Portal Hawthorne

Although it is bordered by major transportation arteries, the Hawthorne neighborhood in Madison seems sheltered and quiet.  At the center is the heart, Hawthorne Elementary School, a welcoming place with a large, grassy playground, plenty of trees and plenty of happy faces.  The school a culturally diverse east side school where 68% of students qualify for subsidized meals.  And the school and community are home to new symbol of their rich culture and cohesiveness.

The Hawthorne Kiosk project was over 3 years in the making.  Doing something with next to nothing takes time, as does involving all those great students and their community.  The term Kiosk is a bit of a misnomer – this is a large, colorful, involved mosaic structure that embodies a spirit of place.  It offers a lot more than messages.

ImageThe clay tile mosaic kiosk was inspired by the rich history of vernacular mosaic artists in Wisconsin.  The original plan was to hire an artist to oversee the project but funding never materialized, so Hawthorne art teacher Julie Olsen rolled up her shirtsleeves and volunteered for the task.  “The school’s visionary art teacher had met challenge after roadblock after delay by keeping her vision clear and her project open to embrace the community,” said Anne Pryor of the Wisconsin Arts Board.  “Out of a combination of planned process and responses to needs that developed, the kiosk was born of many hands working together to add a fabulously unique art object to their community.”Image

To prepare, Julie put a lot of time into researching vernacular artists, past and contemporary. She spent time with folks at Shake Rag Center for the Arts in Mineral Point and Grandview near Hollandale. She studied with a variety of artists from Madison to Fennimore. All the people she consulted with are her mentors, she says.

Hawthorne Elementary students spent three years making tiles with images describing the unique aspects of the neighborhood, their landmarks, and the people and qualities of their community. Middle and high school students at East Madison Community Center assembled the tiles into mosaic story blocks.  Parents and neighbors helped complete the tiles in community art sessions over the summer.  And art teacher Julie was the glue that held it all together.  As beautiful as the finished product is, clearly the process was as notable as the outcome.

“All sides of the kiosk (even the undersides) are embellished with ceramic images and lettering Imagethat speaks of the people in this place,” observed the Arts Board’s Pryor after the dedication.  “It is a reflection of the Hawthorne community, anchored at the elementary school but including many other rippling circles of nearby residents. Its sturdy decorative frame will support information sharing between the school and community, with the ceramic-embellished posts housing glass cases where notices and messages will go.”

The Hawthorne Kiosk represents a unique community arts partnership involving the Hawthorne Neighborhood Association and Hawthorne Elementary School.   The City of Madison Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development chipped in with a Neighborhood Grant Program grant and, of course, the youth from the East Madison Community Center represented a super partnership as well.

The Hawthorne Community Kiosk was dedicated at a school and community event May 15, 2012.  You could easily tell by the crowd there that it has helped reestablish ties between the school, residents and community organizations. The project catalyzed neighbors, families and children, with the common goal of creating a beautiful structure that enables them to post events in English, Hmong, and Spanish, which will continue to improve engagement of all area families in neighborhood and school events.

Anne Pryor weighed in onImage the larger picture.  “Art supports communication – yes.  Art supports community building – yes.  One person’s vision and determination can envelop others and benefit the greater whole – yes. Artists tend to be people with vision and determination – yes. Thank God for creativity working on behalf of community.”

The kiosk is a portal through which the children welcome the community to their space.  Community members can use this gateway to reach out to each other.  And it is appropriately placed near a school, because there is a lesson there for us all.  “My community became a lot bigger,” said Julie Olsen.

If you’re in the area, take some time to visit the Hawthorne Kiosk.  It is best viewed from the Lexington Avenue parking lot of Hawthorne School, 3344 Concord Ave, Madison.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale WI

Follow the links below for information on vernacular artists:



Narrow Larry’s map of vernacular art sites:



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