The last thing you’d expect to see inside a university’s newly renovated, state-of-the-art biochemistry center is a 1940s Regionalist masterpiece celebrating rural life. Ditto for a rotating exhibition of paintings by contemporary rural artists ringing the grand vestibule of Agricultural Hall, seat of the University of Wisconsin–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
CALS’ reputation as a scientific innovator is well established. Less heralded, and unique among agricultural colleges, is that CALS throughout its history has been a cultural innovator as well, taking pains to illuminate the ways in which the sciences and the arts intersect—and why each way of knowing the world is so important to the other.
John Steuart Curry’s 1942 mural in the Biochemistry Building offers a prime example. The Social Benefits of Biochemical Research powerfully illustrates the benefits made possible by vitamin discoveries and applications. On the left side of the main panel, the artist depicts a sickly hog and wan children, including a boy whose bowed legs are a sign of rickets. At the center and right, we see hale and hearty kids, adults and livestock. Men pictured at the back of the mural are some of CALS’ legendary figures in vitamin research, including Harry Steenbock, who eradicated rickets by discovering how to increase vitamin D content in foods.
Far from being accidental or casual, Curry’s decade-long association with the College of Agriculture was part of a deliberate aim to meld culture with agriculture. From 1936 until his death in 1946, Curry was artist-in-residence at UW in the first such arrangement at any American university—and his residency was in the College of Agriculture.
While artist-in-residence programs are now common at schools and universities across the country (and even in some businesses, such as Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel), they were a novel concept in Depression-era America.
Yet Curry’s residency is just one facet of CALS’ longstanding interconnections with arts and culture, both historically and today. Such connections highlight the importance of agriculture for students and the general public. They also provide important pathways for rural people to express themselves and celebrate their livelihoods and communities.
Spotlighting the cultural side of agriculture is a deep part of Wisconsin’s heritage. And that tradition still burns brightly through new initiatives of which many CALS faculty, alumni and students are a part.
Chris L. Christensen, Dean of the College of Agriculture, deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the Curry residency. Under his tenure, Curry—part of a famed trio of American Regionalist painters alongside Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton—arrived at UW in fall 1936.
Born on a Nebraska farm, Christensen had studied not only at the University of Nebraska but also at the University of Copenhagen and the Royal Agricultural College in Denmark. His Scandinavian experience left an indelible mark. Christensen was deeply influenced by Danish “folk schools,” where people from all walks of life took free courses that fostered their self-expression.
Author Jerry Apps BS’55 MS’57 PhD’67—who is himself a product of CALS and one of the state’s most highly regarded experts on Wisconsin rural culture—offers some insight.
“Though it sounds a bit corny, Christensen supposedly said that one of his goals upon becoming dean was to put some culture back in agriculture,” says Apps. “He embraced the Danes’ philosophy that rural people should have the opportunity to study art and poetry as well as learn how to improve their cattle and field crops.”
During his campus residency, Curry didn’t just squirrel away in his studio (now gone, but once located on Lorch Street). Instead, he taught painting to Farm and Industry Short Course students and traveled the Badger state with UW Extension agents and rural sociologist John Rector Barton, author of the seminal Rural Artists of Wisconsin (1948).
In fact, today’s Wisconsin Regional Art Program (WRAP), now headquartered at the Division of Continuing Studies, was born in the College of Agriculture as the Wisconsin Rural Art Program, with the mission of fostering the development of nonprofessional artists. The first Rural Art Exhibit was held at the Memorial Union during Farm and Home Week in 1940.
That inaugural show featured 30 artists. As an artist of national stature, Curry strolled around offering critiques and ate lunch with the participating artists. “It was so wonderful they decided to do it again the next year,” says Leslee Nelson, who has been WRAP director since 1982 and wrote her master’s thesis on Curry. The 1941 exhibition attracted the attention of Life magazine, and the program continued to blossom rapidly, with 100 exhibiting artists in 1947.
Nowadays more than 20 regional shows take place, with the top third of artwork selected for exhibition in Madison at the UW’s Pyle Center. Visitors to Ag Hall today are welcomed by a sampling of art on loan from WRAP, from colorful landscapes to Asian-style scroll paintings.
Nelson is proud to carry on the tradition established by Curry and deepened by his successor as artist-in-residence, the still life and trompe l’oeil master Aaron Bohrod, as well as by earlier WRAP directors James Schwalbach and Ken Kuemmerlein. (Schwalbach is also known as the creator of Let’s Draw, a wildly popular WHA radio program that brought art instruction to thousands of rural children. By 1952, it served 4,320 classes with a combined 95,040 students. Another popular arts program of that era was Journeys in Musicland.)
“I believe everybody’s creative,” Nelson says. “It’s an essential part of a healthy life. Whether it’s painting, knitting, cooking or fixing cars, it’s about problem solving and figuring things out.”
