If you’re one of those people who doesn’t mind going off the beaten path to find a nugget, I’ve got a great place for you. And no matter which direction you come from, the drive will be outstanding because teeny Valton in southern Wisconsin is in the heart of one of the most secluded and beautiful areas of the state.
Nestled in a small valley in the northwestern panhandle of Sauk County, near rural hamlets of Cazenovia, Hillsboro, LaValle and Yuba, is an historic fraternal meeting place with a very uncommon story, one of an itinerant painter who stayed for two years.
Modern Woodmen of America Camp 6190 was one of numerous fraternal organizations whose buildings were common in communities in the 1800s. The organization provided brotherhood and life insurance and the building served the community as well as lodge members.
Going into the Painted Forest is like entering the cocoon to see the butterfly. The commonness of the exterior gives way to an explosion of color inside. It’s all around you, truly an environment. You walk in from outside and might think you’re back outside.
After the initial awe, the skill of artist Ernest Hupeden manifests itself in detail. Hupeden started by painting the stage curtain in exchange for lodging at a local hotel. His work so impressed the camp members that they further commissioned Hupeden to continue his painting and adorn the walls. After a couple of years the work was finished. Hupeden had literally covered every inch of wall space including the arched ceiling, window frames, wainscoting and curtains. The vivid imaginative scenes depict a remarkable vision of life, death, initiation rituals, and the aspirations of the Valton M.W.A camp members.
The John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan has works by Hupeden and you can view two of his paintings – The Valley Where the Bluebird Sings and The Bolton Landscape on the website of the Wisconsin Historical Society. (Click here for the collections page, then click “search” and type “Hupeden”.) The Kohler Foundation website also contains information on the artist and his work.
In and of itself the Painted Forest is quite a story. Edgewood College of Madison cares for the site and another chapter of the tale is how they’ve added to the history and made it a significant rural art resource.
In 2004 they constructed the Art Studio and Study Center about a block away from the old camp building. The facility provides space for interdisciplinary workshops, lectures, retreats, and artist residencies. This modern facility doesn’t look “new”, it looks like it has been part of the village for decades. Very nice. It has bathrooms, a full kitchen, a sleeping loft and an activity space that can accommodate up to 25 people.
I was there recently for a meeting of the Wisconsin Art Environment Consortium, a group representing nine art environments around the state. We helped produce the Wandering Wisconsin tours, which includes the Painted Forest, to help build awareness and appreciation of these Wisconsin wonders.
The group connects regularly to share tips about site operation and conserving the art we’re entrusted to preserve. Through Wandering Wisconsin and with the help of the staff of the John Michael Kohler Art Center, the consortium produced thousands of maps with suggested tours and great information about the environment builders and nifty places to visit near each site. We were able to accomplish this with a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, which now includes the Wisconsin Arts Board. Both are great supporters of local arts organizations. The consortium is working on more marketing plans for 2012 and perhaps some summer opportunities for artists near each site as well.
Ernest Hupeden died in 1911. It is said he froze in a snow bank by Hillsboro, but no one is certain. One hundred years after his death we learned that he is buried in an unmarked grave in the potter’s field at the old Richland County Farm/Home near Richland Center, sharing a single marker with over 60 others.
Some of Hupeden’s amazing art has been found and conserved but the thought is that many pieces remain in the Valton area, perhaps lost in attics or hidden behind paneling. Recently a Hupeden mural was found in a bar. Poor Ernest, he was freed from prison in Germany for a crime he did not commit. After he was exonerated he came to America and painted his way west. Now, a hundred years after his death, his genius is beginning to attain broader exposure but it is unsettling that his earthly remains have yet to gain the respect we often take for granted.
The Painted Forest is open Saturdays between Memorial Day and Labor Day or by appointment. Contact David Smith, director, with questions about the site or access to the studio. It is a remarkable resource in an uncommon, but equally remarkable setting. The journey and destination are both enveloped by Wisconsin’s natural beauty – truly conducive to serenity and inspiration.
Edgewood College has proven to be an exceptional steward of the Painted Forest and then some. The vision of folks there has enhanced a remarkable facet of Wisconsin’s history. In partnership with the Kohler Foundation, Edgewood has added contemporary uses to historic preservation. They’ve made a place that you could see into a place where you can also do, a resource to share with artists, writers and even a baseball team seeking a retreat venue.
As the old guys on the park bench say, “It ain’t what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it”.
Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI