It’s gotta be in ya to do it

September 24, 2015

Wisconsin is well-known around the nation for a proliferation of roadside art. Many of the artists were self-taught, adding to the intrigue, if you will, of farmers and tavern keepers becoming artists because something inside them had to come out. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Statue.

Fred Smith owned a bar near Phillips, Wisconsin, and next to it he created one of the state’s most unique treasures, now known as the Wisconsin Concrete Park. Over the years Fred made more than 200 statues. I can’t imagine how many times people asked him why.

FoFS2015-3His answer seems simple: “It’s gotta be in ya to do it.” Clearly one could delve deeper than that, for the motivations must have involved heritage, history, patriotism, humor, local culture and scores of other reasons. (In those days bar owner Fred had a lot of glass bottles to get rid of.) For the visitor, the joy is not just the art – but wondering what the motivation was for any particular work.

Saturday, September 26, 2015 is a perfect day to visit the Concrete Park. The Friends of Fred Smith is hosting the Celebration of Arts in Action, a daylong event intended for……well, just about everybody.

Visitors who want to participate are offered an array of instant opportunities to create art in four different FoFS2015-1mediums: painting on a life-sized mural, glazing and firing raku pottery, decorating the park garage with mosaics, and painting open-air, postcard-sized landscapes. All open-air paintings completed at the park are eligible for entry into the competition for cash prizes. Judging starts at 4 p.m. and awards are given thereafter. All materials for each medium will be provided. That’s a pretty neat deal!

The event runs from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. There will also be a quilt display, live music by the Highland Bluegrass Band, an auction and great food make this a wonderful event for the entire family. I bet kids will love it. If you’re a parent with a carload you know how important that is.

What was going through Fred's mind?

What was going through Fred’s mind?

But back to Fred and the others who seemed to come out of nowhere to create these places. When you visit the Concrete Park take some time to really look at the statues. (My kids love the skunks in the back.) Dedications to soldiers and depictions of country life are more obvious, but other pieces really get a person thinking.

And if you’re more ambitious a lot of information about Fred and other Wisconsin environment builders is just a search engine or a visit to your library away. A good place to start is the Kohler Foundation web site.

The Wisconsin Concrete Park is a Wandering Wisconsin Roadside Art Experience and one of five special art environments hosting a Plein Air Painting event this year.

Wandering Wisconsin is group of nine art environment steward organizations. And I would be remiss not to thank a wonderful public/private partnership for their support of all the events, so a tip of the hat goes to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism and the Kohler Foundation.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI (Pop. 288)


What high school kids want

September 4, 2013
Students in the Overture Center during High School Friday 2012. Photo by Jessica Becker

Students in the Overture Center during High School Friday 2012. Photo by Jessica Becker

“The first reason why I chose to go on this field trip was to miss school. When I got there, I discovered it was actually super interesting.” So said a 16 year-old high school student in reflecting on her day at High School Friday during the Wisconsin Book Festival.

This year is the third year the Wisconsin Humanities Council, where I work, is sponsoring a free day of programs for high school students at the Wisconsin Book Festival. One hundred and fifty kids will come to downtown Madison on Friday, October 18 for this incredible opportunity to engage in the civic and cultural life of our city. Authors, journalists, poets, multi-media artists, and spoken word artists are bringing their stories and real-world experiences together for a groovy day of exchange, exposure, and memory-making.

The day provides an eclectic mix of voices, perspectives, and ideas that will be thought-provoking and inspiring. I can promise that some of the things said, heard, and seen, will stick in some of those kids’ heads and push them in new, and positive, directions. Humanities experiences make an impact, though the effect tends to ripple and roll and reach into unplanned nooks and crannies of the mind.

We all know that what sticks in one person’s head is not what is going to stick in another person’s head.  Impact is uneven and unpredictable. Some moments, some books, some teachers, some students, and some experiences end up having more impact than others. And that is perhaps the one TRUTH about education.

“The Romans didn’t let people study the humanities, not the people they had conquered. You know that, right?” my husband asked me the other night, out of the blue.

He is one of the most well-rounded, well-read analytical chemists you’d care to meet.  Amazingly, he still remembers so much of what he learned in high school.