But CALS’ engagement with rural arts and culture has by no means been limited to the visual arts. Robert Gard, a professor with UW Extension, was charged with fostering rural theater and writing programs through his Office of Community Arts Development, housed in Ag Hall. As part of that work, Gard authored such classics as 1955’s Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America and The Arts in the Small Community in the late ’60s. Gard, who passed away in 1992, is remembered for his deep sense of place and his belief that all people deserved avenues for creative expression.
That conviction was shared by UW President Glenn Frank, who in a preface to one of Gard’s works in support of a “people’s theater in Wisconsin” wrote: “There is poetry as well as production on a farm. Art can help us to preserve the poetry of farming while we are battling with the economics of farming.”
Jerry Apps regards Gard as an important mentor. “He really pushed me beyond writing the straight stuff I was doing for the 4-H office,” says Apps, a CALS professor emeritus of continuing and vocation education who once served as a county Extension agent and 4-H specialist. Apps went on to write dozens of books and novels relating to all manner of Wisconsin history, culture and rural life. Popular titles include Barns of Wisconsin, Ringlingville and Horse-Drawn Days. Recently Apps received a CALS Distinguished Service Award for his lifelong body of work.
“Gard saw storytelling not only as entertainment, but as helping people understand place, how they as human beings relate to place, and how it has an influence on them—and how rural people shouldn’t apologize for that but be proud of it,” says Apps. “That’s what I’m trying to do in my own work.”
Flourishing organizations that were started or co-founded by Gard—such as the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association and the Council for Wisconsin Writers—encouraged, and still encourage, homegrown written expression. “What Gard managed to do was bring rural poets out of the closet,” says Apps. “Because if you were a farmer in Oneida County in 1950, you didn’t want anyone to know you were writing poetry. Gard made it okay.”
Gard also founded the School of the Arts at Rhinelander in 1964. Nearly a half-century later, it is still a vibrant learning center for nonprofessional artists of all disciplines. Today’s students immerse themselves in everything from folk art and music to digital media.
Each year sees hundreds of culturally infused ag festivals around the state honoring all manner of livestock and foods, along with county fairs, barn dances and farm technology displays—and CALS and Extension faculty, agents and alumni have a hand in many of them.
A new high-profile celebration with significant CALS involvement is the Fermentation Fest, a 10-day celebration that drew approximately 4,000 attendees to Reedsburg last fall—a ringing success that ensured a repeat this fall from Oct. 12 to 21. It’s spearheaded by the nonprofit Worm-farm Institute in collaboration with a wide range of community partners.
Wormfarm Institute was founded by Jay Salinas, who left Chicago in 1995 to start a CSA farm in Reedsburg. Five years later, they expanded that farm into a nonprofit that not only reconnects consumers with the source of their food but also forges creative links between urban and rural, people and land, culture and agriculture.
The Fermentation Fest is in the vanguard of a burgeoning national trend known as “creative placemaking.” Wormfarm Institute last year received $50,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) under its new, highly competitive “Our Town” grant program, which is designed to strengthen the arts and support the social, physical and economic characters of selected communities. Wormfarm also received $100,000 from ArtPlace, a consortium of other leading foundations and federal agencies—including the U.S. Department of Agriculture—devoted to community revitalization through creative placemaking.
Fermentation was chosen as the festival theme because of the live and active cultures it evokes, in all senses of that phrase. Billed as “a live culture convergence,” the Fest featured such hands-on presentations as Hot Compost, Sourdough Bread Baking and The Secret Life of Chocolate (most people don’t know it’s fermented). A festival highlight was an accompanying “Farm/Art D-tour,” a self-guided tour of farm-based art installations created for the event along a 50-mile loop of rural roads. And the route was studded with “Roadside Culture Stands,” artist-designed mobile farm stands.
The theme of fermentation hooked right into CALS. Jenny Erickson BS’98 MS’02 has spent a decade working for UW-Extension in Sauk County as a community natural resource and economic development agent. She also administers the county’s publicly funded arts and culture grant program (Sauk is the only rural county in Wisconsin that has one). All those hats enable her to serve as a critical link between the needs of her local community and the resources of the university.
Erickson facilitates the steering committee that plans and oversees Fermentation Fest. For her, much of the Fest’s appeal is that its focus is on not importing arts and culture from elsewhere.
“There’s a lot of culture in a rural community and sometimes people forget that or don’t see it,” says Erickson, who grew up in a small community (Wild Rose, Wisconsin, same as Jerry Apps). “The great thing about Fermentation Fest is that it’s bringing out that culture that’s part of a rural community. You don’t need to travel to a metropolitan area to experience ‘culture’ or see art. It’s showcasing what’s already here.”
CALS faculty contributed their talents. Jim Steele, a CALS UW-Extension professor of food science, led a workshop called “Inner Life,” in which he introduced a diverse audience ranging from teens to octogenarians to the science behind fermented foods and probiotics.
