Art and biology

October 21, 2011

Lynda Barry's 'Babble, Babble, Babble' comes out in November.

The Wisconsin Book Festival continues through October 23, so I wanted to share a couple of personal festival highlights with our blog readers. Whether you’re from upstate or down the block, you can enjoy these writers with me, thanks to the wonders of streaming audio and video.

First off, Wisconsin-based writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry. Part book festival, part radio show, her appearance Friday morning filled the house at Overture Center for the Arts, where WPR‘s Veronica Reuckert was broadcasting the event. Topics included coping with the ‘vampire of doubt’ that sometimes plagues writers; the importance of teacher instinct in an era of test fixation; and Barry’s soon-to-be released book, Blabber Blabber Blabber: Volume 1 of Everything. She also spoke to our creative impulses–how dance, poetry and music have a biological function for humans. They’re part of our wiring, she says.

From the presentation:

When I ask people, ‘Do we need the arts to survive?’ People say, ‘No, to survive all you need is air, some water, and you need, like, food.’

And then I’ll say, ‘Well, you personally, do you need music?’

[Addressing the crowd, many of whom are high school students:] You guys sitting in the audience right now, do you need music?

Absolutely! … When you play your song in the morning it makes you able to get to the bus stop.

If you listen to the entire segment at the Veronica Reuckert Show archives, you’ll be treated to what I’m betting is Barry’s WPR singing debut, a sweetly imperfect rendition of “Oh” by Ciara.

And, speaking of biology, poet Erin Ruzicka Trondson will join two other Midwest authors for a Saturday evening mix of fiction and poetry readings called ‘Voices of Motherhood.’ Nesting, her small book of poems published earlier this year, gets at the knot of maternal experience–entangled as it can be in bliss and tenderness, isolation and vulnerability all at once.

Here she is at a reading last spring:

Two full days of book festival remain. Check out the online guide to map out your itinerary.

Also through Oct. 23  in the Eau Claire area, the Chippewa Valley Book Festival has authors, activities and writing contests on tap.

–Tammy Kempfert

Art – Alive and Well in Wisconsin

October 20, 2011

When I moved to the Midwest 15 years ago, my family was surprised. How could one move from the East Coast to the Midwest? It seemed incomprehensible to them. When I informed them I was moving to the North Woods, to a small town in the “middle of no where”, they were alarmed. What about culture? What about music? What about opportunities for the children? My answer was always the same. “It’s not that far from the cities.I have a car.” In reality, we didn’t really need to go to the cities, we just had to be more pro-active, plan well in advance. We had to change our expectations, more local artists, more amateurs, less professionals. The truth is…. that was reality then but it isn’t reality any longer.

I have spent the last year traveling around Wisconsin visiting small town performing art centers and other musical venues. Let me tell you, small town Wisconsin is not only alive and well it is thriving. Yes I have seen my share of local musicians and various “amateurs” but I have also seen Bill Staines, Brandi Carlisle, John Prine, Mike Compton, Yonder Mountain Band, Corky Siegel, or best of all the ABBA Tribute band. Yes I have gone to the big city in years past and seen the likes of Carol King and James Taylor, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, Elton John. They were great concerts but I will take a small performing arts center any day to the likes of the Xcel Center or the Target Center where you watch the big screen more than the stage. It is true that you don’t have multiple options on the same evening like you would have in Madison or Milwaukee. It’s true that in many towns the venues operate only once or twice a month. Seeing a performance every weekend might mean traveling at least to the next town. But, that is a small cost for living on 20 acres two miles from the center of town and being kept awake at night because of the deafening sound of peepers.

The Park Theater, Hayward

So on the average day, I would have to say that although we are close in small town Wisconsin, we still are not quite on par with “the big city.” That all changed this month. You see, on October 1st, small town Wisconsin was at least on par if not ahead of many big cities. On October 1st, Hayward Wisconsin was host to the Manhattan Short Film Festival. That put us on par with Milwaukee and Minneapolis and put us ahead of Madison and Chicago. The Manhattan Short Film Festival was shown in over 200 cities, across six continents for one week. It is a film festival of short films, nothing lasting more than about 18 minutes. From all of the submitted films, from all over the world, the top 10 go out around the world to be viewed and judged by the world at large. I was there at The Park Theater on October 1st with 179 friends, laughing and crying and reading sub-titles. Our votes counted just as much as those in New York,  San Francisco, and London. Hayward is now on the map for something other than sporting events and the National Fishing Hall of Fame. Culturally, we are coming into our own, as I found all over Wisconsin last year.

