Battery charger

September 22, 2011

The Rural Arts and Culture Summit was one of those events that made you want to get back home and get to work.  It’s been a few months since we attended, and I am still fired up.  There was something or somebody to learn from every moment we were there.

We attended as part of an organization that operates an historic site that also functions as a regional arts learning center.  The greatest benefit for us was that the gathering brought together all kinds of people involved and interested in the arts: musicians, visual artists, people who run arts organizations, theater folks, funders, community developers.

Anne Katz of Arts Wisconsin with other conference attendees

Each day was catalyzed by keynote speakers, including Wisconsin’s own Anne Katz, who spoke about the importance of measuring the specific contributions of artists, craftspeople and arts industry workers to an area’s economy.  Like farmers, many artists are self-employed and remain a shadow in the world of economic and employment data.  (Arts Wisconsin has great resources to help – check out their Arts Activist Toolkit.)

Anne was preceded by Bill Cleveland, writer, author, musician and director of the Study of Art and Community, who kicked off the conference’s opening day with a message of arts partnerships and community alliances.  Donna Walker-Kuene, a nationally known expert on audience development and veteran of over 15 Broadway productions, provided a closing day address on building access to the arts.

And the workshops were as varied as the conference participants.  I heard from a panel of state arts funders (North Dakota and Minnesota get it!) while my wife made a Ceramic Taco Fish.  I attended great presentations about feeding the Creative Economy in rural areas and developing regional strategies based on an area’s unique assets.  There were offerings about volunteer management and audience development, printmaking and Haiku, and even film screening. There was time to talk and plenty of time to listen.  I learned more about rural outreach in a half hour conversation with the director of a theater company located in an isolated part of Minnesota than I have over the last 10 years.

And copious thanks to organizers and suppliers for superbly prepared local food.

Great local food

The Summit was hosted and planned by A Center for the Arts and numerous partnering organizations and held at the Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls.  We were surprised by the place, frankly, as it is a stunning facility.  The building contains a permanent art collection started in 1960.  It now includes over 400 items which are seen everywhere in the college.  The art is beautiful and diverse – sculpture, paintings, weaving, woodwork, drawings, ceramics and wall carvings – and displayed and conserved by a curator who warmed our hearts with his passion.  Now that’s a proper environment for learning.

Fergus Falls was a treat.  It has what we think of as a “real” downtown.  There are scores of different stores and shops, and it did not come off as a tourist town, lively with locals and visitors alike. With a little exploration we discovered an all-but-abandoned little park on the east edge of town, aptly named Broken Down Dam Natural Area.  The only indication we were in the right place was a small sign and place for one vehicle to park at the dead end.  After a walk through a meadow and down a hillside we found an old dam, displaced by the power of the river it was built to contain.  It was a beautiful spot – the river rapids rushing over once grand stone ruins; isolated but within city boundaries; loud but still quiet.

The historic Fergus Theater, home to A Center for the Arts

The historic Fergus Theater is a gem from yesteryear with an incredible list of upcoming performances.  The city’s restaurants are outstanding.  And there are lots of ponds and lakes. Fergus Falls is so natural that cranes crowded  the trees in the park at dusk and made all kinds of fuss until they finally settled down for the night.

Some in-town exploring uncovered a great little Salvation Army.  That and the Goodwill Store gave us our Antiques Roadshow moment for the month.  For $40 at the Salvation Army we snagged a great 1936 German-made student guitar (in the original case – the original slides and picks were still there, too).  And at Goodwill we found five wonderful framed prints, an intact set from the 1860s, which we got for $3.99 each and saw for around $1,500 on the Internet.

It was a good place for this Summit.  These folks in Minnesota clearly understand that the arts are integral to keeping and attracting residents to their rural areas.  And they understand the business of arts and their importance to the economics of place as well as aesthetic framework of community.

Conferences are a little more difficult to attend in tough financial times and it is easy to forget how necessary getting together can be.  We live in the country and don’t get to network like we should.  The Summit was a reminder of the necessity of like-minded people to gather, speak, listen and learn and especially to strategize collectively when the influence of all of us is needed.

The Rural Arts and Culture Summit was not only excellent, it was unique.   Professional development is seldom so much fun.  As we get closer to the next event I will probably start to get tired and feel jaded about my arts volunteerism again, and need to charge the batteries.  And I’m also hoping the resale shops have more cool stuff when we come back.

What types of gatherings fire you up?

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI  (Pop. 283)



Football Comes To Oshkosh High

September 21, 2011

Michael Goc

When twenty-three year old Walter P. White signed the contract to teach mathematics and science at Oshkosh High School in 1891, he was more than qualified for the job. He had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College and was completing work on the master’s degree Harvard University would award him in 1892.  The young scholar brought his love of learning to the sawdust city on the Fox and he also brought his love for football. 

