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There is a growing body of research and hands-on work in the area of art-making, neighborhood development and community engagement.  In that vein, I wanted to share a story from Madison's 77 Square (by my journalistic compadre Lindsay Christians) about an innovative street art camp for teens.

The camp, run by Drew Garza and Scott Pauli (who have a local design business, Art & Sons) and co-conceptualized with Phil Busse, teaches kids cutting-edge skills in computer-aided graphic design, yet also uses old-fashioned paste-up techniques on the sides of local buildings.

At the same time the kids are building technical skills, they're expressing themselves and engaging with thorny social issues like racism and environmental damage--issues raised by the teens themselves, not foisted on them by adults.  As one of the kids quoted says, "Don't be scared. Just show yourself, be yourself."  To encourage people to seek out these works, an art "scavenger hunt" was organized.

The article, with accompanying video, is definitely worth a read.  Hats off to Busse, Garza and Pauli for designing such an intriguing program for teens, and to the City of Madison for helping support it through a BLINK! grant (small grants for temporary art projects).
August 19, 2011 9:37 AM | | Comments (1)
A friend in Ypsilanti, Mich., tipped me off to this post on a site called Model D by Sarah F. Cox.  In it, Cox, a former New Yorker who earned an MFA in design criticism, details the reasons for her move from NYC to Detroit.  A brief excerpt:

So it's onto the (erstwhile) Motor City and back to car life, where I'm hoping cheaper real estate and a growing creative community will make all the difference. While the cost of gas and carbon-footprint guilt loom, I've been won over by the arts. In Detroit, you can afford to do what you really want and will likely find a community of support rooting for you to succeed instead.

While I'm sure some may dismiss Cox as naive, I like her hopeful tone and her desire to be part of something positive and growing in a beleaguered city.  Cities are a lot like people:  they need someone to believe in them, and I think optimistic, creative young people moving to Detroit can only be a good thing.

As a former Michigander, I wish Cox well, and I'll stay tuned to see how things develop for her.  If you're so inclined, you can follow her on Twitter here.

Again, here's the link to Cox's post:  "Imported to Detroit"
August 9, 2011 2:25 PM | | Comments (1)
Today, at our lovely local Sundance cinema, I saw a film that really moved me:  the documentary "Bill Cunningham New York," about the longtime fashion photographer and commentator for The New York Times.  Cunningham's two photo columns sum up the highlights of New York street fashion and the gala set.

Though I've enjoyed his columns for years, I never knew much about Cunningham himself--though, in that respect, I'm not much different from most in the fashion world.  The film reveals Cunningham to be steadfastly private and governed by a deep sense of personal morality.  His egalitarian spirit and humility exist alongside sheer, exuberant joy in what he does.BCNY.jpg

I don't review films, but seeing this movie made me wish I had brought along my notebook; there were so many memorable observations from Cunningham that I wanted to remember.  Among them [to paraphrase]:  "Lots of people have taste, but few dare to be creative."  That fashion, rather than frivolity, is a kind of armor that makes our daily lives bearable.  And, perhaps most important, "Those who seek beauty will find it."

That last line, part of his remarks while accepting an honor from the French Ministry of Culture, seemed like the ultimate summation of Cunningham's approach to life.  Part of what appeals to me so much about Cunningham is, quite simply, attention:  his rapt attention to something that feeds his mind and his soul.  Nowadays, that's rare, due partly to omnipresent technology.

While at first Richard Press' documentary seems to have little to do with the subject of this blog--about the arts in smaller U.S. communities--it finally occurred to me that it does.  While every bit a creature of New York and a brilliant chronicler of urban life, Cunningham has an attitude that suits him well wherever he goes.  He doesn't assume that something bigger and grander will necessarily be more imaginative.  Something spotted on the street any given day might leave a more lasting impression than the latest couture show.

It's this kind of attitude that I think informs the work of artists, writers, actors and others living in smaller cities and towns.  Creativity and daring are not what someone else tells you they are; they're where you make it or find it, and sometimes that's in the most unlikely places.

If you have a chance to see this film, by all means, do, whether or not fashion interests you.  Cunningham's joy in his life's work is something from which we can all draw inspiration.

[Photo credit for image above:  First Thought Films / Zeitgeist Films]

June 30, 2011 9:00 PM | | Comments (0)

L.A., you're in for a treat.  Madison-based artist Jennifer Angus is currently exhibiting at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles.  Angus' show, "All Creatures Great and Small," runs through Sept. 11, 2011.  Her main medium?  Bugs, and lots of 'em.