This year I’m continuing my pursuit of eventually attending every Performing Arts Center in small town Wisconsin. This year I’m targeting theatrical performances. I suppose that’s because I saw Of Mice and Men in Green Spring at the American Players Theater and was enthralled. If you have particular PACs (Performing Art Centers) that you think I ought to visit, drop me a line. Otherwise, I’ll just plan to see you out on the trail.

Dayle Quigley

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wisconsin Cottage

October 13, 2011

Recently I spent a weekend at the Seth Peterson Cottage, a Frank Lloyd Wright house near Lake Delton. It was my second overnight visit, my first having been in 1993, about a year after the cottage was opened for private rentals and regular public tours.

The wall of windows faces southwest.

The setting is delightful: a wooded hill overlooking Mirror Lake. Indeed, the small house is now within Mirror Lake State Park and maintained and operated by an arrangement between the non-profit Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy and the Department of Natural Resources.

Had it not been for the Conservancy, and particularly Audrey Laatsch, the cottage might have been lost. When she came upon the house in 1988, it had been unoccupied for years and suffered serious deterioration.

Seth Peterson Cottage is small, measuring 880 square feet. The plan is simple, with a large open space that embraces living and dining areas wrapped around a large fireplace. A shed roof opens to an expanse of windows facing southwest with a patio at 90 degrees that looks northwest. It is from the west corner of the house that one gets the best view of the lake below.

The corner of the patio overlooks Mirror Lake below.

There is a small and quite workable kitchen and a single bedroom under a low, flat roof at the rear of the house.

Designed by Wright in 1958, the cottage was unfinished when the young client, Seth Peterson, took his own life in 1960. Wright had died a year earlier at age 91. After sitting empty for two years, the cottage was purchased by Lillian Pritchard for her son and finished pretty much as designed. Only a few years later, in 1966, the state purchased the house and surrounding land for $38,400 to become part of the new park. With no plans for the house, it was boarded up and languished. More than 20 years later, Laatsch and the Conservancy rehabilitated the house for public use.

Making Seth Peterson Cottage available for overnight stays was a bold idea when inaugurated in 1992. It would not be a house museum, but a residence, even if transitory, as intended by client and architect. It was the first Wright house to offer such an opportunity. Today, there are eleven Wright sites where guests can spend the night, including two others in Wisconsin.

It’s a rare pleasure to spend time in a Wright house. I’ve visited plenty of Wright buildings over the years, usually in groups that are timed, managed and directed. For our weekend at the Seth Peterson Cottage, I and my friends had the priceless benefit of unhurried time. We could sit and look, read or relax. We could take in the house and its site from many angles, inside and out. We could enjoy the changing light through the day, the sun filtered by trees with yellowing leaves in early fall.

The cottage has a large fireplace, a common feature of Wright's interiors.

To be sure, spending the weekend is an extravagance and takes a bit of planning since the cottage books years in advance. Yet I could think of no better way to mark a milestone birthday. And the real luxury is that I had the time to enjoy the experience.

Note: The Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy offers monthly guided tours of the house and other events open to the public.

–Michael Bridgeman


Visiting Spirits

October 11, 2011

Michael Goc

Sandra Swisher-Pheiffer as "Yankee Mama" Jane Bonnell and Harriet Dehlinger as the "lonely" Sophronia Temple.

The ghost walk season is upon us and historical groups around Wisconsin are inviting the curious to visit local cemeteries and meet the spirits of the people who lie beneath the tombstones there. It’s a good idea, because history is story, and our graveyards are full of slumbering stories waiting to be roused.

Many cemetery tours focus on the famous and the infamous. Statesmen, captains of industry, theatrical performers and notorious criminals attract much of the attention. The Adams County Historical Society takes a more democratic approach. This is as it should be, for midst all the infinite varieties of human experience, the one we all share is death. So when we visit our country cemeteries, as we did on the sterling morning of October 1, we stop at the graves of just plain and ordinary folks.

There was Sophronia Temple, a Massachusetts native who moved with her husband Timothy to the sandy prairie about ten miles north of Wisconsin Dells in the 1850s. In a letter she wrote to friends back home, she expressed the loneliness of life on the frontier “We have but little to take our attention from our own fireside. No sewing circle, no prayer meeting, no social gatherings of any kind, but few neighbors…This is a fine country to get a living in but I never have been content. I should be if only I had society.”

Lonely Sophronia might have perked up had she visited her neighbor in life and death, Jane Bonnell. A New Jersey gal who also came west in the 1850s, Bonnell had a house full with nine sons and one daughter.  When the “rebellion” started in 1861,  Bonnell’s sons enlisted. It was not long before she had seven sons in the Union Army. We don’t know if that is a record for either side, but it is impressive. She saw six of her boys come home alive. The seventh, Aaron, who was shot dead at Atlanta, is buried at her side.

