Holy Land in Richland County

December 29, 2010

It’s one of those places that gets to you quickly.  A mound rising from the Wisconsin River valley flatland.  Panoramic.  Historic.  Isolated.  And it is especially spiritual.  When it’s still you think you hear ghosts.  And maybe you do.

The Shadewald Mound Group is stunning collection of animal effigies on a hill in southern Richland County. It’s not well known, but it is beautifully intact.  Andrew Khitsun, creator of the website Wisconsin Mounds, says that the “Shadewald Mound Group is absolutely the best preserved group I’ve ever seen.” The effigies include an eagle, bison, and a bird woman – who some suggest may be the Corn Woman as cited in Cheyenne oral tradition.

This story has a hero.  Also known as Frank’s Hill, the Shadewald group is being preserved by Frank Shadewald, who bought the land from a neighbor.  Shadewald is a retired farmer and engineering instructor at Southwest Technical College in Fennimore.  His family owned adjacent land that in 1998 became home to Ho-Chunk Bison Ranch and also includes a number of mounds.  In 1998 Frank acquired the land that includes the effigies, which is across the road from a ridge Shadewald is preserving that also includes mounds.  Both ridges were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

I’m told that a real eye-opener came in 2008 when a DNR warden flew over after a light snowfall that exposed the effigies in perfect detail.  The pictures are remarkable  – one even appears on the poster for Wisconsin Archeology Month, 2009.

A stunning aerial image, 2008, courtesy of the Wisconsin DNR

The ridge across from that where the effigies lie has 12 conical mounds in a line, each roughly the same size and distance from the others.  Some speculate that they are aligned with lunar cycles.  In fact, Shadewald and others gather at the mounds during solstice to view sunrises and sunsets.

The conical mounds.....ancient calendar?

“Skywatchers have long gathered at this hill where the effigy mounds align with celestial events,” says Astronomer John Heasley said on the Cultural Landscape Legacies website.  “At this site, we can experience, not only the deep time of the mound builders, but also rediscover our home in the cosmos.  I’ve been fortunate to help Mr. Shadewald with several events on the hill and every time it has been a special experience.”

Solstice events and the aerial photography are starting to draw attention to Frank’s Hill.  A great place to get more information on the Shadewald group and other mounds on the Lower Wisconsin River is the non-profit organization Cultural Landscape Legacies, Inc.  More pictures are available there and also on the website Wisconsin Mounds, “devoted to Native American structures commonly called Indian Mounds”.

Unique panoramic images from Frank’s Hill have been posted on Gigapan by a user who grew up in nearby Muscoda and never knew the mounds existed.  (See Frank’s Hill and Frank’s Hill Redux.)

University of Wisconsin doctoral candidate Meridith Beck Sayre created a short film about Mr. Shadewald and Frank’s Hill which was shown at the 2009 Tales of Planet Earth environmental film in Madison, Wisconsin. (Click here for a glimpse.)  Frank Shadewald mentions in the piece that a friend of his suggested the mound was Holy Land.  That’s what Ms. Beck Sayre titled the work.

I live about an hour from Frank’s Hill and never heard of the place until a friend who lives nearby suggested we stop there on the way home from a visit, it was only a couple of miles away.  It was a sunny fall day and the brief walk up the mound from the parking area was exhilarating.  The view is stunning – the elevation itself is a draw – and it’s easy to understand what attracted the

Another breathtaking aerial photo, courtesy Wisconsin DNR

mound builders centuries ago.  We had seen the incredible aerial photos beforehand and the size of the effigies amazed us.  We were dwarfed physically and emotionally.  It is remarkable now – I can only imagine its impact 1,000 years ago.

We’re lucky to have people like Frank Shadewald to preserve places like this – so many have been destroyed.  Franks Hill seems truly unique, though.  It seems now as it was a millennium ago. Its isolation makes it easy to understand the context in which it was built – not much has changed and maybe it was that realization that makes it so spiritual to me.  I can imagine seeing what the builders saw.

Holy Land is a most appropriate name.  It is truly a place you can feel as well as see.

I hope this new year of 2011 commits us further preservation of our history, and to helping Frank Shadewald assure that the mystic mounds are preserved forever.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Wisconsin Rural Partners, Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)

A Weekend of Contrasts – Cafe Carpe/Fort Atkinson and The Metropolis/Arlington Heights

December 21, 2010

By Dayle Quigley

A musical venue icon – I do believe that is the only way to view the Cafe Carpe. Perhaps with its long history and popularity, it is the venue from which all others should be compared. You decide.