He and I proceeded to talk about how the study of philosophy, ethics, and history would be kept from those they wanted to keep subservient for obvious reasons. An educated citizen is a more powerful one, more inclined toward big ideas, more likely to sway opinions, more prepared for leadership roles.

I married a chemist though I somehow got through high school without taking a chemistry class (He is responsible for pouring things in our house!).  I opted instead for languages, art classes, and uncommon experiences. I don’t really remember (m)any of the facts I surely must have encountered along the way, but I grew up to be a true humanist. The humanities in the real world means being intrigued by difference, looking for ways to connect ideas, being curious to hear other perspectives, and staying wary of any fact out of context.

I value those skills and wish them for teens and everyone.

As we crafted the schedule for the annual High School Friday, we were well aware of the Standards that  high school teachers must use to shape their lesson plans. Specifically, the Social and Emotional Learning Standards for grades 9-12:

Respect Others: Students will identify positive ways to express understanding of differing perspectives and use conversational skills to determine the perspectives of others.

Civic Responsibility: Students will evaluate the impact of their involvement as agents of positive change and analyze their responsibilities as positive agents of change in a democratic society.

Yes, bring on the humanities. And the Wisconsin Book Festival! October 17-20, four full days of conversation, inspiration, and opportunity to participate in civil society!

The schedule for High School Friday includes hip-hop and spoken word performers from the UW-Madison First Wave program, female sportscaster and author Jessie Garcia, the dynamic trio of artists/librarians/authors from “The Library as Incubator” project, blog, and book, and multi-media experts from the Madison Public Library media lab. Every participant will go home with a library card and knowledge about how to make the public library a source of continued inspiration, access, and power.

Please contact me by October 1, 2013 if you know some high school students from the Madison area who would like to attend!

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council


The meaning of life

July 22, 2013
Prairie Flowers

The Heart of the Matter” report riffs off recent attention given to STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Math) by saying the humanities are the bloom on the stem. Photo by Jessica Becker (via Instagram and facebook)

The humanities world is talking about a new report, released by The Academy of Arts & Sciences, calling attention to the importance of the humanities in 2013. I already believe the humanities are important, but it’s still nice to read editorials and listen to radio talk shows that bring together people who have done the research and given a lot of thought to these things. Like, how many people are working toward humanities degrees (only 7% according to David Brook’s NYTimes piece), what employers are looking for (curiosity, creativity, humility…), and how a humanistic approach is understood to be critical for countries working their way into first-world nation status (like China and Russia). If you don’t have time to read the report itself, there is a 7 minute video here, and after reading Mary Rizzo’s commentary suggesting the new report sounds a lot like the 1964 version, I guess I’d recommend the short-form.

Many of us would prefer the quick version. I mean, who has time for the full report? That reality has me thinking about how things have changed since 1964. I’m thinking of blogs, instagram, pinterest, twitter, tumblr, flikr and, yes, facebook.  I believe people are by nature humanists and we modern humans are on over-drive to keep up with the speed at which our world is spinning. Isn’t it all a huge humanities endeavor? Looking through my facebook newsreel today, I find people:

-reflecting on issues (“These photos are so fascinating and sad at the same time.” responding to the modern ruins in Detroit)

-reminding themselves and others to celebrate the richness of life (“First cherry tomatoes of the season will be in tomorrow’s lunchboxes.”)

-encouraging conversation around ideas (“in case you missed it, an article on what the brain can tell us about art.”).

-building community (A link to  “The City Paper” on Borracho’s new record! “We’re celebrating tonight at RnR Hotel. Come rock with us!”)

-and searching for meaning in the mundane (“This morning, as I’m trying to work at home, all I’ve heard is, “When I get my blog, I’m totally going to write about how you never change your underwear.” “When I get MY blog I’m going to post a picture of you crying like a baby.”)

I could go on, but it’s hard to look at my newsreel without getting sucked in. There is so much to comment on, share, and follow.

“The humanities” are, quite simply, the different ways we as humans have come up with for looking at the world and making meaning of it. The humanities are studied in academic disciplines (like philosophy, literature, linguistics, art history, folklore, anthropology, and history), and the report encourages folks to remember that the distinctions we have more recently (in historical time) made between the sciences, arts, and humanities are detrimental to both a real education and getting a job.