Walter P. White in 1906. (Carnegie Institute for Science)

With its roots in English rugby and rough-and-tumble American playground games, football became a more or less organized sport on Ivy League campuses like Amherst, Yale and Harvard in the 1870s. It was the ideal sport for energetic young men from the middle and upper classes who liked to run, chase balls and knock shoulders, elbows and heads. Working class fellows were less interested since they got more than their fair share of running, chasing and head knocking at their jobs in mill, mine or factory.

           Few, if any, of the boys attending Oshkosh high when White arrived were working stiffs. Quite the contrary, their parents presumed their boys were in school to prepare themselves to take their rightful places as leaders in business and the professions. Some of the boys felt that school should be about more than book learning. When White showed them his yearbook pictures of “husky padded-suit gridders” he “flamed their athletic imaginations.”  

 The number of males enrolled at Oshkosh high was small and not all of them were football-flammable. Baseball was the “American pastime” and football fans were hard to find. As one of White’s first players, Earl A. Clemans, reminisced “the average adults were convinced that football was on the level of a bullfight and ought to be outlawed.” Of greater import to the boys was the fact that high school girls hated the game and no young lady would willingly appear on the sidelines.

 Parental opposition was also strong. Some fathers might be supportive but rare was the mother willing to allow her boy to jam his unhelmeted head into a scrimmage. White was not able to field a team of twelve “men” until 1893. The school board showed grudging support by approving the purchase of one—and only one—football.  Fearing for worse if they did not step in, mothers sewed cotton padding into the heavy canvas pants and jerseys they bought for uniforms and insisted the boys wear strap-on nose guards. No helmets.

 Motherly caution was justified. The rules gave the offense three downs to move the ball five yards for a first down. With no forward passing allowed, plays consisted of variations on the tactic of giving the ball to the burliest player and aligning blockers in front so one and all could bully their way down field. Play did not stop until the ball carrier was down flat, usually with half the opposing team on top.

Finding other teams to play was also difficult and Oshkosh’s first opponents were second team college squads from Lawrence and Ripon. Oshkosh met Fond du Lac and Ripon high schools in 1894 and, in 1895, White’s squad was playing high school teams from Milwaukee.

 As grudging acceptance morphed into popularity, coaches and principals realized that high school football had to be organized.  Rules of play, of substitution, even the size of the field were not standardized. The quality of referees varied and spectators could be unruly and intimidating to visiting teams. The most serious problem, especially in the eyes of educator/coaches like W.P. White, was the practice of allowing and paying non-students– “ringers”– to play for high schools.

 After the Milwaukee Sentinel reported on “a scandal….involving ringers on high school teams,” White invited his colleagues from Fond du Lac and Ripon to meet in Oshkosh. In late 1895, they organized the “Eastern Wisconsin High School Association,”   to set standards and regulate high school sports in their region. About the same time, Milwaukee’s three high schools also agreed to play by the same set of rules.

 With strong encouragement from coaches at the University of Wisconsin, other high school coaches and administrators began to see the need for a statewide athletic association.  They came together at the Wisconsin Teachers Association annual meeting during Christmas break in 1896. After a day of discussion they agreed to create what became the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. It was the first statewide high school athletic association in the United States.

 “We want fair play, we want sport, not professionalism,” said Janesville superintendent D.D. Mayne. He was appointed to the Association’s rules committee, along with S.A. Hooper of Milwaukee South and W.P. White of Oshkosh. They drew up rules requiring signed parental permission slips and stipulated that an athlete had to be “an amateur and a student” for no more than four years. To qualify as a student and play sports, an athlete had be enrolled full time and “passing” three courses, including no more than two free-hand drawing classes. White later said that his goal was to “keep out athletic bums, fellows who attend school only for the purpose of participating in baseball and football games.” While it may not have achieved that high-minded goal, the association rules did set statewide standards for high school sports. By 1899, Oshkosh was playing and defeating teams from Milwaukee, Racine, Green Bay and Marinette. After vanquishing a total of six teams that year, Oshkosh claimed the “state championship.”

 White stayed in Oshkosh about a decade. In 1901, he began work on a doctorate in physics at Cornell University. Awarded his Ph’d. in 1904, White took a position at the newly-founded Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.  He spent the next thirty years at Carnegie, focusing his research on the physics of extreme high temperatures. He died in 1946, leaving a legacy to science and high school sports.

Black Ash Basketry

September 13, 2011

By Emily Umentum, guest contributor

Basketry is one of the oldest crafts in human history, and yet the knowledge of making these simple, and once essential, vessels has become a rarity in the modern age. Of the available basket-making materials, the flexibility and durability of black ash is unsurpassed; baskets woven of black ash splints can endure extreme compression and load and yet quickly spring back to their original form and strength, even after having been in use for years or even decades!  This beautiful, yet useful art has been making a renaissance in Northern Wisconsin since a few individuals have taken the time to seek out those who know the craft and are willing to pass it down to others.

