June 21, 2011

Despite the rain, it’s mowin’ time in Wisconsin. My nose tells me so, as it recently did when I passed a field of new cut hay while driving through farm country on one of the few days of full sunshine we’ve had this summer. The sweet smell came from just-mown alfalfa, of course, the crop that makes up nearly all the fresh cut plant matter raised for cattle feed in America’s Dairyland.

Mowing with a McCormick reaper. (WI Hist Soc)

It was not always so. Alfalfa was one of the wonder crops introduced by the land grant university agricultural experts around the time of World War I. A conservative lot and a might wary of dewy college fellows who’d spent more time steering pencils than plows, Wisconsin farmers were slow to give the wonder crop a try.  Alfalfa didn’t look like the grass they were used to. In fact, it wasn’t a grass at all, and who knew what would happen if you fed it to your mortgage lifter milkers? Not until after they had passed through the dark crucible of the 1930s Depression and the bittersweet prosperity of World War II, did our farmers take to alfalfa.

The horses helped, and the tractors. That is, the one replaced the other.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Wisconsin farmers sold off their Belgians, Percherons and other big shouldered work breeds for John Deere, International and Allis Chalmers machines. That freed up about one-quarter of their cropland. Ground reserved to raise oats and timothy grass for Nellie and Ned could now go into corn or beans or alfalfa. Fewer horses meant more cows. More cows meant more milk. More milk meant more income. At least that’s the way the economics textbooks say it’s supposed to work.

The scent of new mown hay takes me to the field in 1870’s Russia created by Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. There, the other protagonist of the novel, the young landowner Konstantin Levin, defying the traditions of his class and station, takes up a scythe and mows with the “muzhiks.”

Forty men make their way across the field, led by a wiry, aged laborer named Titus. Following Titus, each mower steps off behind and to the side of his fellow, the space between measured by the arc of his swing. Levin struggles to keep his place at first, but he is no stranger to physical exercise, and soon holds his place in the muscular ballet. Forty scythes rise, their blades flashing in the sun. Forty pairs of shoulders swing downward, reach out. Forty left heels spin and rise off the ground. Forty waists pivot to complete the follow-through. Then the mowers step forward, set their legs wide, and begin the next stroke.

“The longer Levin mowed….it was no longer his arms that swung the scythe, but the scythe itself that lent motion to his whole body, full of life and conscious of itself, and, as if by magic, without a thought of it, the work got rightly and nearly done on its own.”

The work got rightly done. And still does.

Mowing grain with cradles on the scythes. (WI Hist Soc)

Whether in fictional Russia or real time Wisconsin, mowing is still pretty much the same.  The newest mowing machine–like the horse-drawn sickle-bars and side rakes of 1930’s Wisconsin, or Tolstoy’s 1870’s muzhik work gang–passes over the field, slices the stems, and lays the crop down in neat windrows to cure in the summer sun.

And stir a sweet scent of memory in those who drive by.

Feeling Inspired?

June 15, 2011

What inspires you?

Is there anything that might make you inclined, for example, to shape concrete into life-size animals? More than once, even, until you had a full yard with horses pulling carts and cows suckling their young? It’s truly astonishing what people can accomplish, and the different things that drive us to spend our energies. I like reading memoirs quite a bit, so when I see a scene like the Wisconsin Concrete Park outside of Phillips, I start to build a narrative in my head about life that led to this point.

Wisconsin Concrete Park is on highway 13 just south of Phillips. Photo by Jessica Becker

As Michael Feldman writes in “Wisconsin Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities, and Other Offbeat Stuff,” which we keep in the car and which led us to Phillips, Fred Smith isn’t the only concrete-bag toting artist to have created a scene in Wisconsin. It is a medium that seems to work for some inspirations. It wouldn’t work for me, but I can admit to having just made two owl masks from scraps of old clothing purely because I’m charmed by my daughter’s current interest in owls. Mostly it’s the way she says owl so deliberately it has two syllables. She is also very good at hooting. That is apparently enough to inspire me these days.

What about you? Are you inspired by nature? By history? By the things you’ve seen or heard? The people you meet?

What is the difference between inspiration and motivation? I’m not sure. They are not identical, and yet the go together to get things done.

Looking out over the proverbial landscape, people are doing an impressive amount. As I review submissions from authors and publishers for the 2011 Wisconsin Book Festival, I’m amazed by the writing of Wisconsin authors; the breadth, the depth, the diversity of voices. It’s no small task, to sit down over and over and over to write a book. It takes a lot of both inspiration and motivation. Some days, it probably feels like hauling bags of concrete.

Fred Smith was a retired lumberjack who was inspired to realize his vision "for all the American people everywhere. They need something like this." Photo by Jessica Becker

Dean Bakopoulos is an author whom I actually know, and I think he does on occasion haul bags of concrete (at least he used to do dirty work on a horse farm). He is the founding director of the Wisconsin Book Festival and he has a new book out called “My American Unhappiness.” He is spending this summer in Wisconsin and his latest novel is set in Madison. He will be featured at the 10th anniversary Book Festival, October 19-23. In an interview, he says “it seems cliche to say, but my two children bring me more moments of joy than I’ve ever had.” When I see him in October, I’ll ask if they’ve yet inspired him to sew owl masks.

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

Pittsville Pottery and Poking Around

June 13, 2011

On a couple of occasions in the past I’ve written about ceramics in Wisconsin and touched on Pittsville Pottery. I was pleased to see a post a few weeks ago on Emily Pfotenhauer’s Wisconsin Object blog about a collection of Pittsville Pottery made to the local historical society. While the work may not be highly inventive, it is often well designed and the glazes have appeal. There’s an interesting story to the short life of the pottery works. Emily gives a bit of the background and you’ll find more at the Wisconsin Pottery Association’s website.