Bonnell’s other neighbor, Dana Billings, had a more pleasant war. He volunteered in the fall of 1864, collected a bounty of $315 and spent the final months of the war with an artillery unit defending Washington D.C. from an assault that never came. As he wrote home to his wife Annette, “the army is the best place to make a man lazy that I ever saw.”  Not all who served were heroes.

Take Daniel Ackerman. He was sixty-nine years old when he came west with his son Theron, also in the 1850s. They used a warrant good for forty acres of government land that Daniel earned for serving in the New York state militia in the War of 1812. Forty years later, the government’s promise to a veteran, even one who saw no combat, was still good.

Fritz the miller of White Creek as channelled by Don Hollman.

Fritz Witt, the jovial miller of White Creek, came to Adams County from Mecklenburg in northern Germany with his wife Katrina, a Holsteiner.  He could handle a steam-powered mill, but he preferred to work with water, and he ran mills at Mirror Lake, Delton, Arkdale and Easton before coming to White Creek. The thin soil in these parts had all but given out by the 1890s and farmers planted the crop of last resort, buckwheat. Witt then fine-tuned the stones on his mill to grind and sell “the finest buckwheat flour in Wisconsin.”  Lemons to lemonade for the farmers and himself. Flour was one thing, family was another.

Neither Fritz, nor Katrina, nor their son Chris could make life better for Chris’s wife Lucy. Orphaned as a child, Lucy married Chris in 1900. They had their first child, Harold, in November 1901, but he died the following January. Lucy never got over it, although she felt better after her second baby, Blanch, was born in the spring of 1903.

Rachel Kulack, the spirit of Lucy Witt.

Then her depression returned. In the summer she took Blanch to visit Fritz and Katrina who lived on the bank of the White Creek mill pond. Unable to sleep one night, she got out of bed, left the house and headed for the pond. Hearing the door of the house open and close, Katrina woke up. She found Blanch sleeping peacefully but Lucy’s bed was empty. She roused Fritz and the neighbors and they searched around and in the pond. No one knows if Lucy stepped into or slipped and fell into the water. But the pond was small, the current slow, and no one heard her cry out for help. Her body was found on the rocks at the foot of the dam. History is story and each stone in a cemetery marks a story waiting to be told.

Sauk County ‘DTour’

October 11, 2011

Wayfinder, by Terrence Campagna.

Now through Oct. 16, as part of its 2nd Annual Fermentation Festival, Reedsburg is offering the Farm/Art DTour, a 50-mile circular excursion through rural Sauk County. The tour winds through the county’s less-traveled roads, past tidy farms and tiny towns, to flaunt the season’s explosive color. What makes this particular drive so exceptional, though, is more than two dozen farm-based art installations and other attractions–from Roadside Culture Stands selling local produce to music and theater performances in the fields along the way.

At its core, the Reedsburg Fermentation Festival is a showcase for fermented food and drink (beer, of course, plus cheeses, yogurts, sauerkrauts and more). But organizers have billed the fest as a “live culture convergence,” connecting culture of the microbial sort with cultivation of the earth and cultivation of the mind and soul. By embracing the roots of the word culture, or “the action of cultivating land” in 12th-century Anglo-Norman, the event helps clarify relationships among where we live, what we eat and what we grow–as well as what we create, and what we love.

Boots, by Christopher Lutter-Gardella of Puppet Farm Arts

To make the most of festival offerings, I recommend planning ahead; many events require registration. For example, if you’re a fan of  fermented cabbage, you can participate in Saturday’s ‘Powerkraut‘ workshop. Love kombucha? Find out how to make the fermented beverage at home from a Madison-based kombucha company, also scheduled for Saturday. Opportunities for less adventurous tasters include yeast breads, honey, yogurt, wine and beer presentations.

"Field Notes" installation interpreting a hayfield for tour takers.

If you take the Farm/Art DTour, try scheduling your trip around one of the pasture performances. On Saturday, Nath and Marnie Dresser present ‘Some Kind of Sign,’ a story told in poetry and song. And Sunday, the Madison-based band Graminy performs. Download a map and take a self-guided tour, as we did, or sign up for a guided bus tour on Sunday, Oct. 16, that includes a stop at Carr Valley Cheese Factory in LaValle.

As of today, the weekend forecast for the Reedsburg area calls for sunshine with highs in the 60s. Not quite the balmy weather we enjoyed for last Saturday’s drive (car windows wide open in October!)–but still, near perfect conditions for a fall day trip.

–Tammy Kempfert