it be named Wisconsin’s capital. In his proposal, he gained support by mapping transportation plans and offering land to legislators who voted in the city’s favor. Madison was named Wisconsin’s capital city at the end of 1836 and construction began the next year.

Doty served as the Wisconsin Territory’s elected congressional delegate to Congress from 1837 to 1841. He continued serving as a public official in 1841 when he regulated as governor of the territory, beginning a period marked by great tumult. According to information provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society, his tenure “was marked by bitter contentions and a collision with the legislature, and after the appointment of his successor he was placed by the war department on a commission to treat with the Indians of the northwest.” When Doty’s term ended in 1844, Vice President John Tyler did not reappoint him.

Two years later, Doty became a member of Wisconsin’s first state constitutional convention. He served two more terms as a congressional representative following Wisconsin’s admittance to the Union before leaving Congress to lead a more private life. But in 1861, he returned to public eye after he was named superintendent of Indian affairs by close friend President Abraham Lincoln. Three years later, Lincoln appointed Doty to govern the Utah territory. He held this position up until his death in 1865.

Read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s  Wisconsin history and travel articles.

Mea culpa

September 23, 2010

When I was first approached about writing a blog here, I was critical of some of the other contributors for seemingly being lax in the art of freshening their entries.  It’s obvious I did not walk in their shoes prior to such a naïve comment.  It’s been quite a while since providing anything new here – and, for that, I apologize.  I will attempt to be better at it.  I suppose I could blame it on the fact that I gained two granddaughters within a three week span this summer – both of my daughters had daughters.  Or I could provide the excuse of trekking to each location, one in Northern Wisconsin, the other in New York State, to introduce them to their maternal grandpa.  It’s easy, but doesn’t provide a very strong defense.

I’m finding that writing a blog is easy to slide to a back burner while other things are heating up – especially those that put bread on the table.  I guess I’ll have to go back to writing into the wee hours of the morning – although I don’t know how I’ll be able to explain that to my dogs who are at the door with the first hint of morning light.  I’ll figure something out – ‘cause I do enjoy our visits.

First, thanks to the reader who set my record straight on the LCO Pow-Wow.  I appreciate the clarification and encourage everyone to keep me in-check when I need it.

Next, as I continue to chat with and edit interviews with artists, musicians, writers, producers and directors – for airing on the Spectrum West program on Wisconsin Public Radio – I become even more impressed with how many of you exist out there.  Although I can’t remember who it was exactly, I remember marveling about that with one interviewee, who responded with “Yup, I truly believe there’s an artist behind every Wisconsin tree”. 

An example is all the art tours that happen each spring and fall….especially the fall.  It seems there’s one or several almost every weekend in Sept/Oct.  And many are celebrating double-figure anniversaries.  The other impressive thing is the number of studios and galleries within each jaunt.

One recent discussion revealed quite a number of locations with upwards of one hundred artists – painters, sculptors, potters, woodworkers, jewelry designers, etc. – waiting to greet the motoring patron.  Pretty cool.  Brochures and websites also list places to stay and eat along the way.

So, do a search for WI Art Tours and I believe you’ll have enough to keep you busy for several weekends to come.

Thanks for stopping by and I’ll be back with more observations, sooner than later.  I’d like to introduce you to some of the interesting folks I meet along the way.

Al Ross

Launched: UW-Madison’s Year of the Arts

September 19, 2010

Students dance on a University Avenue pedestrian overpass Thursday.

They were dancing in the streets of Madison last Thursday–or, more accurately, dancing over the streets–when the UW kicked off its 2010-2011 Year of the Arts. The dancers leaped and spun on the pedestrian overpass near my office in Vilas Hall, but it was the brass quartet playing at the intersection below that lured me outdoors, where I also enjoyed performances by a drum group, a bagpiper, a young violinist and her teacher.

The revelry served as introduction to more than 300 campus performances, exhibits, symposia and other events scheduled throughout the academic year, all to demonstrate and celebrate the impact and value of the arts to the university.

Rocco Landesman

Joining in Thursday was National Endowment for the Arts Chair (and UW-Madison alum) Rocco Landesman. In a brief address on the Memorial Union Terrace, he called for a change in the relationship between arts organizations and their communities. “Arts organizations are seen as being needy–in need of subsidy, in need of audiences, in need of space and resources,” Landesman said. “At the NEA, I’m asking us to invert that proposition and instead think of what the arts organizations can do for the places in which they exist.” Specifically, he named four ways the arts support the cities and towns they inhabit: 1) they contribute to the livability of a place, 2) nurture its creativity and innovation, 3) develop its identity, and 4) strengthen local economies.

Chancellor Biddy Martin, who introduced Landesman, said the UW-Madison has long understood and nurtured the relationship between the arts and the university. In 1926, for example, UW-Madison became the first university to offer a degree program in dance. With the appointment of John Steuart Curry in 1936, it established the first artist-in-residence program in the nation. And most recently, in 2007, the university introduced the first program in the country centered on spoken word and hip-hop culture, First Wave.

Below, a few more images from the official launch of Illuminate: Year of the Arts 2010-2011:

Year of the Arts logo

–Tammy Kempfert

Joseph Webster House, Elkhorn, Wisconsin

September 13, 2010

By Brian D’Ambrosio

At 9 East Rockwell Street in the small town of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, stands the neat, modest white Greek Revival style house where Joseph Philbrick Webster lived. Webster was the composer of the popular hymn “In the Sweet By and By” and the American Civil War romantic favorite, “Lorena,” which was heard and immortalized in the classic film “Gone With The Wind.” He lived in Elkhorn from 1857 until his death in 1875, at the age of 56. Most of his more than 1000 songs were penned there. Webster’s compositions were eclectic, including music for ballads, religious hymns, nationalistic drama, and a cantata – a vocal composition intended for musical accompaniment and a choir.

Joseph Webster, a precocious musical talent was a businessman, music teacher, and piano tuner, who   moved his family to Racine, Wisconsin, in 1856 and finally settled in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, in 1859. The prolific Webster composed “Lorena” in 1857, an antebellum song with Northern roots duly considered the most popular song of the American Civil War era. Lorena was based on Webster’s fond recollection of an Ohio girl named Ella Blocksom. In 1860 he composed “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets”, which later found fame under the titled “Wildwood Flower”.  In 1868, he wrote one of the most enduring and recognizable Christian hymns in American history, “In the Sweet By and By.”

Joseph Webster House Museum

Webster’s family continued to live in the house until 1951. After the last Webster descendant passed away, the house was sold to the Walworth County to serve as a museum. The Webster House is loaded with vintage pieces that belonged to Webster and his family. The Music Room displays Webster’s splendid compositions, notes, and song books, as well as his treasured rosewood piano and numerous other 1800s period instruments.

Directly behind the Webster House stands an 1850 hand-hewn oak beam barn, with the carriage of General John W. Boyd inside, as well as other artifacts related to the Boyd Family’s achievements.  Webster is interred at the Hazel Ridge Cemetery in Elkhorn, where his epitaph announces, “Joseph P. Webster. In the Sweet By and By We Shall Meet“.

The Webster House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The house is now the center of the Walworth County Historical Society. The Webster House is located at 9. East Rockwell Street, Elkhorn, Wisconsin, on the corner of Rockwell and South Washington Street, one block from Highway 67.

To read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s Wisconsin travel, art, and history articles.