Arts and Culture in Wisconsin
Immigrants from Norway, Germany, Italy, and Ireland helped shape the cultural history of Wisconsin, as did African Americans moving up from the south and French Canadians coming from Quebec. A geography and economy that included farms, cities, and fishing also played a part in creating Wisconsin’s patchwork of Americana, as did the changing currents of history, from Victorian revival architecture to an interest in reconnecting with the roots of ethnic culture.
Folk art by the roadside and high art in the museums, music from punk and metal to Irish reels and Norwegian hardanger fiddling, musicals based on folk legends, and a classical opera society all form part of Wisconsin’s cultural life.
Symphony orchestras, wind ensembles, university and high school orchestras, and chamber music ensembles all compose Wisconsin’s classical music community. The Sheboygan Orchestra, which gave its first concerts in 1918, is the state’s oldest. A chorus, holiday carol group, and a youth orchestra add to its program of concerts. Water City Chamber Orchestra in Oshkosh focuses on innovative programming. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1959, is known for presenting works by American composers. In addition to classical concerts, the symphony offers pops concerts, children’s programming, radio broadcasts, and podcasts. Madison is home to a symphony orchestra, founded in 1925, as well as a community orchestra, chamber music choir, festival choir, and the classical music programs and ensembles of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Madison, Milwaukee, and Oshkosh also have opera companies.
The Milwaukee Ballet, with a resident company of more than two dozen dancers, presents 40 performances each year and has a ballet school. Another place for dance training is the Central Wisconsin School of Ballet in Wausau. In addition to performances and a ballet school, Madison Ballet offers outreach programs including master classes and presentations on dance and health.
There are more than 200 museums in Wisconsin. Many are local and regional general history museums, while others focus on particular subjects, such as the Ojibwe Museum in Lac du Flamebeau and theGreen Bay Packer Hall of Fame in Green Bay. Though Wisconsin is often thought of as a land of prairie and farm, it has 800 miles of coastline on the Great Lakes, and several hundred miles along the Mississippi River, so there are a number of museums tracing the state’s maritime history. The Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay, for example, offers extensive exhibits on shipbuilding, the area’s commercial fishing history, and local lighthouses. Northland Fishing Museum in Osseo andJackson Harbor Maritime Museum on Washington Isle also focus on the state’s connections with the waters. The Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University in Milwaukee is a teaching museum, with educational outreach programs and a collection of Old Masters and modern classics. The Milwaukee Art Museum has more than 20,000 items, including paintings, folk art, decorative art, and sculpture, ranging across time from ancient days to the present. There are several museums marking the heritage of the state’s Native peoples, and its Irish, German, African American, and other heritage groups.
There are a number of children’s museums across the state as well, and many historic homes have become museums. A number of these, including Hearthstone in Appleton, The Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, and Baraboo’s House of Seven Gables in Baraboo, are from the Victorian era, while several, such as the Webster House in Elkhorn, come from earlier days.
Wisconsin is also home to several museums dedicated to special interests, including the Snowmobiling Museum in Saint Germain and the Henning Cheese Museum in Kiel. The Hamburger Museum in Sheboygan stakes the claim of that city as the birthplace of the hamburger, said to have been invented at a local fair in 1885.
One of the best-known Irish music festivals in the country, a strong culture of German heritage music, Norwegian fiddlers, blues clubs, bluegrass societies, and many world-famous contemporary artists have all made contributions to the music of Wisconsin.
Settlers from Germany brought dances, including polkas, waltzes, and schottisches as they settled mainly in the cities in the middle of the 19th century. Around the same time, Norwegian people moved to the western part of the state and brought their songs, tales, and fiddles along. English, Irish, and Italian immigrants, as well as African Americans coming up from the southern states, added their traditions, while communities of Native Americans, particularly Ojibwe and Menomonee peoples, kept their traditions of drumming and singing as well. All of this formed a rich background for present-day music in Wisconsin, which is fueled as much by the ever-changing tastes of younger generations in the big cities as by the regional favorites outside of them. One thing about the music Wisconsinites make: it’s quite varied.