Less public money is being directed toward “the humanities” and that has a lot of us worried since how we spend our money indicates what we value.  However, I have no fear that our search for the meaning of life will wither and die. I see it everywhere in all that we do.

I’m worried that we’ll all drown in our ongoing, non-stop chatter into the e-niverse about how meaningful every little thing is and we’ll forget how to sit still, grow bored, and wonder if life is, actually, meaningless.

The wondering, I know, is worthy.

by Jessica Becker (why not follow me on Instagram?)
Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

Instagram


Doing it for the kids

June 19, 2013
Wayne Valliere, packing canoe bark out of the birch forest, in the summer of 2012. Photo by Tim Frandy

Wayne Valliere, packing canoe bark out of the birch forest. Photo by Tim Frandy 2012

I am really concerned that kids are not getting useful and appropriate educations based on what we know to be useful and appropriate ways to educate kids. Research shows all sorts of things, and yet schools systems do other things. There are so many examples I dare not go into it (and so many reasons why, the road-blocks to change sometimes feel insurmountable). Happily, I know there are independent and creative thinkers who are working their butts off to add opportunities for meaningful and transformative experiences to the lives of youth.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council, where I work, has seven grant rounds every year. I am so proud of the projects we fund and also proud that a good number of them are designed to enrich humanities education for the youth of Wisconsin.

For example, a project called “These Canoes Carry Culture” awarded to the Goodman Community Center. This collaborative effort makes it possible for an Ojibwe artist, culture bearer and language teacher named Wayne Valliere to work side-by-side with a small group of young people from Madison and Lac du Flambeau to build a birch bark canoe. They will build it from scratch, making trips to gather materials from the particular forests and fields where the particular materials grow at a particular time of year. The kids will have time to talk to each other about what it is like to live in the city, or live on a reservation, while they are learning a disciplined craft and dying art from a master. They will read and discuss history and language and tradition, but not in a formal classroom with tests and grades. Instead, they’ll be exchanging ideas as they create, ultimately, a boat that will be on display in the new Dejope student dorm on campus.  The project brings together educators from community centers and academics from many departments at UW. It will be documented in a film and hopefully serve as a model for future community-university-folk artist partnerships. All wonderful and admirable. What most excites me is remembering what it was like to be a teenager and projecting what I imagine will be a life-altering experience for the kids involved. I believe this project will influence how these kids see the world and themselves in it, for the better.

Another inspired effort comes from Arts @ Large, a non-profit that works from within the Milwaukee School District to create “arts-infused learning.” They are responding to serious issues and producing serious outcomes that are student-led and student-centric. They have recently partnered with a group called Serve2Unite and together are creating student chapters of the organization dedicated to spreading peace through understanding, tolerance and, education.  Serve2Unite was formed after the tragedy in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on August 5, 2012 where a gunman walked into a Sikh Temple opened fire, killing six members of the 400-person congregation.  They work to fight hate in the form of bullying and other violent crimes. Arts @ Large Serve2Unite chapters will research and develop service projects so that students learn, through doing, how to be agents of change, and social wellness, in their own families an communities. I heard some of the kids who have been involved in past Arts @ Large efforts speak recently and was impressed. Here, too, I see an example of how teenagers are treated as human beings with value, life experiences, and skills to bring to the table.

We know that kids, and more immediately teenagers, are the future leaders of the world. I’m excited about projects and places where they get to shine, speak up, hone skills, teach and learn from each other, and find meaning in their lives. I want that for my kids and all the kids, everywhere.

Read more about projects funded by the Wisconsin Humanities Council here.

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council


A chicken crosses the road

May 31, 2013
Chickens in Nyanga

Chickens in Nyanga, South Africa. Photo by Jessica Becker

“In spite of my grandmother’s careful tutelage, I have long forgotten how to tat, and to that skill loss, I say good riddance. There is a reason that the French word for tatting is derived from frivolite. But how far down this road of incapableness am I willing to travel?”

-Sandra Steingraber, ORION Magazine Jan/Feb 2009

There was an exhibition called “Vital Skills” at the Watrous Gallery in Madison that probed this question. I found myself returning to walk through the collection several times and then thinking about what skills I personally value, and possess. What seems most crucial for my children to learn, either from me or others? It’s not hard to imagine a world they might live in as adults, but it’s bound to be different than I could ever predict.

