Joel Huntley’s Serene, Understated Redware Pottery

March 14, 2013


By Brian D’Ambrosio

Potter Joel Huntley’s art is calm, serene and internalized. Working with aged redware pottery inspired by the 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century folk art traditionally produced in Europe and America, Huntley has come to harmonize its understated, reflective beauty. For three decades his hands and heart have been kept occupied by his mind’s single-minded concentration to utilize clay in the making of sharp, ambitious, inspired things.

Joel Huntley’s ‘Selfish, Romantic’ Pottery

“This may sound selfish or romantic, but I don’t know how people exist in a job that they don’t have a passion for,” says Huntley, on a dark, drizzly day, sitting in a chair in the corner of his Columbus, Wisconsin, studio, back pressed against a wall scribbled with Bob Dylan quotes in pencil. “One of the first things I think about in the morning is how lucky I am to make a living at pottery; only a small, select crew of dedicated artisans is able to do that.”

One of the country’s foremost makers of traditional aged redware, or pre-Industrial Revolution folk pottery, Huntley throws and molds each day, every day. Pottery is more than just a matter or means of happiness or recreation to him, but a constant, steady, mysterious even, re-creation, a beautiful, noble, religious, mystical pursuit. Not fatuously euphoric, rather a disciplined process of strong, intense inner patterns.

“I guess you could say that I am hardwired to do this,” says Huntley. “People have always done this; it’s so much a part of human nature.”

Reflecting on more than thirty years of manufacturing pottery, the reclusive Huntley explains that pottery is less a lifestyle or ordinary job than it is something approaching the seriousness and complexity of a religion. “From the start the goal for me was to make a living in my chosen craft. All these years later I’m completely self-defined as a potter. I’ll never stop worshipping clay.”

Huntley’s studio is divided into two parts; the front comprises a gallery which showcases the artist’s eclectic wood-fired pots and face jugs. Beyond those doors, the self-sufficient craftsman, closed to the outside, open to his own thoughts and creativities, burnishes the luster and patina for heirlooms and commission pieces, slowly, if not perfectly, illustrating the metamorphosis of clay. His utilitarian surroundings look exactly the way one would envision: shelves and cabins crammed with wares; used and unopened bags of clay on the floor; tables stacked with painter’s tools and pots requiring painting. Hard work is the key to the potter’s success and no amount of heady praise from patrons or passersby can fool the potter into delusions of self-grandeur.

“It may be surprising but I can tell you that pottery is a stressful, hardcore business,” says Huntley. “There are compromises, disciplines and tradeoffs.” Huntley markets wholesale models to stores, large and small, across the country; the “bread and butter” of his operation is small scale, artisan studio productions. The luxurious pottery he crafts, which, he says, suits primarily Eastern tastes, sell in locales as diverse as Colonial Williamsburg to decorative art shops in the middle of Iowa.

Huntley employs old-fashioned hand tools and methods to produce the quality of aesthetic object and spiritual subject of a luxury item. Shape and texture are paramount to Huntley who first contemplates the tactility of the product before he even considers color coordination. When asked whether he sees his work as ‘exquisite’ or ‘beautiful’ he refuses to acknowledge these attributes. Aestheticism’s unfailing sharpness is what needs to reign supreme.

“I want the viewer to receive pleasure from the aesthetics,” says Huntley. “I hope that the quiet, yet powerful nature of my pottery preserves and serves strong utilitarian and aesthetic functions. I want people to appreciate the individual glaze and texture, and notice how a surface soothes or slows down, or associate a piece of pottery with a favorite place or land.”

With pottery, spontaneous senses converge all at once. Unpredictable, intense, and sensual, it is an endeavor fraught with novelty, impulsivity and adventurousness. Perhaps accordingly, mistakes often happen.

“Pottery is a cruel mistress,” says Huntley. “You can make a mistake anywhere in the process, but it’s only after you have invested all of your time, concentration and money –after the kiln – that the flaw or mistake becomes apparent. You can do all the steps correctly, but you still won’t find out until the very end. That appeals to me.”

