Artful living opportunities are all around us. We just have to own it, collaborate wisely and see the possibilities together.
When passion meets opportunity, it’s a beautiful thing. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one feeling the arts renaissance happening in our corner of the world. It really is a feeling, something that goes beyond just seeing art in the making. It’s palpable. That being said, it takes commitment and hard work to get ideas off the ground. Fortunately, we have what it takes here in remarkable abundance.
By transforming empty spaces into multi-sensory, interactive art experiences across diverse mediums, new ripples of life flow into all of our lives.
As a curator, I try to make the gap between the real world and the art world as small as possible. I see art as a tremendously powerful connecting force. A month-long community art experience that took place at the Grand Kakalin called “Take Me to the River” (TMTTR) proved that truth in countless ways. TMTTR started as a dream to bring unexpected art into unexpected or unused places. By transforming empty spaces into multi-sensory, interactive art experiences across diverse mediums, new ripples of life flow into all of our lives.
My Fox Cities art + placemaking dream started with a strong motivation to seek out available venues to show the art of various local artists who were flying under the radar. There are pools of talented, aspiring artists out there with amazing stuff hidden away in their attics, basements, garages, home studios and brains. I wanted more of this humanity to be revealed in an approachable way.
Art is intimate, personal and emotional. And so was the TMTTR exhibit. More than once I described it as the most spiritual thing I had ever done. I’m still in a bit of a cloud just thinking about all that transpired.
More than 40 visual artists shared their creative expression throughout the month-long exhibit, which was often referred to as magical by those involved. Beyond paintings, drawings, photos and sculptures, artists of all kinds contributed to the living, breathing showpiece which was ultimately a collective exhibit experience of visual art galleries, live music, audio art, photography, performing art, storytelling, writing, poetry, hair and makeup, fashion, film, interactive projection mapping, and culinary art. Artists also contributed volunteer time in lieu of fees, and many gave beyond that, donating easels (thank you, Michelle Richeson!), refreshments and more. A co-op spirit naturally sprung forth.
Here’s a little bit of the history of how it came to be and some cool stuff that happened along the way.
I met Randy Stadtmueller for the first time in early September during a tour of the raw, industrial basement of the old Thilmany paper mill. I pitched my idea to transform the 11,000-square-foot riverside space and was amazed he said YES. Randy also generously provided the space at no cost for a month, covered the insurance, installed extra lighting and more.
From there, I was out of the gate with little time to spare. I immediately reached out to a variety of creative circles and every artist organization I knew. I put out a plea for artists to submit for consideration in the exhibit by October 1. The response was so overwhelming I needed to start a waiting list. The initial artist lineup was created, a diagram was drafted and the curating process began to unfold.
We had a month to plan, prepare and eventually install the art so doors could open early November. Ambitious, yes. Impossible, no. This is the Fox Cities, after all… we know how to collaborate and get things done.
The Heart of the Valley Chamber was next to join the effort, stepping up as non-profit fiscal agent. The Bank of Kaukauna (which hosts a must-see, world-class art exhibit inside their doors) subsequently came on board as a sponsor, providing funding for special programs throughout the exhibition. A much appreciated live watercolor demo with art icon Lee “Rusty” Mothes would not have been possible without their support.
Many other in-kind donations flowed in from there, both individual supporters and local businesses stepping up in myriad ways to show their community support. Gratitude abounds for each gesture of kindness shown to our “family of artists.”
The real magic happens when people make, share and experience art together. From my experience, the most rewarding art exchanges are centered around the sharing of ourselves via stories. This is best done amid art you can see up close and personal. It’s all about making connections, engaging one another and building relationships.
Some personal highlights and special memories:
- Opening night drew an estimated 700 people. Cars were lined up in the Grand Kakalin parking lot. We ran out of wine, beer and toilet paper! Not only did people discover new art and artists, they also saw Kaukauna in a new light.
- Graham Washatka’s smushy glass-face photography project was a huge, all-ages hit on opening night. It was interesting to find out later that while working at Thilmany years ago, Graham’s grandfather fell through a floor hole while in his chair and landed exactly where Graham had his makeshift studio set up. You can’t make this stuff up!
- Being granted the great honor of wearing one of David Forest Aragon’s colorfully painted jumpsuits for the opening night celebration. I loved being a virtual, walking and talking part of his “Water” installation.
- Observing the poignant unfolding of young writer Malik High who shared his emotional poetry publicly for the first time during TMTTR.
- Witnessing DaveRazor‘s “light corner” opening night, which featured philosophy-infused interactive projection mapping.