Angus is one of a number of Wisconsin artists doing intriguing work that bridges art, science and the natural world (others include Martha Glowacki, whose long-running installation at the Milwaukee Art Museum, "Loca Miraculi / Rooms of Wonder," is a must-see.)

Angus, who teaches textile design at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is fascinated by patterns and the cultural meanings they convey.  As she told me in a 2007 interview for Isthmus, "Pattern is a sophisticated, wordless language which we understand regardless of learning or awareness."

Her unusual medium is beautiful, colorful, and walks a fine line between mesmerizing and repellent (at least for many of us raised in bug-phobic cultures).  She re-uses her specimens from one installation for the next.  This was my favorite quote from our chat:  "The bugs are very individual. I'll be putting a weevil on the wall [during an installation], and I'll be like, 'I remember you!'"

And here's an interview done with Angus by the Museum of Art and Design in New York in conjunction with the 2010 exhibition "Dead or Alive":

If you're near L.A., don't miss her show.

June 28, 2011 12:57 PM | | Comments (0)

Certain exhibitions have a way of staying with you for years, either through the sheer strength of the work, its interaction with your own life or psyche, or some confluence of the two.

A handful of shows have resonated with me so much that they have literally changed the course of my life.  One of those was in 1988 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.  I no longer recall the exact title, but it was a show of work by Milwaukee outsider artist Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983) that had been organized by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis.  It was deeply weird, visually provocative, and psychologically indelible.

At the time, I was a teenager from a small Michigan city who treasured sporadic visits to the museum while visiting my grandparents in Milwaukee.  As corny as it sounds, looking at this work helped me know that I wanted to look at, think about, and write about art in some way for the rest of my life, whether I did so professionally or informally.

It's hard to believe that Milwaukee show was 23 years ago.  Since that time, the standing of von Bruenchenhein (often referred to simply as "EVB") and outsider art have come a long way.  (In fact, as Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel art critic Mary Louise Schumacher astutely points out in her 2010 piece on EVB's changing fortunes, the term "outsider art" may no longer be the best moniker, since it overemphasizes biography at the expense of formal qualities.  "More than ever," wrote Schumacher, "his work stands on its own.")  A major exhibition of EVB's work remains on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York through Oct. 9, 2011.

I've had occasion to think of EVB again since he was posthumously awarded a Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award (WVALAA) this month.  The awards program is a joint venture of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, Wisconsin Visual Artists, and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

Aside from EVB, two more of the eight honorees were outsider artists (the late Fred Smith, whose "Concrete Park" is in Phillips, Wis.) and Tom Every, better known as Dr. Evermor, who still regales visitors at his fantastical, scrap-metal "Forevertron" near Baraboo.

I don't know what it is about Wisconsin, but the legacy of outsider and self-taught artists runs deep here.  That legacy continues to be a source of delight and wonder to Wisconsin residents, and it's one for which I, quite personally, will always be grateful.  Von Bruenchenhein's art bore into my imagination at a time when I was most receptive to it, and it helped ignite a wider-ranging, lifelong interest in art and visual culture.

May 25, 2011 3:12 PM | | Comments (1)
I've had my home state of Michigan on the brain quite a lot lately -- and it's not just because, as I sit nearly snow-bound in Madison, Wis., I'm wearing the same U of M sweatshirt I've had since 1987.  While the economy is dreadful across the U.S., Michigan got hit earlier and harder by this recession.

But rather than focus on gloom and doom, I want to think about what's next for Michigan.  How can it envision a better future?  A friend who works for the state's office of historic preservation turned me on to the site "Let's Save Michigan," which just did a blog post on the role that the arts play in creating cities people actually want to live in.

My brother, who lives in Ann Arbor (site of my alma mater), sent me a link to a PBS NewsHour segment with Ray Suarez on that city.  Suarez investigates what has made Ann Arbor more recession-proof than the rest of the state (though, as Ann Arbor's mayor points out, the recession can't be kept at bay indefinitely).

Not surprisingly, it's investment in education and technology--and being a place that people actually want to relocate to--that has helped Ann Arbor.  Suarez doesn't really delve into the cultural scene (the closest he gets is foodie paradise Zingerman's), but any A2 resident knows that a steady diet of concerts, films, exhibitions, etc. is part of the town's appeal.  You can live in a city of manageable size and still have plenty to do.  In my college days, I went to poetry readings, saw The Replacements and Billy Bragg, attended my first opera and saw performance artist Karen Finley (whose "We Keep Our Victims Ready" I still remember as ludicrous, for what it's worth).