April StoneDahl, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) is currently the only black ash basket weaver of her band.  Studying and weaving since 1998, she has also been teaching basketry in northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan since 2000. April takes great pride in weaving quality utilitarian baskets which are meant to be used. I first encountered April more than a year ago when I visited the annual Traditional Ways gathering held on the Bad River Reservation near Ashland, Wis. My first impressions of her dedication to craftsmanship, durability and sustainability have been proven accurate in all my dealings with her since.

During the year after I first visited Bad River, I have been serving as a VISTA with Northwoods NiiJii, a Wisconsin tribally-affiliated nonprofit based on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation. VISTA is a federal service program charged with fighting poverty, in my case, by helping develop a community-oriented art center and gallery known as the Woodland Indian Art Center . In the course of helping build infrastructure and form community partnerships, I have had the opportunity to engage various artists from communities outside Lac du Flambeau as well. Luckily for us, April was one of those artists.

Those in attendance at the August 26, 2011, Black Ash Basket class at the Woodland Indian Art Center were able to witness this tree’s amazing properties firsthand as they learned the preparation of materials and crafted their own baskets! The instructors, April and Jarrod StoneDahl of Woodspirit (, began by discussing the habitat, behavior and current threats to this singular and historic tree.

The Black Ash, Fraxinus nigra, is a deciduous (seasonally leaf dropping) tree native to cool, wet regions of the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada. It is currently threatened by an invasive insect known as the Emerald Ash Borer, whose larvae are spread by the movement of firewood from park to park. The best chance we have of preserving the black ash from complete destruction is to encourage campers to only purchase firewood locally, instead of transporting it. Why all the fuss over this one tree species?

This tree is unique among all North American trees because its growth rings (the seasonal trunk growth produced by the tree) are not connected to each other by fibers, as are other trees. As mundane as such a distinction may seem to the average person, for basket-makers it means that the rings may be separated from each other and made into splints for baskets. Without this tree, this particular type of basketry is in danger of disappearing.

Jarrod explained that Black Ash trees form annual growth rings of two types of wood: spring wood is a rapidly laid-down, loose connective layer which links each year of more robust summer growth to the next. He stated that by soaking the trunk in water and then pounding it with a rounded steel mallet, the spring connective layer is crushed and allows for the summer wood to be peeled off in long strips. The weaker bond of the connecting fibers is what allows the summer wood strips to separate. These strips, or ‘splints’, as they are called, vary in color according to where they lie in the tree; sap wood, the outer layer where moisture is currently flowing in the tree, is a lighter color, and heart wood, which lies at the core of the tree where moisture once flowed, is darkened with age. Trees are typically harvested in late spring or early summer (because the bark can slip off with prodding of the hands), and pounded right after harvest.  Although spring and summer is the ideal time, trees may be harvested throughout the year as needed.

After receiving the lecture and viewing some very artistic diagrams on the Art Center whiteboard, the class wandered outside to test the theory for themselves on a soaked and freshly-peeled black ash log set up for the occasion. Jarrod began the demonstration and each student tried a hand at pounding; the consensus was that despite an absence of fibers, separating the layers still was a lot of work! Who knew basket-making could be so vigorous?

The class was told that the strips were further refined by scraping and splitting, typically with a stout knife, in order to give one side of each strip the satiny-smooth finish characteristic of the exterior of black ash baskets. Splints are then rolled up and may be stored indefinitely. After experiencing only a fraction of the prep work involved in pounding and a demonstration of splitting, the class was grateful for their pre-pounded, scraped and split materials!

The first step in weaving a basket is to select and trim the splints to a desired length, in this case, a little longer than the width of the bottom, plus twice the height of the basket. These strips are generally thicker because they will be bent to become the vertical portion, or the ‘uprights’ of the basket’s walls. They must be trimmed along their length as well, because uniformity of width helps guarantee the tightness of the basket’s weave, especially on the bottom.

Trimmed splints are then soaked in a basin of water until they are pliable, and woven into a mat in which the small squares between the weave are kept the same. One of the future ‘uprights’ is then split in two, the long way, down to the bottom of the basket; this now-uneven number of uprights guarantees that the basket’s horizontal weave will stay uniform.

The next step in weaving is to decide on the width of the ‘weavers’ or horizontal splints in making the basket; different looks are achieved by trimming weavers to be thicker, narrower, or the same as the width of the uprights. The first weaver is always the trickiest, as the uprights are not yet bent upwards! After the first weaver goes all the way around the basket and crosses two consecutive uprights, then the uprights may be bent into their true upright position. Eventually, the uprights are held in place by the weavers, and the basket comes together quickly.