Joel Huntley Life of Wisconsin Potter

Mindful of its physical nature, he concedes that pottery has taken a somewhat punishing toll on his body. Indeed, there is an underappreciated physicality to chucking clay which contravenes the outsider’s knowledge of the potter’s life; the rough processes of combining and crafting such visual, functional art is staggering: eight hours a day, solo, glazing, mixing, pounding, decorating, and throwing and spinning at the wheel.

“I have a clean bill of health to move ahead,” says Huntley. “But the bags of clay still weigh one hundred pounds and a large bucket of clay still strains the back. I am fortunate to have a strong one. Bad backs are endemic among this craft because of the repetitive nature of the wheel.

“There is a danger to it that I enjoy. There are power tools to be run, open flames to be burned by, temperatures to be dealt with, and all kinds of ways to burn or cut something off. I like that about the craft, the raw, open passion.”

Though Huntley often pedals his wares on State Street at the Dane County Vendor’s Market, he is more noted in such places as Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, than he is close by in Madison, Wisconsin. And he understands that it is not always easy to find an audience willing to pay for a handmade item which is priced four times higher than the one a machine spits out.

“Honestly, my profit margin is small because everything is done by hand. I just hope to connect with people who will pay more for a mug or plate because of how I value it, and because of who made it or why it was made.”

Talented and tenacious, pottery has endowed Huntley’s life with an authenticity and relevance and anchoring motivation to do, try, seek, touch and attempt. At 53, he says that it may even be the right time to embark on a new phase of his artistic career.

“All I ever have wanted to do is live in a rural setting and make pottery,” says Huntley. “Right now, I’m not at a turning point so much as a reflecting point, 30 years of making a living at this. The businessman and artist in me wonders what I can add or enhance in the genre, and wonders what I want to do for the next stretch. The glass is half full.”

Brian D’Ambrosio is a writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country News, USA Today, Wisconsin Trails, Bark Magazine, Montana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine.

His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle. D’Ambrosio’s next book, Desert Horse: A Life of Marvin Camel, a biography of the Montana boxing legend, will be published by Riverbend Publishing in 2013.
Copyright Brian D’Ambrosio

Bringing the Bayou to the Driftless

March 14, 2013

Cajun Music and Dance Weekend returns to Folklore Village near Dodgeville on March 22-24, 2013.   Expect hot music, lots of dancing, workshops with master artists and an abundance of yummy Cajun food.  Louisiana among the Holsteins.

You never know which way March weather will turn in Wisconsin but the Cajun influence is not foreign to colder climes.  It all started when Acadian exiles from Canada – mostly from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – settled in southern Louisiana and brought the French language with them.

Cajun music is evolved from its roots in the music of the French-speaking Catholics of Canada. In earlier years the fiddle was the predominant instrument, but gradually the accordion has come to share the limelight. It gained national attention in 2007, when the Grammy Award for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album category was created. The category has since been folded into Best Regional Roots Album, and it is interesting to note that the 2013 winner – The Band Courtbouillon – includes Wilson Savoy, the brother of Joel Savoy, one of this year’s Cajun weekend headliners.


Joel Savoy and Jesse Lege

Workshops on guitar, fiddle, accordion, dance and even cooking will feature an outstanding lineup of artistic staff, headlined by master artists Jesse Lege and Joel Savoy, who have collaborated on numerous appearances and albums alike.  Jesse grew up in rural southwest Louisiana and is one of the most admired Cajun accordionists and vocalists in the region.  Jesse has been nominee and winner of numerous Cajun French Music Association awards: Traditional Band of the Year; Accordion Player of the Year; Male Vocalist of the Year; Band of the Year and Song of the Year. Whew!  In 1998 he was inducted into the Cajun Music Hall of Fame.  He’ll teach advanced accordion and a vocal workshop.

Joel Savoy is one of the most requested fiddlers in Louisiana today – he comes from Cajun royalty they tell me – and has developed a style that is at once authentic and cutting edge.  His playing leaves little doubt that Cajun music is still alive.  Joel will teach advanced fiddle workshops.