Other good stuff in Michigan includes the "Kalamazoo Promise," a program funded by anonymous, private donors that offers paid college tuition to students who graduate from Kalamazoo public schools.  The benefit can be used at any of Michigan's state colleges and universities.

I don't have any answers for Michigan; I haven't lived there for 17 years, although I occasionally think about moving back.  But I'm glad there are smart people thinking about Michigan's future and ways to make it brighter.
December 9, 2009 2:07 PM | | Comments (0)
At long last, Madison, Wis., is poised to get a new central library branch.  Although the current building dates only to 1965, it's a pretty bleak, worn space.  I'm glad to see the city move ahead with this, especially in a tough economy.

But there's one aspect of the planning that's uncertain and quite troubling.  A mural by the regionalist Aaron Bohrod, a former WPA artist whose work was also featured in the pages of Life, Time and Look magazines, is in danger.  It's unclear if and how it will be preserved when the existing library is demolished.

For details, see Jay Rath's Nov. 13 article in Isthmus, "Will the Aaron Bohrod mural at the downtown Madison library survive?"  As Jay notes, a John Steuart Curry work elsewhere in town (on the UW campus) is being preserved amid construction.  Curry's gig as artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (in the College of Agriculture, no less) was the first time any university had set up such an arrangement.

It would be a great shame if, as Madison moves ahead with one worthy cultural goal, it lets another one--preserving our heritage--fall by the wayside.

Update added Dec. 2:

The Wisconsin State Journal reported last week that the city has hired a conservator to study ways the mural might be preserved.  For details, see Dean Mosiman's article from Nov. 26.
November 17, 2009 3:22 PM | | Comments (2)

Who couldn't use a little good news these days?  With that in mind, here's a smattering of positive arts news from Wisconsin, albeit an incomplete one.  Feel free to share your own good news in the comments area below.

  • The Milwaukee Ballet recently received a $1 million gift from the Dohmen Family Foundation, and its school has become fully accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance.
  • Spring Green's American Players Theatre, a classical repertory company, opened its second stage this year.  The 200-seat, indoor Touchstone Theatre now complements APT's main stage, a 1,148-seat outdoor amphitheater.  Ticket income for the 2009 season was up 1% over the previous year, despite a smaller patron base of just over 101,000 attendees.  Some Touchstone shows were so successful (like Jim DeVita's one-man show, an adaptation of Ian McKellen's Acting Shakespeare) that extra performances were added.
  • The Wisconsin Book Festival, which took place in Madison Oct. 7 to 11, was once again a splendid event.  Presenting authors ranged from Wisconsin residents with national profiles (Jane Hamilton, Lorrie Moore) to comix legends Harvey Pekar and Lynda Barry to thinkers like Wendell Berry.  Events are typically packed by grateful audiences--all events are offered to the public free of charge by our state humanities council.
  • While the Madison Repertory Theatre folded earlier this year--very sadly, in the midst of its fortieth anniversary season--new professional companies are starting up in an attempt to fill the void.  (While Madison has dozens of community theater companies, the Rep's closing left a hole in the professional sphere.)  One I'm excited about is Forward Theater Company, which will stage the first production of Christopher Durang's Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them outside of New York.  As Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Forward's artistic director, told me in a story for Isthmus, "We reached out to Chris Durang directly. He actually responded the next day and was really supportive. He said, 'Oh, I had heard about the [closing of the] Rep,' and he was really upset about it."  We need timely, provocative, professional theater here, and I'm glad there are people willing to fill that need.
October 29, 2009 10:53 AM | | Comments (3)

Using a box of Froot Loops and some Go-Gurt as props, Michael Pollan--looking natty in a sportcoat and tennis shoes--spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of about 7,000 people last week at the University of Wisconsin's Kohl Center.  Not too shabby for a weeknight author event.


Yet I wasn't surprised in the least by the turnout:  here in Wisconsin, food matters.  As Pollan noted, the state has been on the leading edge of current issues surrounding food, and he wasn't just trying to curry favor with us cheeseheads.  From farmers' markets to urban farming (like Will Allen's Growing Power) to CSAs to larger debates about food policy, people in Wisconsin care about food, even if we don't all agree on the best way to produce it.


As one of the speakers introducing Pollan noted, about 10% of Wisconsinites work in agriculture-related jobs.  While no one in my family farms anymore, my grandparents (now both deceased) raised hogs and Angus beef cattle.  My aunt and uncle ran a family dairy farm and still live on that land.  As for me, I don't even garden and hay makes me sneeze like you can't believe--but I'm truly proud of the farming my family members have done.  Farming is physically demanding and financially risky.  If you like to eat, you should appreciate what farmers do.