Let’s first take a trip down memory lane.  Back in the late 50s Joe and JoAnn Moore bought the No Exit establishment in Evanston Illinois.   The No Exit was alcohol free. It served espressos and pastries and was  home to classical music, except when live entertainment made its way through town. It was home to more than a few singer/songwriters. The Moores moved to Wisconsin in the 70s and started the Green Dragon Inn. The Green Dragon was the No Exit done bigger. It was eclectic and smoky and home to Chicago style deep dish pizza and again a long list of visiting singer/songwriters. Interestingly one of the musicians was Bill Camplin, and when Bill moved on it was to the Cafe Carpe. The Cafe Carpe is the baby of Camplin and Kitty Welch. According to their website it started in 1985 although my source thought they had been going strong for 27 years. The Carpe is located on Water Street in Fort Atkinson and backs up to the river. The first floor houses the main bar area, the music/performance room, and a back porch overlooking the river. The upstairs is home to Bill, Kitty, their 2 children, and the dog.  The atmosphere of the Carpe is like your best mid-western friend’s house. It is unpretentious. It is lived in. It feels like it has been there forever and will remain there indefinitely. It is solid and warm. It is not “staged” to look good. It has not been done over by a decorator to coordinate the scene. I’m not sure if anything matched. The walls are covered in a mish mash of wonderful things. My favorite was the stuffed fish, I”m assuming a carp. The requisite mid-western stuffed deer head was missing. There is artwork and certificates and a wooden airplane prop. One wall is covered with a large chalkboard listing the daily specials. The menu is like the rest of the Carpe, unexplainable and yet perfect . The main menu doesn’t change – routine sandwiches, burgers, salads but then there are the specials –   jambalya and curry dishes, thai shrimp and eggs as a combo with their brunch. Oh, and I almost forgot, the deep dish pizza from the Green Dragon moved with Camplin. It doesn’t quite make sense but it’s perfect. I should mention that they keep a complete bar and have wonderful bartenders. (That’s an aside)

Redbird CDThe music for the evening was by Redbird–a foursome of Pete Mulvey, David Goodrich, Jeff Foucault, and Kris Delmhorst. I wish I could give you a long history on this group but finding information is frustratingly difficult. I will give you what I can. I am probably going out on a limb but here goes. Jeff Foucault is a home-grown boy from Whitewater Wisconsin who currently lives with his wife, Kris Delmhorst in Western Massachusetts. Peter Mulvey hails from Milwaukee but spent time in Boston … playing in the subways. Finally David Goodrich, Goody, grew up in Washington, D.C., but went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Thus I’m assuming it would be the Boston connection that brings this foursome together. Whatever the impetus, I see why it has stuck and why their concerts sellout on a regular basis. The group has a wonderful rapport with each other as well as the audience. The banter is as much fun as the music but certainly does not overshadow the wonderful mixing of styles and tones. The real story though has nothing to do with the music. The music was enjoyable but the real story is that the music venue and the performers so perfectly fit with the rest of the Carpe. Hearing music in a small room filled to capacity (72), filled with various sitting pieces (pews, cafe chairs, stools, auditorium rows), and encircling a stage that can’t be more than 5 feet by 5 feet, makes you feel like you are in your own mid-western home spending an evening with your closest friends and making music together. It is in these instances when music is accessible. When you can imagine that if you had an instrument you could join in and you would be welcomed, and it would sound good. Okay maybe only in my imagination it would sound good but it is in this case that music is no longer passive. It is something to be more than enjoyed. It is something to be bathed in, to be heard and felt and if it could be tasted, then tasted. This is what music should be and what the Carpe does so well from the moment you open the front door. This was the start of my musical weekend.