When the basket has reached its desired height, the uprights are trimmed and tucked away to leave a smooth surface for the rim. The inner and outer rims, typically cut from a thicker splint, are positioned and held in place with spring clips until they are firmly lashed into position with a very narrow, pliable strip of splint wrapped one way, and then the other.

Everyone in the class was pleased with their durable and attractive new baskets; students left both creatively and ecologically informed about this singular tree and its uses. Given the skills of April’s apprentices and captivation of her students, the black ash in our region will certainly have a fighting chance! We hope to have April and Jarrod back again soon; stay tuned for upcoming announcements on future black ash basket classes! Please feel free to stop in at the Woodland Indian Art Center, located at 562 Peace Pipe Rd. in downtown Lac du Flambeau or call us at 715-588-3700 for more information.


Emily Umentum is a VISTA member serving at the Woodland Indian Art Center in Lac du Flambeau, WI.  There she helps develop community partnerships, organizational capacity and arts programming. She has worked and volunteered with a number of community arts and education organizations in the Midwest and abroad; from puppet theaters to women’s shelters, organic farms to language schools, she brings a diverse array of experiences to bear in her writing. See her original post, with additional photos, at the Woodland Indian Art Center blog.

Ten Years and a Thousand Miles

September 10, 2011

According to Mapquest, my office on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus lies 937 miles west of Ground Zero, 846 miles northwest of the Pentagon, and 840 miles from the crash site of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. Ten years and nearly a thousand miles away seems so far in space and time. So while I was counting years and miles, I assembled some numbers to give clarity to my own connection to a somber anniversary.

Ten years ago we often heard that the September 11 attacks, which claimed 2,977 victims, brought Americans together as a nation. We gathered, we prayed, and we wept. We didn’t know how else to help, so we waited in lines to donate blood. (The Journal of the American Medical Association reported a 2- to 3-fold increase in donations in the first week after the attacks.) We bought American flags. (The dollar value of imported U.S. flags peaked at $51.7 million in 2001, up from $747,800 the previous year, according to the Flag Manufacturers Association of America). We stood overwhelmingly behind our president. (Gallup polls show that George Bush’s approval rating spiked–from 51% to 90%–in the weeks following September 11.)

Since then, presidential approval ratings have never equaled 2001 levels. President Bush’s ratings dipped to a low of 25%, while his successor Barack Obama’s high and low are 69% and 38%, respectively. This year Congress’ approval rating bottomed-out at 13% twice.  Americans are cynics when it comes to media bias and news stories, too:  Pew Research Center reported in 2009 that “just 29% of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight,”  a two-decade low.

As of last month, 6,230 American servicemembers have died in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and related conflicts around the world. This is according to USA Today’s website, which had the most recent tally I could find. Reports on the number of civilian casualties in Iraq vary widely, but estimates I found begin at around 100,000 deaths since 2003. Pinning down the number of casualties in Afghanistan is a more dizzying exercise, with no single official figure in existence. I can credibly report that thousands of Afghans have died since 2001 as a result of war in their country.

Of the American casualties, 115 soldiers came from Wisconsin. As a university employee, I get email alerts from the governor’s office regarding the status of the state flag. I estimate I’ve received 17 of these solemn messages in my tenure as’s project manager. They inform me when flags at the Capitol are flown at half-staff, as a mark of respect for a Wisconsin citizen who died serving his or her country.

Here is the story of one:

And here are the faces of many.

More personally, two of my family members served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. One of them returned home, safe and sound.


I’ve lost track of how many times in these ten years I’ve watched video of the towers falling, but seeing the smoke, the rubble and the bodies never fails to put a lump in my throat. Yesterday my 14-year-old son watched television coverage of the September 11th terrorist attacks at his school–from the initial impact of American Airlines Flight 11 at the north tower to its stunning collapse. Remarkably,  it was the first time he’d viewed the footage, and the experience clearly moved him. The conversation between us last night comforted me: my son, alert, compassionate, and somehow able to put 9/11 into the context of tragedy everywhere; and me, struggling to make sense of the numbers swirling in my head. Maybe we all need to listen more closely to the kids.


This weekend in Wisconsin, communities are offering numerous opportunities to gather in observance of the September 11 attacks. I counted 18 on’s calendar alone. Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio will broadcast performances and ceremonies throughout the day; if you’d prefer to gather, please see what we have listed for your area.

One event I recommend is the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters’ Perspectives on a Post 9/11 World, taking place all Sunday afternoon at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison (video of the talks will be available online at a later date). The Wisconsin Academy has a reputation for presenting clear-headed, nonpartisan public discourse around issues important to Wisconsin residents. Its series of three free public talks on Sunday will address U.S. military operations since 9/11, attitudes towards Islam and American citizenship, and how art can help us understand tragedy.

I’m especially looking forward to what the artists have to say.

–Tammy Kempfert