Portal Hawthorne

May 29, 2012

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:



Wright’s Style

November 30, 2011

In early November the Lake Geneva Regional News reported that the local library had installed two original windows from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lake Geneva Hotel. The setting is fitting since the library, which opened in 1954, was designed by Wright apprentice James Dresser, the subject of a post to this blog earlier this year.

The hotel in Lake Geneva was one of only a handful of Wright hotels that was constructed.

An early image of the Lake Geneva Hotel (Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 36456)

In this instance, the commission came in 1911 from Arthur Richards and John Williams. Richards had also engaged Wright to design a hotel for Madison (not built) and would, within a few years, launch his American System Built House project with Wright. A number of these structures still stand, including a row of six houses and duplexes on the south side of Milwaukee.

The Lake Geneva Hotel opened in 1912 and financial problems soon arose. It held on for nearly 60 years through various owners and at least one name change, to the Hotel Geneva, before being demolished in 1970.

In the world of Wright, however, that is rarely the end of the story.

A night light using the window design from the Lake Geneva Hotel

Even Wright’s demolished work lives on through merchandising. So while the Lake Geneva Library is fortunate to have original windows from the hotel, you can buy the window design on a table clock, night light, magazine rack or doormat.

The commodification of Wright and his work has been going on for several decades and I confess to having some Wright tchotchkes of my own. The upsides are exposing a wider audience to Wright’s work and generating income, through licensing, for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The downside is reducing Wright to a mere stylist. He is so much more and we are fortunate to have a rich array of his  buildings in Wisconsin to help remind us.


Roadside Chats: Martha Downs, Woodworker: Black Earth, WI

December 2, 2010

By Brian D’Ambrosio

On a cold, austere-feeling weekday morning, Martha Downs studiously saws, styles, and sculpts wood to fit the full scope of her imagination.  In the chalky calmness of her Black Earth shop, trailed around by an old, sawdust covered dog, she harmoniously works in an earnest, thoughtful quiet.

“My shop gives shape and form to my thoughts,” says Downs, a lean, witty, experienced craftsperson, most comfortable wearing torn dungarees, ankle deep in sandy surroundings.  “I walk the fine line between being a tradesperson who has a job to do and an artist who creates and interprets and has visions, I think I’m somewhere in between.  It’s not totally important to me that what I’m building isn’t my vision,  I’ll influence it, and balance its aesthetic elements. “

Here, Downs designs and builds durable tables, shelving, headboards, cabinetry, beds, and doors. Her pieces mainly come commissioned with her clients’ tastes and ideas in mind, or she often accepts referral work from contractors.  She is the brains, boss, and brawn at Downs Woodworking, the theorist, the captain, the follower, the artist, and the quality control specialist.

“Things do not leave the shop until I am satisfied,” says Downs. “Sometimes I’ll try materials out on myself first, and I spend any quiet periods I have between projects poking around, experimenting with wood.”

When possible Downs sources local wood, primarily walnut from Mount Horeb, and utilizes local materials. Multitasking, though, is a skill best left for those pushing pencils in their cubicle nations, not something that feels natural for an invested woodworker like Downs, for she can only exert her energies on one piece at a time.

“I don’t like working on multiple pieces at once,” says Downs.  “When I’m working I do have ideas in mind for other projects, but I prefer to focus.  My average day is spent in the shop working; I’m not much of a nighttime worker. “

Stylistically, Downs draws heavily from Scandinavian and American mid century modern design influences, spending whatever down time she has brushing up on the various technical aspects of woodworking, furniture building, and workshop management.

Population 1,320, the village of Black Earth, boasts rich soil, thawed glacier beds, wavy pastures, a restored train depot, a five star supper club, and some fine trout fishing. Undulating and pastoral, a drive through the countryside here is indeed inspirational. Alas, it can also be a bit isolating for a lone commercially active cabinetmaker, especially when she is searching for some conversation.