Wladziu Valentino Liberace (1919–1987) is remembered as much for his flamboyant costumes, sense of humor, and trademark candelabra on the piano as for his music. He was born in West Allis, and received his early classical training at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. His mix of classics with pop and his sense of showmanship made Liberace a popular performer, both in person and on television, especially n the 1950s and 1960s. Though most of his career was spent elsewhere, country and jazz guitarist Les Paul (1915–2009) left behind a legacy both with his playing and through his invention of the solid body electric guitar, a groundbreaking idea that influenced the history of popular music. Paul was born in Waukesha. Al Jarreau, born in 1940 in Milwaukee, studied psychology at Ripon College before going into music, a career that would see him win awards in pop, jazz, and r&b. Punk folk rock blues eclectic band The Violent Femmes first got together in Milwaukee in 1980. Though she’s often associated with her adopted state of Massachusetts, songwriter Patty Larkin (b. 1951), whose songs connect folk with urban pop, spent her early years in Milwaukee. Bill Miller, born in 1955 on the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation, is a singer, songwriter, cedar flute player, and visual artist who has won many awards, has worked and toured with artists including Tori Amos, Eddi Vedder, and Nanci Griffith, and has had a symphony performed by the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra.
Wisconsin is home to many widely known festivals celebrating aspects of its musical heritage. New Ulm, Cedarburg, and Milwaukee are among the cities featuring German music festivals. Milwaukee is also home to major festivals celebrating Irish music and Italian culture, while Dodgeville and Stoughton are among the towns with Norwegian festivals.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
There are more than a dozen companies which present live theater in Wisconsin. The American Folklore Theatre in Fish Creek has for more than twenty years created original musicals and plays based of stories and legends from the history of Wisconsin, and other parts of America. The Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee offers an eclectic schedule ranging from light opera to musical to Gilbert & Sullivan. The Milwaukee Repertory Theater, founded more then five decades ago, is a resident company which includes both classics and new works in tis schedule. First Stage Children’s Theater, in Milwaukee, has extensive schedule of performances, and offers in school activities and workshops, as well as touring performances and training programs. The Peninsula Players, in Door County, is the country’s oldest professional resident summer theater company, having given its first performance in 1935.
Michael Moore used Wisconsin locations for his film The Big One (1997). The state’s sport communities have appeared in film both in documentaries such as Hoop Dreams (1994) and dramatic films like Semi-Tough (1977). I Love Trouble (1994), starring Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte and For Keeps (1988), starring Molly Ringwald, are among other movies shot in the state. Wisconsin has an active film community of independent filmmakers who often screen their work at festivals such as the Central Wisconsin Film Festival in Stevens Point and Amherst, and the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison.
Actors with ties to Wisconsin include Gene Wilder, who was born in Milwaukee in 1933; and Daniel J. Travanti (b. 1940), who was born in Kenosha and went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Other University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna who became successful actresses include Gena Rowlands (b. 1930) and Jane Kaczmarek (b. 1955), who was born in Greendale. Willem Dafoe,Tyne Daly, James Daly, Bradley Whitford, Tom Wopat, and Chris Noth are also Wisconsinites who have found success in acting careers.
Life in the Midwest, the natural world, and how people and nature relate to each other are frequent subjects for authors in Wisconsin, whether they choose to write fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.
Though he is often associated with his work and life in the western states, naturalist John Muir (1838–1914) was raised in the Fox River Valley area; the family farm is now a National Historic Landmark. In addition to becoming an explorer, activist, preservationist, and nature writer, Muir founded the Sierra Club. Aldo Leopold (1886–1948), who lived in Madison, is also known for his writings about the natural world. Though her books (and subsequent television programs based on them) were set in other parts of the Midwest, Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867–1957) was born in Pepin. She wrote The Little House on the Prairie series, which traced her childhood and young adult years growing up on a farm in the rural Midwest in the mid-19th century.
Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Edna Ferber (1885–1968) was raised in Appleton. Best-selling contemporary novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard (b. 1953) lives in Madison. Horror writer Peter Straubwas born in Milwaukee in 1943. Historian George F. Keenan (1904–2005) was raised in Milwaukee.
David Wroblewski’s best-selling novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, is set in northern Wisconsin in the 1970s. Marilyn Taylor, Ellen Kort, and Susan Firer are among Wisconsin poets recognized for their work.