Steele, who is working to help establish CALS as a national leader in fermentation science (see “Rising to the Top,” Grow, summer 2011), is fascinated by both the cultural and scientific aspects of fermented food and drink.
“For thousands of years, we’ve made hundreds of different fermented foods and beverages without understanding the science behind their production. But through culture and oral history we’ve passed down what works and what doesn’t, and the end result has been some extraordinary products,” Steele says. “Now we have a much greater understanding of the science of many of these products, which has allowed us to produce them with far greater consistency and at a much larger scale. These scientific advances combined with human creativity have fueled the enormous growth in craft beers and specialty cheeses.”
Michael Bell, a professor of community and environmental sociology and director of CALS’ Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, participated in the Fermentation Fest as a musician and composer. He took part in several outdoor “pasture performances” with his ensemble, Graminy, a name that derives from the botanical name for the grass family, Gramineae. Bell calls Graminy’s style “class-grass,” a combination of classical and grassroots traditions.
For Bell, merging cultural and agricultural themes offers an opportunity to look at agriculture in a bigger context. “Agriculture provides us with food and that’s extremely important, but it also provides us with so much more: wildlife habitat, clean water, and also aesthetic and cultural values. One of the important roles of the humanities, and in thinking about the ‘culture of agriculture,’ is to remind us of the wholeness that is agriculture,” says Bell.
Bell will participate in Fermentation Fest again this year as part of a program element called “Decomposition.” Graminy will write a composition in the key of D—“A ‘D’-composition, if you’ll excuse the pun,” Bell says—and perform it for composers from around the state, who, in turn, will react to it by creating something new out of its themes. Thus artistic processes will echo natural processes. “Decomposition is actually about life and growing new things out of the old, using the old as that which fertilizes the new,” Bell says.
Sarah Lloyd, a CALS graduate student in community and environmental sociology, considers what the arts and culture mean in rural life both personally, as part of a dairy farm family and a Wormfarm board member, and in her research. Her dissertation uses Richland County as a case study to examine changes in rural life—economic, ecological and social—since World War II. Cultural expression is not only about individual creativity or a sense of place, she says. It also can be a vehicle for economic development and communication.
“Many rural communities—in my experience from living in and studying them—have lost vibrancy, especially if you look at the empty storefronts in the downtowns of some of our villages and small cities,” Lloyd says. “Having the chance to highlight what’s special about a place also hopefully has the impact of creating economic activity around it.” Her words echo research done for the national Mayors’ Institute on City Design, funded by the NEA. In their report “Creative Placemaking,” researchers Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa note that “creative locales foster entrepreneurs and cultural industries that generate jobs and income, spin off new products and services, and attract and retain unrelated businesses and skilled workers.”
And when some rural places have become bedroom communities for nearby cities or sites for vacation homes, arts and culture also can serve as a way for newcomers to learn about an area’s agricultural heritage, Lloyd notes.
Helping people understand the working landscape is an important part of Fermentation Fest and the Farm/Art D-tour. Encountering a sculpture like Christopher Lutter-Gardella’s monumental Boots along County Highway F jolts viewers with the unexpected. While the sculpture is playful, the brown work boots acknowledge the labor of those who farm the lands of Sauk County.
Meanwhile, back on campus, CALS faculty, staff and students continue to draw unusual ties to the arts. Genetics professor Ahna Skop creates her own art—often inspired by her lab work with C. elegans nematode worms—and helped organize a permanent display of art created from microscopic images in the foyer of the Genetics/Biotechnology building. And CALS faculty, staff and students delivered three out of 12 winning or honorable mention entries in a campus-wide Cool Science Image Contest (one of them appears on the back cover of this issue).
Other CALS/UW-Extension faculty find unlikely uses for art in teaching. Horticulture professors Irwin Goldman, Jim Nienhuis and Rebecca Harbut regularly take their classes to the UW’s Chazen Museum of Art to get students thinking not only about how fruit looked in centuries past or what diseases affected plants, but also the social aspects of our food system.
Students in “Horticulture 345: Fruit Crop Production,” for example, tour the Chazen to look at specific depictions of produce in art. “When students finish my course, I want them to have an appreciation for not just the production of fruit, but the impact on the greater society, both negative and positive,” says Harbut. “I encourage them to explore how our relationship with food changes over time, how our expectations change over time, and to look at that in a critical way.”
A self-described “fruit fanatic,” Harbut notes that many students today grow up with little notion of what it takes to produce food. But, she says, “You can really see it when you look back in art, you see depictions of agriculture and food production. There is respect for the art of cultivating that fruit.”
Aside from pushing students to think about everything from pests that damage fruit crops to timely issues like “food deserts” in poor, urban areas, Harbut also wants CALS learners to be open to cultural experiences and all that the university has to offer.
“I can say to them, ‘Hey, go to the Chazen and have a look!’” says Harbut. “The greatest injustice we can do is keep them trapped in our discipline and not encourage them to explore other things.”
This story was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of Grow magazine.