On Sunday, I had a totally different experience. On Sunday, a friend and I headed to Arlington Heights, Illinois. Yes once again I ventured across the state line but this time in a south east direction. We were headed to the the Metropolis Performing Arts Center for a “cocktail holiday party” with Corky Seigel, Megon McDonough, and Randy Sabien. I do think however that I need to set the scene. We started the evening by getting dressed up; sometimes you just need to get dressed up. We had reservations for dinner at Le Titi de Paris prior to the show.  I have to tell you that I may have just found another “favorite” restaurant. I ate recently at the Lake Park Bistro in Milwaukee for brunch. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Two hours of gastronomic pleasure and if I hadn’t had a 5 hour drive I would have stayed for another 2 hours. I have never eaten dinner at the Lake Park Bistro but Le Titi de Paris would be what I would imagine it would be. The food and drinks on Sunday night were amazing. I’m sure there are culinary experts out there who would have all the correct words to describe the sensations I experienced but I am not them. So let me just say … if you like to eat food where every bite demands to be singularly experienced, where the thought that you could drop your spouse and simply visit the restaurant a couple of times a week seems more than reasonable, do not drive past this place without stopping. That would be a travesty. So after eating once again for more than 2 hours, we headed off to the Metropolis. The Metropolis is located in downtown Arlington Heights if that is even possible. I am not from the area but the buildings are taller and closer together. There is parking on the street or for free in a garage right around the corner. It looks like a thousand different performing art centers I have been in. It is clean and comfortable. The staff are polite and helpful and enjoyable to deal with. The seating is intimate although the auditorium can seat 350. It didn’t feel nearly that big. I will admit that although it was billed as a “cocktail” party there were no cocktails to be purchased. That was a major bummer from my point of view. A really thought something like a sour apple martini with a cherry (green with a splash of red) would have been so fitting for the holiday theme. The lack of a cocktail however did not blemish the otherwise magnificent performance. Corky Seigel is a genius, a musical genius. There is really no other way to say it. Whether he is blowing on his harmonica or tickling the ivories of the grand piano, the man is in a league all his own. I have to admit I have never seen him in concert before but I have already memorized his next concert dates. The second of the trio for the evening was Megon McDonough, she hails from Chicago as does Seigel and she is best known for being an inaugural member of Four Bitchin’ Babes. As a teenager in the 70s, she opened for such acts as John Denver and Harry Chapin. I am not surprised as she has a tremendous voice. On Sunday she was fabulous whether she was singing solo and accompanying herself on piano or whether she was singing harmony for someone else’s song. She sang old jazz tunes, and carols, and original, very funny songs.  Each one was better than the last. I could have listened to her endlessly. The final member of the trio was Randy Sabien. He is the only one who does not hail from Chicago but he did grow up in Rockford. That’s practically next door. Randy is well known for his jazz fiddle but like all the musicians on the stage that evening he is multi-faceted and multi-talented. The evening started with Summertime, a jazz stable but rocked through such iconic songs as Arthur the Ardvaark’s Boogie Woogie Christmas and my favorite High on Love, a duet with Sabien and McDonough. Sabien played not only his fiddle but pulled out his viola and blasted away on the piano. At one point the audience was regaled with both Randy and Corky on the piano at once. It just doesn’t get much better. The concert was wonderful and a definite holiday treat.

Here would be my bottomline:

1. If you are ever near Fort Atkinson, don’t miss the Cafe Carpe. If you go, take in the whole thing, the food, the drinks and the music. All of your senses will thank you.

2. If someone you want to see is at the Metropolis, it’s a nice spot with good acoustics but you are going for the show not the location.

3. Performers – all worth seeing individually or together.

Death of Chris Farley: December 18, 1997: The Life of Madison’s Famous Comic Not So Funny

December 14, 2010



Chris Farley Baby Picture Courtesy Tom Farley




By Brian D’Ambrosio

Thirteen years has passed since Madison’s Chris Farley died from a drug overdose at age 33. Boisterous on the big screen, notoriously wild away from it, he has left behind a legacy remindful of both comedy and crisis. Farley’s routine – categorized in five seasons of Saturday Night Live and three No. 1 films – was as straightforward as it was stereotypical. He was presented to the world as overweight, obnoxious, obtuse, sweaty, and wasted. These tragicomic depictions are forever enshrined in the colorful annals of American television and film comedy.

In a book released 2009, “The Chris Farley Show,” Chris’s older brother, Tom Farley, and a former biographer of John Belushi, Tanner Colby, revealed that Farley’s seemingly one-dimensional life was in reality an inordinately complex pathology. Subtitled “A Biography in Three Acts,” the book paints a compassionate – though by no means hagiographic – portrait, shedding greater insight as to how Farley’s friends struggled with his self-destructive vices: they were feckless when it came to stopping the drug habit and reckless lifestyle that sent him to an early grave.

The book traces Farley’s trajectory from his affluent, Irish-Catholic upbringing in the Village of Maple Bluff to his improvisational routines and comedic stints in Chicago to his five ambivalent years on Saturday Night Live and onward.

Farley Family Photo Courtesy Tom Farley

“There are no great depths when it comes to describing the worst parts and stories of Chris’s life,” says Tom Farley. “I didn’t want to define Chris by his addictions, or try to define his addiction as something that’s unique. That’s because so many people reading the book can relate to his problems. There’s a lot of good coming from it. Chris brings to life so many issues that so many others have.”

Found at the bedrock of Farley’s complicated personal afflictions was the most primitive of all self-esteem issues. He constantly sought validation in others. More specifically, he felt compelled by the need to satisfy his obese, ultraconservative father whose food and alcohol dependencies equaled his son’s. Chris often told friends that he stayed overweight to please his dad. Tom Farley Sr. provided his high-school-age children beer money, and then disavowed his role in fostering their addictions. At his son’s funeral, Mr. Farley – straddling 600 pounds – scarcely managed to make it out of his chair to wrap his arms around the casket.

