Acclaimed artists and lesser-known artists of Wisconsin

Famous Wisconsin Artists and Architects

by Heidi Levy

Thanks to a few gracious folks, I have the privilege of writing an article for Art in Wisconsin about the book Famous Wisconsin Artists and Architects (Badger Books, Inc. October 2004). Really, after I pondered things, I decided there’s no better way to tell you about the book than to include “A Letter” which is the introduction to my book:


Dear Curious Reader,

It is my hope that you will enjoy this book for what it is. Which brings me to the question, what exactly is it? Famous Wisconsin Artists and Architects is a book for the general reader, art enthusiast, student, interested soul, exploring tourist, connoisseur of Wisconsin books, or smart orangutan. The book’s purpose is to generate and spread awareness of Wisconsin’s rich heritage in the visual arts. Wisconsin has literally thousands of artists and many skilled architects. In a work of this length, it is impossible to include them all. This presents the awful chore of weeding, indeed a challenge and a nightmare. I have included acclaimed artists as well as samplings of lesser-known artists. I’ve also compiled a further listing of others in the profession of visual arts, some recognizable and notable, and some who are not as well known.
Famous Wisconsin Artists and Architects is not a directory. If I wanted to write a directory, I’d find a job at the phone company. The book is not a scholarly work, and it is not meant to be. There are resources and research avenues for those interested in academic chronological detail. Am I experienced in the creative spheres of art and architecture? No, I come from a partially detached perspective. I dabble here and there as a hobbyist, sell a few works, and give things to my friends. My work is scattered. What I am is a tourist wandering through this visual forest, but I know what interests me, and I know the creative process.
An important factor in writing a book like this is that I love talking to people who know more than I do, or who have knowledge about uncharted territory. I’ve sought advice, opinions, and help from inhabitants of the field. Now I can be the middle person and pass the paint palette to you. Don’t run with scissors, or fugitive colors, but run with the knowledge and visit the places where art and architecture make Earth an incredible place to live. Some artists will take you further into the universe if you dare. Nevertheless, use the book as a stepping-stone and an introduction to art in Wisconsin.
Famous Wisconsin Artists and Architects contains a mixture of brief essays and facts about artists and architects. I have included images when possible. A few sections that are more extensively written are on artists whose work is unquestionably recognized nationally and internationally. Others promised me they’d meet those criteria in this lifetime or another. The artists I’ve met have a common mission to their creativity. They explain it in varying ways, but I think it boils down to capturing a moment in time. If they become “famous” along the way, they’ll consider it a bonus, but it’s not their reason for doing what they do. Fame is usually relative anyhow except for a limited number of outliers. An artist can be a perfectionist at what he or she does, and turn out exquisite work, but prominence may remain as elusive as a dandelion seed carried by the breeze. Wisconsin, in that respect is still part of the Wild West, but certainly, it does have a strong art history, and many artists expanded beyond the borders of Wisconsin.
Many people were enthusiastic about this project and helped me to stay afloat in such a vast sea of activity. Sometimes it was overwhelming, and all I wanted to do was clean the house, train dust bunnies to disappear, eat popcorn, and watch funny movies. Nonetheless, the folks who graciously helped me are keepers of the knowledge—they have museums, galleries, exhibits, things to teach, and a sense of humor. This raft of adventure will take you sailing. What you do with what you find depends on what you’re looking for, really.
Because you’ve read this letter, I’ll disclose my three favorite artists. I like so much of what I see—some traditional, some contemporary, some avant-garde—that it’s very hard to choose. Of the artists that I’ve written about in Famous Wisconsin Artists and Architects, my three favorites are Henry Vianden mainly because I love trees, Carl von Marr for his portraits, and Edmund Lewandowski for his lines, angles, and geometry.
My request is that after you’ve read this book, give a box of crayons or a glob of clay to a curious child, and teach that child how to “see.” Those two steps alone can start an avalanche. However, as my mother would say, “Don’t draw on the wall!”

Hannah Heidi Levy

October 2004

So what have I gained from all this writing stuff? If I had to pin it down to only one item, I’d have to point to Cognizance—artistic heritage, hard work of creative people, richness of resources, and a little ability to spot things. On Labor Day weekend, my sister and I were cleaning out my mother’s house. The nearly empty house was being readied for sale. We sorted through an accumulation of dust and usual things, but curiously enough there was one rather lonely-looking picture with an ill-fitted turquoise blue mat on the wall. Everyone in and out of that house had walked by it so many times, and my brother even mentioned about throwing it in the trash since no one had claimed it. I looked at it from a distance, and it suddenly struck me as something familiar. Upon closer examination, I found it to be a block print signed in pencil by James Schwalbach in 1939. On the flip side was a letterhead page from James Schwalbach. He apparently typed an explanation of the print and the process used to produce it.
The find is interesting, but there’s more afoot here. As a good friend of mine said to me, “You know when that book comes out, you’ll have everybody digging through their attics and forgotten corners to see what they might discover.”
“Good!” was my reply. “That’s exactly my intention. The more they look, the more they’ll notice the art that surrounds them.” If I had my way, I’d proclaim a holiday—not an event—a real holiday called Creativity Day where people don’t need to memorialize; they just need to get out the sidewalk chalk and take it from there.

Author Heidi Levy will give a presentation to the SC Chapter of WP&S in November 2004.

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