Other artistic staff include Charlie Terr and John Terr, founders of the Chicago Cajun Aces band.  Charlie and John have been a part of the Folklore Village Cajun festival from the start.  Charlie will lead the intermediate accordion workshops and John will conduct the guitar workshop.Image

Eric Mohring is a nationally recognized Cajun fiddler who plays with the New Riverside Ramblers.  He will lead the intermediate fiddle classes and a beginning fiddle workshop.  Gene Losey will guide very beginning accordion players in basic scales, fingering, and techniques that “make it sound Cajun.”

If you like to kick up your heels or do a little Louisiana jitterbug, Maurine McCort joins the 2013 staff as Cajun Dance Instructor.  Maurine has been an inspiring force in the Cajun and Zydeco music and dance scene in the Twin Cities since 1990 and has taught both Cajun and Zydeco at home (every Saturday for 18 years) and festivals around the country. Although she lives upriver, her passion for the dance and music of southwestern Louisiana is from the people who she learned this dance style from.

ImageAnd if all this thought about music and dance makes you hungry that’s perfect because there will be Cajun food galore.  Jackie Miller will teach cooking classes in the Folklore Village Farmhouse for those who would like to bring this lively culture back home.  Jackie learned cooking from all the grandmas she could adopt and has authored two Cajun cookbooks.  She is a regular instructor at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia.

The kitchen in Farwell Hall will feature hearty authentic Cajun meals prepared by Folklore Village’s own Foodways staff, led by Bonnie Isaacson-Miller and J Miller. If eating is more important to you than preparation the weekend will feature hearty authentic Cajun meals prepared by Folklore Village’s own Foodways staff, led by Bonnie Isaacson-Miller and J Miller. Saturday’s lunch will feature traditional style Sausage Jambalaya with Lucky Pennies – a marinated Carrot Salad, and refreshing Peach-Pineapple Crisp for dessert topped with heavy cream.  Supper is a Cajun Mardi-Gras Feast of Chicken Gumbo, Sweet Potato Pone, Tasty Homemade Potato Salad, Cajun Corn Salad and Cayenne Toast, plus Pecan Bars with Chantilly Cream for Dessert.

Cajuns have a reputation for a joie de vivre (“joy of living”), in which hard work is appreciated as much as “passing a good time.”  On his web site Joel Savoy says it straight: “Next time we come to town, come on out and say hi and listen and dance if you feel like it. Be a part of our music instead of a background for it.”  At Cajun weekend, Wisconsin people can join in this rare treat.Image

You can still register for the Folklore Village Cajun Music and Dance weekend by calling 608-924-4000. Sign-up for the whole shebang, part of the shebang or for individual workshops and meals.  For more information visit the Folklore Village website or give them a holler.

Just so you know, Folklore Village provides a broad range of cultural and recreational programs. The year-round schedule of over 100 events and activities includes Saturday night potlucks and social dances, concerts featuring master folk artists, folk culture learning retreats and folklife education programs for schools.

Folklore Village overlooks gently contoured fields, dairy farms, nearby woods and a prairie restoration project. The 94 acre site includes Farwell Hall, a 5,500 square foot facility with two beautiful hardwood dance floors, exhibit and classroom spaces and a restaurant-quality kitchen, Wakefield School, an 1893 one-room school house, and the Tall Grass Prairie Restoration Project, which includes over 30 relic species of remnant prairie and many grassland bird species.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale WI  Pop. 288  (if you’ve been checking, we’ve gained 5 people!)

Wisconsin State Cow Chip Scrapbook

August 29, 2012

wisconsin state cow chip throw and festival

Since 1975, when the Sauk Prairie Jaycees recognized the twin villages of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac as the cow chip capital of Wisconsin, the community has annually organized the Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw and Festival.

While it’s not likely to be an Olympic event anytime soon, there were a plethora of nominations for local chip-chucking legend and 10-time world cow chip throwing champion, Kay Hankins, back in the mid-1980s when Wheaties held a nationwide search for sports champion to grace the front of their cereal box. Though a champion, Kay did not make the cover.