“When it came to Chris, dad was the definition of unconditional love,” says Tom. “To try to help him was hard for dad; he didn’t see that negativity in Chris. That’s because if he did then he’d then have to see it in himself. Chris saw that dad was disconnected and detached from the unpleasant truths of his own life.

“We grew up not talking about these things, and this is my way of removing the façade. All of Chris’s life he needed to seek approval because he did not see himself as the things people told him he was. He could not believe that he was funny.”

One issue the book tackles is just what the legacy of Chris Farley the comedian really is, and it proves that the often-repeated mantra “Farley wanted to be John Belushi” was nothing more than a fallacy. Farley’s death was similar to The Blues Brothers and Animal House star’s. Just like Belushi, Farley’s fan base exploded thanks to Saturday Night Live, and both died at age 33 of drug overdoses.

“The Belushi connection still gets a lot of attention,” says Tom. “But Chris really didn’t want Belushi’s life, but he did want his status and notoriety. Chris read Wired and he was scared by Belushi’s drug problems. His real idol growing up wasn’t so much Belushi but Jackie Gleason.”

The narrative fills in a portrait of a tormented genius, a lovable dolt, a zany college chum, a self-deprecating overeater, and an inept romancer. While there are plenty of frank details about Chris’s eventual demise and death, amusing remembrances abound as to how he worked his way up from the suburbs of Madison to his aspiration to be an SNL star. Colleagues such as John Goodman and Jack Handey insist that the true Farley was the bumbling, unworldly Midwesterner from the SNL skits. Tom concurs that his brother’s naivety was no schtick:

“Chris always felt that he was exporting who we are in Wisconsin, love us or leave us. He was very much Wisconsin, true and true. When he first got to New York City and was just hired by SNL, he had no money. We had lunch and he borrowed some money, it was $150 bucks. Soon I get a phone call from Chris. He had walked into a three-card Monte game, and he’d lost it all. In a lot of ways he was very astute, but in a lot of ways he was just a knucklehead from Wisconsin.”

Revisiting the traumas and sharing the scars of familial hardship has been therapeutic for Tom Farley, for the book writing process bestowed him a renewed sense of purpose and vigor. In fact, he focuses much of his attention these days on lecturing children about substance abuse issues while using his brother’s life as a cautionary example.

Writing The Chris Farley Show has even brought Tom closer spiritually to his brother and perhaps has even blessed him with a sharper empathy of the demons that wore him away.

“I was his uptight older brother,” says Tom. “And that was how he usually saw me. However, when delving into the book, I began to see him as a victim of his addictions, and in a new light altogether. My real fear – and this is why I decided to write this book – was being 60 or 70 years old and not being able to remember my little brother.”

Read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s articles, stories, and odd travel items.

For Love and Money

December 13, 2010

Readers may remember my previous post on Hudson photographer Carl Corey’s “Wisconsin Tavern League” series. This month Corey sent an update about his latest artistic effort, a portfolio in progress he’s calling “For Love and Money.”

Mary P. McCarrier with Grandfather's picture - Globe House Furnishings, Marinette - est. 1888. Photo: Carl Corey. All rights reserved by the artist.

Here’s how Corey describes the project:

“Becoming intrigued with the familial lineage involved in many of the Tavern League subjects I decided to start to investigate the well established family business in Wisconsin. My criteria were simple: The enterprise must be located in Wisconsin and currently owned and operated by the family for a minimum of fifty years. There is much that can be said pertaining to the history of such an enterprise. There is also the contemporary entrepreneurial commitment to the continued success of the business, most especially with the current economic climate and ever expanding competitive global marketplace.”

Corey’s got impressive technical skill and an artful eye, yes, but he also knows how to tell a story. Good storytellers have to decide what to divulge and what to leave to the imagination, a flair Corey demonstrates again in “For Love and Money.” The photos are revealing but respectful–and in the case of the three Globe House Furnishings photos (one of which is shown above), sad but unsentimental. After 122 years in business, Globe House owners Mary McCarrier and her family decided to close their furniture store. Corey caught them on film just days after the store shut its doors. Other photos in the series document other establishments–a tavern, a music store, a logging outfit and more–all still in business.

These new photos feature people I’d want to meet, histories I want to hear, places I’d like to go.

–Tammy Kempfert

The Fitzgerald Theater and the MSC Choir : a beautiful mix

December 10, 2010

By Dayle Quigley

I will apologize right up front for the fact that this performance does not  fall into my proposed quest of small town Wisconsin venues. St. Paul is not a small town and it is obviously not in Wisconsin. It is, however, right across the border and easily accessible to a large number of Wisconsinites. More importantly, no matter where this event occurred it deserves to be reported upon.