But back to Pollan:  part of what I appreciate about both his book and his talk at the UW is the way in which culture has not been left out of the equation.  In fact, one of the big drivers behind Pollan's Madison visit was the UW's Center for the Humanities.  I believe they had already lined him up as a speaker for their "Humanities without Boundaries" series even before the UW at large selected the splendid In Defense of Food:  An Eater's Manifesto as the inaugural book in its new "Go Big Read" campus-wide reading program.


Just as food is a big part of Wisconsin's economy, it's a major part of our cultural heritage.  It helps us define who we are, from grass-fed beef and wholesome CSA produce to the more indulgent side of things:  brats, cheese and local beer.  While Pollan may tick off some food scientists and nutritionists (two professions he has taken to task), he does underscore a simple and oft-forgotten message:  before we turned food into a medical and scientific minefield, it was simply a part of life.  Kudos to Pollan for being one of the voices reclaiming food's rightful place as a part of culture and daily pleasure.


Local visual artists have also engaged in food-related issues.  I still remember an excellent show the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters did on the theme of farming in 2007, "Wisconsin's People on the Land" (my review is archived here).  And, timed to coincide with Pollan's multi-day stint in Madison this month, the local artists' group artsTRIBE exhibited at this year's "Food for Thought" festival, which also featured Pollan.


While I've never been completely disconnected from my food, Pollan has inspired me to make the extra effort to buy local food more frequently and do "real" cooking more often.  (Yet I'll never, ever, give up the occasional donut; life would no longer be worth living.)  It's not just about me and my health or quality of life--it's about being invested in this place where I live, in many senses of that word.

September 29, 2009 12:39 PM | | Comments (0)

If you live in the Midwest--and especially if you live in Madison, Wis., as I do--one of the most curious things about following coverage of author Lorrie Moore is what that coverage reveals about attitudes towards this region.  Moore, whose long-awaited new novel just came out, has lived here since 1984, when she joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


I covered A Gate at the Stairs, the new novel, for this week's issue of Isthmus, Madison's alternative weekly, and this aspect of her critical reception is one topic I tried to address (with regard to her previous books).  In a nutshell, too many reviewers have cast her in the role of pithy, coastal intellectual trapped in a land of corn and slow-witted people.  (Just one example:  Ploughshares commented that "the predicaments of East Coast sophisticates landlocked in the Midwest" is a theme in her work, and implied it about Moore as well.)  This has become a cliché that Moore herself is tired of (see her quotes in my article).


It's that same sort of attitude that led my co-bloggers and I to somewhat sarcastically call this blog "Flyover"--so you can imagine my amusement when Michiko Kakutani wrote unironically in the New York Times that "[Moore] gives us bright, digital snapshots of flyover country where nearly every small town has a local Dairy Queen..." (something Kakutani apparently finds exotic and noteworthy). 


Jonathan Lethem's piece for the NYT also touches upon similar territory.  Rather puzzlingly, he wrote that "Moore's class diagnostics are so exact she can make us feel the uneasiness not only between town and country in a single landlocked state, but between different types of farmers on neighboring plots."  This comment tells me more about Lethem than Moore.


Lorrie Moore certainly has her laser-like descriptive gifts, but being able to distinguish in a work of fiction between a Madison-like college town and a rural community is not an extravagant feat.  The differences are obvious, as are the ones between a boutique farmer of gourmet potatoes and a big commercial operation.  Would Lethem be impressed if someone could tell the difference between a yuppie-ish college town in New York and an upstate farming community?  (I won't even get into Lethem's description of Wisconsin as "landlocked," but he might want to look at a map of the Great Lakes.)


For my part, I found A Gate at the Stairs problematic and not entirely satisfying, even though there are plenty of things to like about it.  Not only are the differences between the fictional towns of Troy and Dellacrosse obvious, they're on the verge of hardening into stereotypes (as I wrote in Isthmus, "we're left with fairly stereotypical impressions of a hick rural hamlet and a navel-gazing, lefty college town").  I also thought, as one example, that Tassie's inexperience with things as commonplace as Chinese food--especially given her worldly parents and growing up near a college town--was implausible.  Do these people never go anywhere?


It's great when a Wisconsin writer--and after 25 years here, I think Moore qualifies as such--is also a writer of national and international stature.  There are a number of outstanding people here:  Jane Hamilton, Michael Perry, kids' author Kevin Henkes.  Just don't look so surprised, OK?

September 4, 2009 2:18 PM | | Comments (8)

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