The event is held each Labor Day weekend. Festivities for this 37th year kick off on Friday with a corporate cow chip toss and live entertainment. Saturday begins with 5k and 10k run/walks, with the proceeds going back into the community to fund charities, youth-centered activities, and college scholarships. The kids start off the cow chip throw in the morning and that is followed by the Tournament of Chips parade at noon. The rest of the day has activities for everyone — a fine arts and crafts fair, cow chip throws for all ages, a beer garden and food court, pedal tractor pulls for the kids, community displays, and three stages of entertainment including one that is specifically for children.

Cow chip deflectors are available at the event, should anything fly your way.

picking cow chips

chucking a chip

pedal pull seating

pedal pull contestant

pedal pull trophies

magician props

feeding sheep

livestock treats

saint vince

Jodi Anderson

Former Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton’s Path to Happiness

August 5, 2012

Former Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton’s path to happiness has been illuminated by physical and mental hurdles. 

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Dare to be happy as a child. Find your passion. These are Suzy Favor Hamilton’s much loved subjects of discussion. Passion has always come relatively trouble-free for Favor-Hamilton – one of the most decorated athletic competitors in the United States. A seven-time US National Champion, three-time Olympic contender, and winner of nine NCAA Titles, her slim, taut physique once adorned nationwide magazine covers and she had enjoyed never-ending fan support.

But being happy was an effort, a demand. In fact, it took her years to discover the secret of happiness. While she publicly maintained her intense focus and chipper deportment, even following a family heartbreak in 1999, when brother Dan committed suicide at age 37, inside she was fighting a serious conflict with depression.

Disaster hit its climax for Favor-Hamilton at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.  She collapsed on the track of the 1500- meter, an event she was predicted to perform well at. The root of the breakdown was the subject of euphoric speculation. Her illness became so dire at one point, that she even contemplated killing herself.

Suzy’s exercise concealed her depression and buried the underlying issues. At times she used exercise as an obsessive mode to dismiss or turn her back on what was really troubling her. She eventually sought corrective help and has vastly improved on medication. Ultimately, she learned that in order to make yourself happy you have to first love yourself.

“Being happy is a choice,” said Favor-Hamilton, 42. “We are so often the cause of our own suffering.” Now a popular motivational speaker, she explores the links between the words happiness and passion.

“I ask people often what their passion is,” continued Favor-Hamilton. “What’s interesting is that many people can’t answer that simple question. They have no answer. ‘What makes you excited about life?’ I ask. Passion takes soul-searching and some looking back to childhood.”

Passion, said Favor-Hamilton, is the ultimate reality of our being. It is both love and joy.

“Look deeper if you can’t find your passion,” said Favor-Hamilton. “To get to the bottom of depression, or hopelessness, or other issues, it takes examination from the outside, and confronting painful areas of life. We should talk about it, release it, and get rid of it, and not ignore it.”

Favor-Hamilton was born and raised in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. At college at the University of Wisconsin, she first established a reputation as one of the nation’s foremost middle-distance runners. Following graduation, Favor-Hamilton competed three times for the U.S. in the Olympic Games – 1992, 1996, and 2000 – and seven times in the U.S. National Championships. She once owned the U.S. record for the 1000-meter and the U.S. indoor record for the 800-meter.

Favor-Hamilton remains the only American woman to have the top seasonal 1500-meter time in the world (in 2000, she placed first in the world based on time, at 3:57.40.) and one of only two American women to have finished the 1,500-meter in less than four minutes.

After Favor-Hamilton ended her professional athletic career she was recruited by the marketing department for the UW Badgers to use her celebrity to promote collegiate athletics. Eight months later, she realized that many people were interested in the details of her own life story, and the exciting world of public speaking took root.

Motivational speaking has lifted Favor-Hamilton to the summit of happiness. Happiness constantly re-creates her. Happiness, she explains to audiences, is ordinary, it is human, and it is for everyone. Nonetheless, her quest for happiness hasn’t been without the help of strong perverseness of the mind.