“I’m away from everybody so I don’t get a lot of input,” smiles Downs, who has lived in Black Earth for five plus years. “There’s nobody to talk to near the water cooler. I have to search for input. But you know, I’ve had plenty of other so-called normal jobs in my life, working for other people, and that type of work lacks too many other things for me.”

As a woodworker, it is always tough to break through the clutter of competition, and it is a heck of a lot tougher still, for Downs, when it comes to debunking the cherished concept of American Big-Box-addicts that all custom furniture pieces are too expensive, or, perhaps worse, too elitist.  It seems we have conditioned ourselves to forsake genuine quality in favor of lesser cost, shun heirloom preciousness in favor of expendably poor, mass-produced purchases, and eschew those generational keepsakes built by our neighbors for cold, austere disposable items, shipped from the dimmest corners of the earth.

“The assumption usually is that it is going to be too costly,” says Downs, a former wine consultant, with a college background in sociology and history, who has worked with wood for more than twenty-five years. “But the truth is, my expenses are high, between the shop, material investments, rent, and liability insurance, I can’t afford to be cheap. And the perception exists that custom is unaffordable, yet people spend a lot or the same amount on similar pieces that come out of factories.

“I make things for those who want something long lasting,” she continues, “and who are proud to have it. In the end, a custom piece of furniture needs to make sense. It should be well built, thorough, and something the owner can take pride in. “

Indeed, upon examination of Downs’ work, it is easy to see custom furniture building as something steeped in the management and practice of nuance.  That she has honed her hand skills with planes and chisels, developed an eye for delicate curves, and has a sixth sense of what a prospective customer may want, is clear. Uniqueness results from these subtleties. A subdued arch or dimension here, or a tiny variation or characteristic added there – these refinements accentuate unique furniture. It is sort of like having a unique copy of an ancient manuscript, but, well, much bigger, and with a utilitarian bent.

Notwithstanding the benefits of sui generis labor, it can still be most taxing for autonomous artisans such as Downs to market, or exploit, the rich depths of their creativities and talents.

“I probably don’t do enough to make myself known,” says Downs, then adding, “I believe that it’s best for me to communicate through the emotive nature of my work.”

To read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s Wisconsin travel, history, artist profiles, and roadside conversations.

Park It — in Milwaukee

November 1, 2010

A friend and I visited the Milwaukee Art Museum on Saturday and arrived in style by parking in the garage beneath the Calatrava building. The fees are a bit extravagant, yet so is the garage itself. It shares the same robust, engineered skeleton as the art spaces upstairs. MAM garageSwooping arches are anchored by bog bolts and the whole space, when unoccupied, is shades of white, with natural light filtering in from clerestory windows tucked along the upper edges of the outer walls. It is the best temporary home my car has ever known.

I found myself equally taken by a park inside the building.

Downstairs in the older 1975 building is a “chair park” where visitors are invited to try out a collection of chairs from a simple Windsor chair and Chippendale side chair to 20th century seating by star designers including Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, Gerrit Reitveld and Philippe Starck.

Though I’ve been past the chair park before, this time my friend and I took up the invitation to sit.

So did four others who were visiting the museum and we quickly started talking about which we liked and which we didn’t, which were comfortable and which were impossible.

Panton S chair

The S Chair by Verner Panton

It was the kind of free-wheeling exchange you’d never get in a gallery where whispers are the norm and no touching is allowed. And each of us had a direct connection, quite literally, with each chair we sampled. You sit and it either works or it doesn’t. Individual comfort rules. Theory and history are irrelevant.

Several of the chairs were in the galleries, including a couple in the European Design Since 1985 exhibition currently on display in the Calatrava building. There I could admire them as objects of desire and design.

By the way, the Wright reproduction in the chair park, his Peacock Chair for the Imperial Hotel, was quite comfortable, thus belying a frequent complaint about his furniture. Also high on my list was Verner Panton’s S Chair and the generous Chippendale. The big loser? Reitveld’s Berlin chair, better in the abstract than the real world of “parking it.”

–Michael Bridgeman