- Being contacted by Mr. Marbles, a wickedly irreverent English artist whose prints hang in the living rooms and boudoirs of celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Diane Louise Jordan, and Kris Akabusi. While he resides in the UK, the “man of mystery” somehow found out about our event through the “virtual grapevine” and graciously offered to design (gratis!) a custom collage poster to help promote the exhibit. “If I was over the pond I’d be getting involved,” said our new supporter and friend. The admitted cynic has won our hearts and is promising to send more stuff our way for upcoming exhibits.
- Building a special new friendship with photographer Mark Ferrell who volunteered at the greeter table with me every day. Beyond that, Mark took it upon himself to mentor a group of young emerging artists (ages 16-20) who put up their own installations in our emerging artist corner. This effort will happily be continuing at The Draw and I can’t wait to see where it leads.
- Observing peaceful vinyasa flow and guided river meditation throughout the month by Jessica Haessly of Yoga Story, whose on-site temporary studio was intentionally placed over a hole in the concrete floor that was covered by a large metal cover. If all was quiet and you listened closely, you could hear the river running beneath.
- Finding a way to get artist Amanda “Manny” Kaladic into the show. She had been working in the building prior and saw it as an artist’s dream venue. I found out about her love and appreciation for the historic space well after the deadline to submit but was determined to find a space for her. Together we made it happen and she worked that space with grace, passion and exemplary professionalism. “Rudy of the Art Gallery” shined brightly and I now have three of her framed abstract photographs on my wall at home.
- Tearing up with emotion every time I walked past Patt Huss’s signature “Take Me to the River” painting. I wasn’t the only one moved by the remarkably evocative piece. It paid homage to the layers of stories about the indigenous people here before us in whose riverbed footsteps we follow today. This piece now graces my home, a surprise gift from my partner Jeff.
- Hearing about a plein air painter showing up unexpectedly outside The Bank of Kaukauna. Bank staff attributed this unexpected occurrence to the spirit in the air created by TMTTR.
- Joanna Dane’s Full Moon Band “Supermoon Improv” night in the TMTTR gallery. Fortunately, the joie de vivre was captured via the photography art of inspired observer Mark Ferrell.
- Watching the look on kids’ faces while Troy Landwehr did his live cheese carving magic opening night, courtesy of our ‘Big Cheese’ sponsor, John Huss Custom Homes. Every waterfall should spray off golden slivers of creamy Wisconsin cheddar!
- The City of Kaukauna being so enthused about the exhibit that they rented a trolley car to bring Appleton Downtown Creative Placemakers there for a special field trip. This is what community partnership looks like!
- Doing an impulsive post-election smudging in the gallery with some dried sage artist Chad Brady left on the windowsill by his “Water is Life” installation overlooking the river. A small group of us walked together in unison softly chanting “Just Love!” as we symbolically “smoked out” negative energy with our collective hope for a better future.
- Meeting so many diverse artists from near and far, many whom brought their artist portfolios in for us to see! Several are now interested in participating in upcoming exhibits.
- Unexpectedly receiving some deeply meaningful gifts from dear friends. I’ll never forget when artist John Nebel said “You DID it!” opening night. He let me pick a paint-splattered, timeworn clothespin from a fan of them he presented for choosing. I also cherish a handmade notebook given to me by my friend Courtenay Lace, a nature centerpiece created by Keevie Bremhorst, and an incredible “vision rock” gifted to me by Marni Mahoney. Each of these items has a special place on my desk at home and make me smile every time I see them.
Contributions beyond the actual art installations were perhaps the most profound. These being personal gifts of shared time, stories, collaborations, mentoring, dreaming. Being there for a month allowed relationships to develop that were incredibly beautiful and uplifting.
Diverse meanings and voices find a place in settings where all feel safe, validated and respected. Creating meaningful opportunities to connect and share our humanity can change things for the positive.
If we make the time to fully engage all our senses with what is before us and who is among us, profound things happen. Art is also about being vulnerable and creating discussion. Diverse meanings and voices find a place in settings where all feel safe, validated, and respected. Creating meaningful opportunities to connect and share our humanity can change things for the positive. If art moves something in people’s minds and hearts, progress is in motion.
The next scheduled exhibit will take place January 13-20 at Rock Garden Studio in Appleton. The theme is “Let it Flow” and will spotlight a chorus of diverse artist voices, both local and abroad. It will be a breakdown of confining labels in lieu of free expression of emotion. The goal is to have visitors feel more connected to their community and fellow humans after experiencing it. If a person’s soul is alive, they’ll feel something. And hopefully the art people see and sense will motivate them to bring a creative dream of their own to life.