In the middle years of the 19th century, a number of European-born or -trained artists settled in Wisconsin. They worked mainly in highly representational styles, and painted portraits and landscapes. Among them were Bernard Isaac Durward (1817–1902), who was from Scotland, and James Reeve Stuart (1834–1915), an American who studied in Germany. Henry Vianden (1814–1899), from Germany, was known for his detailed rural landscapes of Wisconsin. One of his students, Carl von Marr (1858–1936) from Milwaukee, emigrated to Germany and was much awarded there, becoming a respected teacher and director of the Munich Academy of Art. A major collection of von Marr’s work is at the Wisconsin Museum of Art in West Bend.
Richard Lorenz (1858–1915), who first came to Milwaukee to paint large panoramas of Civil War battles, became well known for his paintings of the American West, and was also a respected teacher. His style, like that of Carl von Marr, contained elements of romantic realism and impressionism. Sylvia Fein (b. 1919) and Dudley Huppler (1917–1988) are two of a group of artists associated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison who worked in varied styles of magic realism beginning around the time of World War II. Contemporary painter Amy Arntson focuses on painting scenes in nature, especially water surfaces and clouds. She is also the author of several design textbooks and a former professor of art at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887– 1986), known for her paintings of details of flowers and images of her adopted home of New Mexico, was born in on a dairy farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. She received her early art training in that area.
As European immigrants settled in Wisconsin, they brought with them ideas of architecture from their homelands. Buildings were often constructed simply, in styles reminiscent of the builders’ homelands. The historic fishing village at Two Rivers shows how immigrants from Quebec did this. Though many barns and historic buildings stand in their original locations across the state, at Old World Wisconsin in Eagle, more than 60 buildings have been gathered and restored to their historic state. They represent the range of Wisconsin ethnic history as shown through its rural and small town buildings.
In the larger towns and cities, Wisconsin, like the rest of the country, saw the flourishing of many styles of Victorian architecture, from Gothic revival to carpenter Gothic to Italian Gothic and other styles. The Tallman House in Janesville, built in 1855, is an example of Italianate Gothic, and had many then-new conveniences including gas lighting and running water. Flemish Renaissance Revival was the choice of beer magnate Frederick Pabst for the 36-room Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, completed in 1892.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) is perhaps the most well-known and influential architect associated with Wisconsin. A believer in the idea that buildings should be organically related to their surroundings, Wright was born in Richland Center and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During these years, he spent summers working on an uncle’s farm in Spring Valley, experiencing the rhythms of nature that would find their way into his work. Between 1911 and 1925, Wright built (and rebuilt, because of fire damage) his own home, Taliesin, in Spring Valley. The Unitarian Meeting House in Madison, built in the late 1940s, the Johnson Wax Building in Racine (1936), and Wingspread, at Wind Point, built in 1937, are also Wright designs.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ARTS
Wisconsin has its fair share of talented crafters, metal smiths, potters, and jewelers who show their work in galleries. It also produces spontaneously created roadside folk art, and sculptures made from glass, concrete, or whatever the artists have on hand. Near Sparta, there’s a glass church and an American flag. Near Valdon, there’s a painted forest, and in Sheboygan, and elsewhere along Wisconsin roads, there are concrete figures representing personalities from history and fairy tales. The John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan is preserving this aspect of Wisconsin folk art, which occurs across the state. Rosemaling, traditional Norwegian rose painting, and woodworking are two crafts people from Norway brought with them to Wisconsin. Per Lysne of Stoughton sparked renewed interest in rosemaling when he began painting farm wagons and then household items in the 1930s.
The Wisconsin Designer Crafts Council is an organization of fine craftspeople currently working in the state. Its members include Richard Bronk of Plymouth, who works in wood; jeweler Joan Miller-Hubbard of Menomonee Falls; and Sylvia and Mike Mondloch of Random Lake, who work in pottery and blacksmithing.
HISTORIC ART MOVEMENTS
The rosemaling revival in the Norwegian community of Wisconsin in the 1930s led to renewed interest of the craft in other Scandinavian communities of the Midwest.
Frank Lloyd Wright, though not the originator of the Prairie School of Architecture, was one of its most influential practitioners. Elements of this style included seeking to express and reflect American landscape and history, as well as interest in creating spaces and details that resonated with the landscape.
-World Trade Press