Often on travels outside the U.S. I am struck by the fact that people seem, by nature or necessity, more resourceful than I am. It’s not that I don’t have some talents, but as a 21st century American, I honestly count knowing how to tie shoes as a skill I intend to pass on to my daughters. I’ll have to be deliberate about it! Velcro and crocs are sending the old bow-knot the way of lace-making and chicken-butchering.

Years back, after a trip to Cuba, where chickens run free and many were killed expressly for me to eat, I felt particularly inept. The urban-chicken movement was taking off and I jumped on the bandwagon. I bought four teenage layers from a farm outside of the city and tried to acclimate them to an urban setting. My neighbors, a sales and repair shop for lawn mowers, were loud and made the birds skittish. The birds themselves made me skittish—I never got good at catching them with my hands—and more than once I wished I’d had more of a 4-h education.

My dad, who grew up on a farm, came to visit and helped me chase chickens that had escaped and were trying to cross the road. He took me to private language lessons and coached my baseball team but didn’t teach me much about poultry.

Man with chickens in India

Man with his chickens in India. Photo by Jessica Becker

Eventually I decided to have the chickens butchered as I wasn’t getting many eggs. The entire experiment was celebrated with a closing feast of chicken tortilla soup.

That was not even ten years ago. Backyard chickens were the gateway drug and now neighbors and friends are trying out bees, goats, and more. These are folks with no personal background with farm life, just the idea that they want to know how to do stuff. I think it’s because we want to feel resourceful.

Ultimately, I don’t think the details matter as much as the attitude. Thinking again of the exhibition of beautiful hand-made brooms and skillfully designed blown glass, I suspect that teaching my kids to tie their shoes might be more about slowing down to learn a skill rather than because tied shoes are going to serve them better than slip-ons in the future.

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council

Vital Skills was supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin.


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


Warren Nelson is Back

August 3, 2012

I think that is it. That’s all that needs to be written for this entire blog…..Warren Nelson is back and back in a big way!!!

Okay, perhaps I should explain myself a little more. Last night I ventured again to the Big Top in Bayfield for my volunteer duties. I had my fingers crossed that this was going to be a good show despite the fact that Dairy Queen would not be open in Washburn and my game would therefore be “off”. Oh, I was far from disappointed.

For those of you who do not know of Warren Nelson, you have missed an icon over the years. He is a musician but so much more. He is the man under the big top. He reminds me of the barker at the circus. I’m not exactly sure why – the mustache, the exuberance for all he does, the knowledge he imparts as the weaves a tale and draws you in. No, I’m not sure what it is but that doesn’t really much matter. What matters is how he makes you feel. I know Warren from watching his shows over the past decade or more that I have been in the area – Riding the Wind, Keepers of the Light, Wild River, Take it to the Lake. The list goes on and on. But Warren has been gone the past two years and so has the Lost Nation String Band and Don Pavel. At the same time Warren left, so did the stage manager, Lisa Sandholm, and Chris her sidekick. I don’t know how many shows I watched from back stage with these two as I guarded the back stage door, but the Big Top hasn’t been quite the same without them.

Last night, however the stars aligned. Last night Warren Nelson was back with a new musical called Play Ball. It was Warren at his best. He brought back Lisa and Chris. He filled the band with musical friends and the mixture was magical. The audience was blessed with two hours of story telling, rousing musical numbers, audience participation, and incredible visuals (photographs and news clips). At the end of the night, a standing ovation was palpable before it occurred. It wasn’t a standing ovation out of habit or because “isn’t that what you’re suppose to do” it was a heartfelt showing of appreciation for a job more than well-done.

Bottom line: Warren Nelson is back and at the top of his game. Play Ball is fabulous and well worth traveling to see. Unfortunately it is only at Big Top Chautauqua one more night….tonight. However if you have a PAC (performing arts center) and Warren is willing to bring the show to you….snap it up fast. Don’t miss the opportunity. You will not be disappointed.

Oh, and Warren, congratulations!!!!!!

-Dayle Quigley