On Monday, December 6th, I decided to spend the evening at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. This theater sits on Exchange Street and is home to Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. It is stately and grounded. It has the wonderful balconies and balcony boxes I so adore. There is something wonderfully comforting about sitting in red velvet seats in a building without acoustic baffles. I’m not even that old and I relish them. The evening I visited, Garrison Keillor was not there. No instead I went to immerse myself in pure unadulterated joy and passion of young people. You see, the Fitzgerald Theater also sits across the street from the McNally Smith College of Music, a college filled with young adults following their dreams, honing their skills, and then putting it out there for everyone to enjoy. McNally Smith is the baby of Jack McNally and Doug Smith and began in 1985 as Music Tech College.  It’s name was changed in 2005 to honor the founders. It has a student body of over 600  pursuing careers in everything from performance music to sound engineering to music business. Several years ago the college accreditation body informed the school that a large choir was necessary with a “conductor”.  McNally Smith is not your typical music college. It is not “traditional” and flourishes with small group ensembles and a range of musical genres that is limited only by one’s own musical imagination. So a large choir with a conductor seemed quite an enigma. But let me tell you, it works.

The program for the evening consisted of four musical choirs ranging in size from 10 to 200. This was no more a “traditional” winter concert then the school has a traditional program. It was however an accurate representation of the school and all it professes.  The groups are a microcosm of the school, as different as they are similar.  They pull music from all over the world, from all genres. They sing a cappella as frequently as they sing with a back up band with electric guitar solos. They add drum groups and dancers. They scat. They do vocal percussion. Truly the sky’s the limit. The performance ended with the MSC choir.  At McNally Smith, all students no matter what their stated focus must spend time in the MSC choir. With the school 75% male and 25% female, the choir has no problem finding bass, baritones, and tenors. Despite the fact that no Christmas carols were sung, the group sang about the essence of the season and the essence of the school, one of unification, of coming together and celebrating our differences. There is something magical about watching people who are passionate about what they do, the joy that spills out. You can’t help but connect with them. This is even more acutely experienced when the arts are involved – music, dance, visual arts. Is it something coded deep in our DNA, some primal trait, or is it simply that when the arts are involved you get to see a glimpse into another person’s soul something you don’t get to appreciate when your accountant does your taxes no matter how passionate they are about it?
Bottom line Review:
1. Fitzgerald Theater – beautiful old theater, short on leg room, long on nostalgia
2. McNally Smith College Choirs – well worth seeing, free and open to the public, a must see experience. If you didn’t want to be a musician on the way in, you’ll want to be one on the way out. Check out their website, they have one concert each semester.
Next review in 10 short days.

The Day Otis Redding Died: December 10, 1967, Lake Monona, Wis.

December 6, 2010

By Brian D’Ambrosio, Editor

Soul singer Otis Redding had acquired his own plane to make touring less hectic, but the twin-engine Beechcraft H18 would prove his fatal undoing. At around 3:30 p.m. on a foggy Sunday afternoon, December 10, 1967, the plane, which encountered a storm en route from Cleveland to a concert in Madison, plunged into the frigid depths of Lake Monona. Redding, 26, and four members of his Bar-Kays band were killed. The musicians were headed to The Factory nightclub, scheduled to perform at 6:30 p.m.

The crash killed six others, everyone on board except for trumpeter Ben Cauley (bassist James Alexander had luckily avoided the flight altogether). On the cusp of achieving pop superstardom, Redding, best known for his hit, “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” recorded just three days earlier and released after his death, was dead. The tune was Otis’ first posthumous release and his biggest-selling single ever, topping both the R&B and pop charts on its way to going gold. Engineers tastefully overdubbed the sound effects, the mournful cries of seagulls, the singer’s lonesome whistling, after Otis’ death.

About 4,500 mourners, including a dazzling array of soul giants such as James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Wilson Pickett, crowded Macon’s City Auditorium for Redding’s funeral, a week later.

On December 3, 1997, thirty years later, hundreds of people showed up to the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center to Georgia-born soul singer and songwriter. They’d never met the man, but they loved his music, and came to express their appreciation of the full impact of Otis Redding as a soul pioneer who inexorably altered the rhythm & blues landscape – and, ultimate, all of pop music- with his gritty, lustrous vocal, sexy, slinky lyrics and unforgettable songs.

Cauley, who hadn’t visited Madison since the crash, received a standing ovation. He told his audience how he’d awakened early that Sunday four decades ago and headed to the Cleveland airport for the trip to Madison. That day, he said, Redding told him he’d just finishing recording the supremely meditative “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” A few hours later, Cauley was flung out of the plane on impact. As he floated in the icy waters of Lake Monona, clinging to a cushion, he watched the rest of the plane’s passengers — including the man he once described as “…a groovy cat, like an older brother” — drowned.