“Growing up in the world of sports, you see the projected false image,” said Favor-Hamilton. “But I knew how unhappy, spoiled and mean some athletes were. Personally, I thought the gold medal would make the difference, somehow change the world. I am realizing that not having the medal opened doors in a healthier, better way. It has brought me honesty.”

The sunlight of happiness really is there in her eyes – she has not created it; she learnt that she could only let it in. Positivity has led her to transcendence. And she preaches that maintaining a negative attitude only prevents great accomplishments from coming.

“I try to only let in positive people and thoughts,” said Favor-Hamilton. “I have no control over the negative behaviors of others. What’s most important, I learned through my therapy how to change myself. That’s the greatest gift I can give my (four-year-old) daughter (Kylie).”

Favor-Hamilton, currently one of Madison, Wisconsin’s most successful realtors at Favor Hamilton Realty Group of First Weber, is open about her experiences, unguarded about her personal struggles, challenges, and faults. She hopes that somehow her suffering may lessen the suffering of others.

Ordinary happiness has brought Favor-Hamilton closer to the natural path of gratefulness. Life, she has proven, can offer new opportunities – provided you are willing to welcome them.

“I try to live life passionately for (my brother) Dan,” said Favor-Hamilton. “I wish I could have given him more love and support when he was here. But I can’t. But I can fight against the stigmas of depression and suicide, fight against those fears.”

Favor-Hamilton’s happiness not only nourishes a feeling of gratitude toward life but serves as a very important expression of her faith, hope and self-healing.

“Sharing who I am is therapy for me,” said Favor-Hamilton. “Happiness was always inside of me, but I had to dig deep down and find it. Now I share it.”

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of Menacing Face Worth Millions: A Life of Charles Bronson. For more about D’Ambrosio’s biography of the legendary screen actor: Menacing-Face-Worth-Millions

Choosing Change: Raw Green/Watercolor Workshop Part 2

July 20, 2012

Student painting watercolor inserts for handmade book. Lois Ehlert’s “Eating the Alphabet” used as inspiration.

“Find a way to be a benefit,” my son continually suggested, in response to my constant lament for the return of my lucrative career. I eventually took his advice. By combining years of nutritional research and even more years as a full-time artist, I developed the “Raw Green/Watercolor Workshop,” while applying for an after-school grant opportunity. Drawing upon my interest in watercolor painting, unrelenting enzyme research, and the science of healthy living, this workshop has potential as a universal benefit.

A girl and boy hammer nail holes into book spines.

A Book cover with student’s name and title.

In my previous post, “Choosing Change: Raw Green/Watercolor Workshop,” I described how one of the goals – to provide education about the important connection between raw food, enzymes, and great health – strongly connects to a newer goal – to make consuming raw green vegetables “fun.”  Smoothies, juices, and tasting with dips became sources of “fun.” In this post, art projects are presented as a “fun” way to become more familiar with raw foods.  One watercolor project, the handmade book,allows students to depict the artistic beauty of fruits and vegetables before tasting them. Then health benefits, researched and  printed on labels, are put into their books.

The “trump card”

For students, painting with watercolors can be as challenging as tasting raw green vegetables. They have to acknowledge and accept their beginner’s status. Offering fruit as a tasty “trump card” encourages persistence, especially when painting confidence wanes and students despair or “act out” as a cover up. Offering fruit as a reward, again a “trump card,” also encourages students to taste vegetables, especially raw green ones.

An unexpected outcome, of the workshop, was finding strategies to correct behavior problems. For example, in one class, a student became very frustrated. She first painted the required bright watercolors on a large sheet of paper and suddenly changed to wild erratic black strokes covering most of the colors. She loudly declared it “ugly.” I had instructed students to use the bright colors only. But I told her, “The black paint does not matter and “ugly” has nothing to do with anything.”