Pittsville Pottery

Samples of Pittsville Pottery from the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database

Emily manages the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database which provides searchable access to a wide range of work in furniture, textiles, glass and other categories. The focus is on Wisconsin material from 1800 to 1930, mostly from collections held by museums and historical societies. It’s the kind of site where you can lose yourself looking at images, with one thing leading to another until you’ve forgotten where you started. Which is all right with me.

–Michael Bridgeman


Haints in the Closet

June 2, 2011

Evelyn Patricia Terry, "The Very Nice Lady," 26” x 30,” Pastel, 1983.

An enigmatic presence in my life, my mother, Jessie Mae Terry, made her transition on April 9, 2011 at age 96. Longing for the mom prototype—June Cleaver in the TV program Leave it to Beaver—I released her. Over the years I had many questions, which Mom long ago avoided answering. Often, she responded to my inquiries by covering her ears, humming loudly to drown me out, or retreating behind closed doors. Then there was that closet. Though she allowed me to reorganize other storage areas in her home, the bedroom closet was off limits. “Wait until I am dead,” she adamantly said.  At the time I attached little significance to her attitude. Finally, I know “what” Mom needed to stay in the closet during her lifetime.

Evelyn Patricia Terry, "Jessie Mae Terry," reproduced on a plate, from the installation, "I Mind, Eye mind, I Mind," John Michael Kohler Art Center, 1994. Photo by Vernessa Richardson.

Evelyn Patricia Terry, "Jessie Mae Terry," reproduced on a plate, from the installation, "I Mind, Eye mind, I Mind," John Michael Kohler Art Center, 1994. Photo by Vernessa Weatherall.

Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, her family moved to Charleston, Missouri. There, in her early 20s, she graduated from Lincoln High School, after it was finally built. Hardworking and resolute, she made her way to Milwaukee, married, and started a family. My unanswered questions started when I was about seven. Walking home from school, two “friends,” upset that I was chosen to erase the board, began stepping on my heels and taunting “teacher’s pet.” Although timid, I believed I would be “whipped” if I went running home defeated. Remembering Mom’s advice to “scratch out an attacker’s eyes” to limit their vision, I turned around and began scratching my offender’s eyes out. Surprised, the bully retreated. Later when the terribly injured child and her mother visited our home, my mother denied providing that instruction. My “June Cleaver” dreams vanished, leaving instead “our relationship”–one that I constantly sought to improve.

Evelyn Patricia Terry, "Eric Knight & Rochester Terry," reproduced on a plate, from the installation, "I Mind, Eye mind, I Mind," John Michael Kohler Art Center, 1994. Photo by Vernessa Weatherall.

Then there was the question of “will the real father please stand up?” Believing that Rochester and Jessie Terry could not possibly be my parents, I continually searched for my true identity whenever left home alone. One day, as a teenager named Evelyn Patricia Terry, I discovered my original birth certificate with an “Evelyn McMath” and my mother’s maiden name, “Jessie McMath.” When I confronted her, Mom gave me a photograph of Eric Knight, aka Evelyn Prescott, explaining him as my father from the Island of Barbados. Subsequently, Rochester Terry adopted me before they later divorced. I wondered about Knight, but never pursued it.

Hugs, emotional support, celebrations, and building self-esteem were absent as I was growing up. I wondered why in conversations with her. She responded, “Babies need hugs and kisses.” Instead of affection, my mother provided necessities.

Mom’s work history reflected steady growth–Star Gloves, American Motors, and finally retiring from Milwaukee County. She traveled in America and abroad to Hawaii, Haiti, and Jerusalem. Remarkably, at 80 years old and tiring of repeated hospital trips, she became a vegetarian after asking me how I stayed well. Juicing carrots and celery daily, for her remaining years, she was only sick once following a flu shot.

Finally clearing out that off-limits closet, I was privileged to discover another piece to my life’s puzzle: Mom’s divorce certificate from someone named Casey, over a year after my birth. I had heard her reference that marriage, but not in relationship to me. Before her transition, she recently claimed that the closet had “haints” in it. It appears, for her, it did.

Often, Mom bought artwork from my art exhibitions. That ‘closet’ discovery helps me to comprehend her purchase of my mixed media creation, If You Are Enslaved to A Secret Lie, The Truth Will Set You Free. Thankful that she provided channels of good in my life, I gradually began, after her transition, accepting whatever her situation was and our subsequent relationship. Financially, she was proud that she had my back, by supporting me when my sales waned. What I wanted from her, I learned to create. Discovering articles stressing communication as the key to affecting changed behavior; I eliminated spankings as discipline with my own children. After reading billboards questioning, “Did you hug your child today?” I began comforting by hugging and playing with them more.

Evelyn Patricia Terry, "If You Are Enslaved to a Secret Lie,” (front), 4 ½” x 4 ¼”, Paint, wood burning. Jessie Mae Terry’s art collection. Photo by Vernessa Weatherall.

Evelyn Patricia Terry, "The Truth will set you Free," (back). 4 ½” x 4 ¼”, Paint, wood burning. Jessie Mae Terry’s art collection. Photo by Vernessa Weatherall.

Now, my channels for nurturing expand, flowing to my grandchildren and my friends. I surround myself with nurturing people–many who hug automatically, almost the moment they see me. So. I hug more, have one more answer and keep those wretched “haints” at bay.

Contact: Evelyn Patricia Terry
I will be exhibiting at Lincoln Center of the Arts, 820 East Knapp, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with studio partners Ras `Ammar Nsoroma and Laura Easey-Jones, Friday, June 10, 12 noon–9 pm. The exhibition is organized by Laura Easey-Jones. Visit for additional information.