When his short speech was finished, Cauley sang some of the songs that might have been on the bill at The Factory, including a trumpet-laced version of Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

He was born in Dawson, Georgia, approximately 100 miles south of Macon, on Sept. 9, 1941. His family moved into a Macon housing project when Redding was three. He began singing in the choir of the Vineville Baptist Church. Now home to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, Macon is arguably the vital center of soul. Little Richard, James Brown and Otis Redding – three men who shaped American blues music in from the 1950s to the 1970s and beyond — all launched their careers here. Strangely, although he consistently impacted the R&B charts beginning with the Top Ten appearance of “Mr. Pitiful” in 1965, and he is remembered for producing some of the toughest, sweetest, most enduring soul music ever created, none of Redding’s singles fared better than #21 on the pop Top Forty.

There’s one noteworthy aspect to Redding’s life not often touched upon: No one has anything unflattering to say about him. No scandals lurking in the closet, no unsavory incidents of rampant egotism to shatter his clean image, no shafting of his sidemen on long road jaunts. Just a sincerely talented soul man who enhanced the lives of everyone associated with him but died much too soon.

Heartbreak never sounded good. Or happened so abruptly.

Article excerpted from Brian D’Ambrosio’s travel book A Wee Bit of Wisconsin

Matt Lamb – An Art World Visionary

December 6, 2010

Matt Lamb's standing collaborative Installation in the third year of drying. The Peace Wave, Concrete and paint, 10' x 172.' Photo by Lori Pitts.

On my quest for making my world better–along with the worlds of my children, my son’s children, and all others who want a better existence–I often say a quick pick-me-up prayer to the universe: “Give me this or something better.” My intent is to channel my gifts and creativity into meaningful energy flow (often financial) and to create links to others who seem to have mastered this feat. On November 19, I met a self-taught visionary artist who exemplifies that mastery – Matt Lamb.

Sheila Lamb-Gabler and Matt Lamb. Photo by Barbara Budish

Chicago-area based, Lamb’s intent is to achieve world peace through the creation of art. With his daughter, Sheila Lamb-Gabler as President/CEO of Matt Lamb Studios, he has established art museums throughout the world. But until artist and art patron Barbara Budish invited me to Lamb’s Burlington, Wisconsin farm, I had not heard of this amazingly prolific artist or his work.

Another friend, Lori Pitts, drove us to Lamb’s farm. With instructions to wear old clothes, because we might be involved in producing something, I went fully prepared for the 40-degree temperature and working outdoors in concrete. Budish said, “Matt is very cool for an almost 80 year old, and I know you will enjoy this experience.” Layered in two sweaters, rubber gloves, a lined jean jacket, lined jeans, a long coat, my garden galoshes, two hats, I even brought an extra sweater and gloves.

When we arrived about 10 am, a truck was pouring concrete in wooden forms outside one of the barns. Lamb described the experience on his blog: “Well over 100 people worked together with me on 70 different installations. We used 250 gallons of paint, 3,500 pounds of concrete mixed in a huge truck—and we all worked together, creating these installations that will go around the world (to institutions and museums), so that blind and sight-impaired people can interact with art.”

Barbara Budish and Stephen Sweet kneel by the memorial honoring her cat's life. Photo by Evelyn Patricia Terry.

Following instructions on color sequencing, participants poured paint over the green concrete in each form. With his galoshes and a long utensil, Lamb mixed concrete and paint. My galoshes allowed me to join in.

Participants were invited to create permanent memorials in remembrance of anyone they wanted to honor. Budish, who had lost her cat Elizabeth the night before, embedded many objects to memorialize and celebrate their shared love. Others placed personal items–baseballs, a camera, jewelry, paintbrushes, hats, etc.–ceremoniously into their compositions. A handkerchief fell from Lamb’s pocket and became embedded. I finished by embedding my used pink rubber gloves. Drying time for the installations require two years lying down, plus one year standing.

Later, we walked through a large barn that housed a collection of 3,000–5,000 Lamb paintings arranged in shelving units by various sizes. Warm food, desserts, liquids, and apples were consumed in the main house. After refreshments, in another barn, Lamb spoke of his desire to bring people together through art. Using large brushes and acrylic paint for our last event, alternating groups of participants took turns painting whatever they wished on a large canvas-covered wall.

Storage for up to 5,000 paintings. Photo by Lori Pitts.