Nevertheless, she crumpled the painting, shot it in the wastepaper basket, and stormed out of the room. She eventually returned as we began our tasting session. She asked for more fruit. I requested that she retrieve the discarded drawing and proceed with the assignment to get more fruit and she complied. Luckily, the opportunity to taste raw vegetables, and especially the sweet fruits, helped her and many other students to focus and adjust their behavior.

The “Raw Green/Watercolor Workshop” is interdisciplinary. It incorporates biology, reading, writing, math, science, and visual arts, all while exploring composition, abstraction, page design, color theory, form, and foreground and background relationships in the handmade books.

Evelyn helping Maurice thread a needle.

Fine motor skills—such as painting, cutting folded pages, hammering nails (very loud, but they loved it), threading needles, gluing, and sewing book spines—are developed by various book construction activities. Once completed, the book becomes a resource to share with family and friends. Plus, until its pages are full, more benefits can be added. It reinforces the importance of consuming enzymes, a little known protein nutrient found in raw produce and destroyed by cooking food.

7 year-old Eugene’s book with strawberry and benefit label.

Enzymes can also be found in dried fruits and vegetables, raw nuts, uncooked grains, beans and other uncooked protein foods. Raw green vegetables are emphasized, because students, their teachers, and parents often refuse to eat them.

Combining visual art with tasting raw produce establishes a foundation to enhance creativity, develop self-confidence, and plant seeds for instituting and maintaining health. Consequently, the “Raw Green/Watercolor Workshop” fills in nutrition and art educational gaps, encourages future artists, develops art patrons, and promotes a healthy appetite for daily living.

“The Raw Green/Watercolor Workshop” was awarded a Milwaukee Public School Partnership for the Arts Grant. Matching community funds came from Alice’s Garden, Riverwest Artists Association, Walnut Way Conservation Corp, and Lena’s/Piggly Wiggly. For more information, please email me at or visit

– Evelyn Patricia Terry

Farewell To A Landmark

June 20, 2012

Building 200 in early 1945, with a giant flag on a towering flagpole in the front lot and banners marking awards for production flying nearby.

As far as historical landmarks go, Building 200 is among America’s homeliest. It’s a two-story barracks-like structure built for function with no attention paid to form beyond the basics of level, plumb and square. Anyone who has spent time on a military base in the years since World War II has seen buildings like it.

For exactly seventy years this month, Building 200 has stood off Highway 12 on the Sauk Prairie just down from the Barabo Hills. It was, until a couple of months ago, the headquarters of the United States Army at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant. Here the Army Corps of Engineers and the Army Ordnance Department supervised the work of the various civilian contractors who constructed and operated the plant since 1942.

Homely it is. Two stories of narrow office corridors in the shape of a rectangle with a cross corridor creating two open courtyards. Not that the weed-choked courtyards are decorative. They are merely a means to admit natural light to the inner row of offices. The exterior is a catalog of historical siding. Wooden clapboards in the 1940s covered by asbestoes sheathing in the 1950s covered by vinyl in the 2000s. The framing is entirely wood post and beam, instead of iron or steel, precious materials reserved for more strategically important purposes. Instead tthe Army used top-grade Pacific Coast fir, old growth lumber, hard to find today.

World War II was fought out of Building 200, so was the Korean conflict. From 1965 to 1975, the managers in Building 200 oversaw the production of propellant for the ammo discharged by the rifles, machine guns, artillery, and rockets fired by American troops at war in Southeast Asia. Pick a scene of combat from a Vietnam war movie, the only way most of us experienced that war. It’s more likely than not that, in the real war the movie imitates, the ammo fired in that scene was manufactured at Badger.

Just as importantly, Badger and Building 200 were part of the Cold War arsenal of the United States. When the communist governments in eastern Europe collapsed, when the Soviet Union dissolved, when China moved away from strict Maoism to whatever philosophy governs it today, they didn’t throw a party in Building 200, but they could have. Just as Badger was part of the victory in the relatively short World War II, it was part of the decades long grinding down of communism afterwards.

As a result, Badger worked itself out of its job. It was decommissioned in 1998 and Building 200 became headquarters for a massive effort to decontaminate over 5,000 acres of infrastructure, soil, groundwater and surface water in nearby Lake Wisconsin.

Much of that work is completed. The Army and its contractors no longer need the 66,000 square feet of office space in Building 200. The property itself has been transferred to the Wisconsin DNR and will become part of the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area. Efforts by preservationists to prevent the demolition of Building 200 and convert it to a visitor center/museum have attracted little support.

Demolition work has already begun. Seventy years ago, when Building 200 was first ready for occupancy, over 8,000 workers were swarming over the grounds beyond to complete the over 900 structures necessary to begin production as scheduled in January 1943.

Today, a handful of equipment operators will pull Building 200 down. It’s not an architectural masterpiece, about as far from a Calatrava or a Lloyd Wright as a building could be.

Let’s call it a landmark to transience, a reminder that the greatest of human achievements, like the humblest, are temporary.

Snapshots of Heritage

May 31, 2012

750 Seventh Street

Late last year, I heard the first murmurings of a substantial dry plate glass negative collection at the Sauk Prairie Area Historical Society, the majority of which had not yet been scanned, much less identified, nor entered into the museum’s records. Around that same time, Jody Kapp, director of development at SPAHS, procured a grant through Heritage Credit Union that enabled the development of an educational photographic program for elementary school children as well as the purchase of a new scanner, with which the century-old negatives could be digitally preserved.

Ochsner bird collection at Tripp Museum in Prairie du Sac

To kick off the program, half a dozen groups of second and fifth graders visited Tripp Museum this spring to learn about the history of photography. They were first introduced to several types of vintage photo processes and taught about composition. Afterwards, everyone had an opportunity to compose drawings, using what they had learned in the presentation, and to design a cyanotype, which developed outdoors and was then taken inside for a quick bath. These are now on display.

Children (and adults!) who visit this summer are invited to use one of the museum’s digital cameras to take photos, which can then be emailed to the photographer and may be posted to the historical society’s Facebook page. “Our goal is to not only help people understand the importance of photography in capturing the stories of a people,” says Jody, “but also to interest them in learning how to make their own well-thought-out compositions so they too can help preserve the people, places, and things that are important to them through photography.”

School kids working on cyanotype creations

In late March, I began working with fellow society members and volunteer archivists, Jack Berndt and Verlyn Mueller, helping to scan, identify, and catalog the vast glass negative collection. We have thus far archived 132 images and believe that there are approximately 300+ left. Some of the photos had been previously printed, and it was a great pleasure to realize that the society has the originals, while the majority have not really seen the light of day in more than a century. Farm scenes, newly-built houses, social venues, and landscape portraits are common themes, and it was certainly expected that those sorts of things would be uncovered. Less expected are what appears to be an 1899 trip to New Orleans, photos of photos, and touching memorials for deceased community members.

Many of these images have been printed and enlarged, and they are on display now through November 17 in the Mueller Gallery on the first floor. The entire collection, as it is unveiled, will be presented as a slideshow that you can see when visiting. The public is invited to help identify the people, places, and events depicted in the images. In conjunction with this exhibition, there are a variety of vintage cameras and photo-related equipment on display, such as an old US Army projector, several magic lanterns, varied types of photography, and much more.

Verlyn inspecting a dry plate glass negative

Tripp Museum is located at 565 Water Street in Prairie du Sac and generally open Fridays and Saturdays from 9 am – 1 pm, or throughout the week by appointment. Call 608.644.8444 or email ( for more information. While there, be sure to check out the Bradford Bison [Bison Occidentalis], on long-term loan from the University of Wisconsin Zoological Museum, which was discovered locally by then seven-year-old Joshua Bradford in 2005, and returned to SPAHS this year. There are also tickets available for the Bradford Bison Quilt Raffle, drawing to be held at the “Brunch with a Bison” community party on Sunday, July 1, 2012.

Ed Steuber gives a driving lesson near Prairie du Sac[Edna Graff and Edwin Steuber, Stella Carpenter and Leta Bernhard Stelter]

Jodi Anderson


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