“Love is the overriding factor in the human species,” Lamb states on his blog. “Art is the perfect metaphor for understanding and loving one another. We all look at the same thing, but we all see something different. We question everything, we debate, we doubt, we argue. That’s fine, as long as we don’t physically beat up anyone or kill one another over these issues. Art teaches us about being different, bringing cultures together, and coming to the conclusion that we will never agree, but we will never commit violence because we disagree.”

He blogs about other things that I often say, such as, “I believe you must leave a record of why you do things… Otherwise, people make up things about you after you’re dead! I believe you should leave some type of a written history behind so that history will be made from fact, not fiction. That means photograph your art, telling your story, having accurate press releases, doing Facebook, doing YouTube, and so on. You can articulate what you’re doing with all of your reality, your foolishness, your sincerity, and your doubts. Lay it all out.”

Frey Hoffman Productions films Terry as she gets in the mix. Photo courtesy of Barbara Budish

Terry, wearing "no longer" pink gloves, and Matt Lamb. Photo by Lori Pitts.

Frey Hoffman Productions, a company that has filmed for Kanye West, is creating a documentary about Lamb. I was interviewed, although I was certainly not dressed to be on camera. Such a memorable experience! It comforts me to know that Lamb is dedicated to producing his authentic brand of “something better.”

–By Evelyn Patricia Terry, www.evelynpatriciaterry.com

Roadside Chats: Martha Downs, Woodworker: Black Earth, WI

December 2, 2010

By Brian D’Ambrosio

On a cold, austere-feeling weekday morning, Martha Downs studiously saws, styles, and sculpts wood to fit the full scope of her imagination.  In the chalky calmness of her Black Earth shop, trailed around by an old, sawdust covered dog, she harmoniously works in an earnest, thoughtful quiet.

“My shop gives shape and form to my thoughts,” says Downs, a lean, witty, experienced craftsperson, most comfortable wearing torn dungarees, ankle deep in sandy surroundings.  “I walk the fine line between being a tradesperson who has a job to do and an artist who creates and interprets and has visions, I think I’m somewhere in between.  It’s not totally important to me that what I’m building isn’t my vision,  I’ll influence it, and balance its aesthetic elements. “

Here, Downs designs and builds durable tables, shelving, headboards, cabinetry, beds, and doors. Her pieces mainly come commissioned with her clients’ tastes and ideas in mind, or she often accepts referral work from contractors.  She is the brains, boss, and brawn at Downs Woodworking, the theorist, the captain, the follower, the artist, and the quality control specialist.

“Things do not leave the shop until I am satisfied,” says Downs. “Sometimes I’ll try materials out on myself first, and I spend any quiet periods I have between projects poking around, experimenting with wood.”

When possible Downs sources local wood, primarily walnut from Mount Horeb, and utilizes local materials. Multitasking, though, is a skill best left for those pushing pencils in their cubicle nations, not something that feels natural for an invested woodworker like Downs, for she can only exert her energies on one piece at a time.

“I don’t like working on multiple pieces at once,” says Downs.  “When I’m working I do have ideas in mind for other projects, but I prefer to focus.  My average day is spent in the shop working; I’m not much of a nighttime worker. “

Stylistically, Downs draws heavily from Scandinavian and American mid century modern design influences, spending whatever down time she has brushing up on the various technical aspects of woodworking, furniture building, and workshop management.

Population 1,320, the village of Black Earth, boasts rich soil, thawed glacier beds, wavy pastures, a restored train depot, a five star supper club, and some fine trout fishing. Undulating and pastoral, a drive through the countryside here is indeed inspirational. Alas, it can also be a bit isolating for a lone commercially active cabinetmaker, especially when she is searching for some conversation.

“I’m away from everybody so I don’t get a lot of input,” smiles Downs, who has lived in Black Earth for five plus years. “There’s nobody to talk to near the water cooler. I have to search for input. But you know, I’ve had plenty of other so-called normal jobs in my life, working for other people, and that type of work lacks too many other things for me.”

As a woodworker, it is always tough to break through the clutter of competition, and it is a heck of a lot tougher still, for Downs, when it comes to debunking the cherished concept of American Big-Box-addicts that all custom furniture pieces are too expensive, or, perhaps worse, too elitist.  It seems we have conditioned ourselves to forsake genuine quality in favor of lesser cost, shun heirloom preciousness in favor of expendably poor, mass-produced purchases, and eschew those generational keepsakes built by our neighbors for cold, austere disposable items, shipped from the dimmest corners of the earth.

“The assumption usually is that it is going to be too costly,” says Downs, a former wine consultant, with a college background in sociology and history, who has worked with wood for more than twenty-five years. “But the truth is, my expenses are high, between the shop, material investments, rent, and liability insurance, I can’t afford to be cheap. And the perception exists that custom is unaffordable, yet people spend a lot or the same amount on similar pieces that come out of factories.

“I make things for those who want something long lasting,” she continues, “and who are proud to have it. In the end, a custom piece of furniture needs to make sense. It should be well built, thorough, and something the owner can take pride in. “

Indeed, upon examination of Downs’ work, it is easy to see custom furniture building as something steeped in the management and practice of nuance.  That she has honed her hand skills with planes and chisels, developed an eye for delicate curves, and has a sixth sense of what a prospective customer may want, is clear. Uniqueness results from these subtleties. A subdued arch or dimension here, or a tiny variation or characteristic added there – these refinements accentuate unique furniture. It is sort of like having a unique copy of an ancient manuscript, but, well, much bigger, and with a utilitarian bent.

Notwithstanding the benefits of sui generis labor, it can still be most taxing for autonomous artisans such as Downs to market, or exploit, the rich depths of their creativities and talents.

“I probably don’t do enough to make myself known,” says Downs, then adding, “I believe that it’s best for me to communicate through the emotive nature of my work.”

To read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s Wisconsin travel, history, artist profiles, and roadside conversations.

StageNorth – Washburn

December 2, 2010

By Dayle Quigley

This past weekend I took by first official foray into the world of small venue entertainment in small town Wisconsin. Oh, I have done this for years, but not with any planned critique of the spot where I was headed. My quest has now begun, however, for the best out-of-the-way spots.

On Saturday I traveled north to Washburn, Wisconsin: population 3662. Washburn is situated on the Bayfield peninsula jutting into Lake Superior. It is a sleepy town on the shores of the lake with a bustling artistic and particularly musical community. As a matter of fact my favorite luthier, John Gray, makes his home here. The man works wonders on strings instruments of all shapes and sizes and all at a cost I can afford. Not an easy task.

StageNorth BarWashburn is also home to Stage North, a performance art center. I am not sure in which building it initially resided for its first 7 years, but for the past 3 years it has resided on Omaha Avenue in a beautiful building overlooking the lake. The building contains a small auditorium with 100 seats on the main floor and 43 seats in the balcony, the StageNorth Bar, and an ever-changing visual art exhibit. There is a large patio out front for further dining arrangements, but as winter has arrived in the Northwoods, this area is no longer open. In addition to musical performances, Stage North puts on a new play each month, and hosts the Bay Area Film Society. There are DJ’d dances and holiday celebrations. There is something going on 4-5 days a week, and the bar is open 7 days a week.

On Saturday night, I chose not to eat from the bar but instead to eat at a local restaurant, Good Thymes, located just north of Washburn on Hwy 13. The restaurant had been located in downtown Washburn until a couple of years ago when it went up in flames. Their new location is in an old stately home about 2 miles out-of-town. It’s a beautiful location with a wonderfully warm atmosphere inside. We had an early reservation in order to have a relaxed meal prior to the 7:30 show but even at 5:45 the restaurant was quickly filling up. In all honesty, the meal was wonderful, even if our food did seem to come out of the kitchen a little too quickly. The wait staff was pleasant and helpful, without being overbearing. It was not an inexpensive meal but reasonable for the quality of food and liquor. It is a restaurant that is perfect for a before the theater meal, adding just the right touch.

Rachael KilgourThe entertainment for the night was Rachael Kilgour from Duluth. Rachael was the biggest surprise of the evening and an incredibly pleasant surprise at that. I’ll be honest I had never heard of Rachael Kilgour prior to deciding to go to StageNorth. She did fit the bill however, Midwesterner (grew up and still lives in Duluth) and playing at a small venue. Rachael is a singer songwriter who also plays the fiddle and has traveled with Catie Curtis as a backup singer and violinist. I’ll admit that the audience was small and I believe made up mainly of people associated with the Bayfield Food Shelf, the recipient of half of the evenings proceeds, and their friends. The rest of the community missed out. Ms. Kilgour was wonderful. She is a true folk singer, who not only sings of loves found and lost but of the inequalities of the world and the need to change them. The venue was perfect for her with the concert feeling more like a home concert then a grand performance. She did not have a band with her, performing solo most of the evening with her wife singing harmony on a handful of songs, but her voice and guitar filled the stage beautifully.

So here is my take on the evening, for what it’s worth:

1. Good Thymes Restaurant – worth it as part of an evening out when you are in Washburn but not a destination in and of itself if you are driving more than 45 minutes.

2. StageNorth – a great spot. Worthwhile to travel there if there is a performance you have been dying to see. Should be a must stop, if you are in the area overnight.

3. Rachael Kilgour – worthwhile seeing no matter how far you need to drive.

Stay tuned for next week’s entry.