New Book - A Creative Place: The History of Art in Wisconsin

  • November 01, 2021
  • Wisconsin

A Creative Place: The History of Art in Wisconsin 

A Book Project with the Cedarburg Art Museum

Co-authored by Thomas Lidtke and Annemarie Sawkins, PhD

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Today, Wisconsin boasts vibrant art scenes in its major cities and across the state. But how did we get here? The history of art in Wisconsin begins with the state’s first Indigenous inhabitants and extends through millennia. But the history of Wisconsin’s earliest artists and the accomplishments of successive generations of visual arts practitioners has not been adequately researched or published. To date, the only book to address the topic is Porter Butts’s Art in Wisconsin: The Art Experience of the Middle West Frontier, which appeared in 1936 and has been neither updated nor succeeded by a new publication.

A Creative Place: The History of Art in Wisconsin will be a comprehensive history of art and artists in Wisconsin. With contributions and guidance from experts in the field, our project is to produce the most complete book on artists throughout Wisconsin. From the spiritual and creative endeavors of Wisconsin’s First Nations, through four hundred years of French and British occupation, the transition from territorial status to statehood, and the turn to the modern era, the book will extend through the twentieth century.

For the purposes of this volume, Wisconsin artists will be defined as the men and women who have resided in what is now the state of Wisconsin and have created noteworthy work while in the area, or during their careers. Since visual art takes many forms, this history will consider art in a range of mediums and will present the creative output of the Wisconsin artists in broader contexts of social and cultural history and historical events.

Organized chronological and thematically, this publication will celebrate the artistic talent that is part of our Wisconsin heritage. For the first time, examples of Wisconsin’s Indigenous peoples’ ancient effigy mounds, petroglyphs, pictographs, pottery, stone carving, and metal work will be identified and analyzed in a manner consistent with current art historical publications that deal with the ancient world. The art of early non-Native explorers of this region will be considered, with attention to early maps of Wisconsin that include drawings made by French explorers during the 1700s. The art of early itinerant and settler artists will follow and will lead to the era of academically trained artists. The book will next consider the massive nineteenth-century influx of German speaking people to Wisconsin, including artists who trained the first generation of Wisconsin-born artists in the stylistic tradition established in Europe and greatly enhanced the cultural environment of Wisconsin, particularly in Milwaukee. As a direct result of the strong presence of German culture, Milwaukee became one of only a small handful of American cities that produced enormous panorama canvases that covered 20,000 square feet. The era in which academic art predominated in Wisconsin lasted a quarter of a century, but the legacy of these academically trained artists was much longer. The story of Wisconsin art that this book will tell continues into the twentieth century, with the waning of academic realism shortly after World War I and the ascension of the rich and charming style known as American regionalism. That style would survive in Wisconsin until the end of World War II and set the art of the Midwest apart from other American art. As the book moves into the post-World War II era, it will provide an extensive overview of the many variations of twentieth century modernism in Wisconsin, including surrealism, magic realism, and abstraction, and conceptual art. We conclude with a look at the diverse expressions of postmodernism that characterized Wisconsin’s art scene in the last decades of the twentieth century, and trends that point to the future of art in our state.

Woven into the book’s chronology, our text will deal with minority artists, art education, arts organizations, artist communities, Wisconsin’s most notable expatriate artists, national art innovators, and self-taught artists who called Wisconsin, “home”. Readers will also gain insight into how Wisconsin artists survived financially by responding to the artistic needs of businesses, as well as selling their art to patrons.   

This richly illustrated volume will feature an abundance of full-color images of the art that is discussed, along with portraits of artists and other documentary images. It will highlight significant events in the history of Wisconsin as a creative place. For readers who seek additional information, the book will also include notes and an extensive bibliography. 

About the Authors

Robert F. Boszhardt

 An archaeologist based in Madison, Robert F. Boszhardt has worked for several decades for the Mississippi Valley Archeology Center at the University of Wisconsin, La-Crosse. He continues to conduct field work and has published numerous articles and authored or coauthored four books on nearly every aspect of Native American archeology of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. His most recent book, Hidden Thunder: Rock Art of the Upper Midwest, was published in 2016.

Tom Lidtke

 With over three decades of museum leadership, Tom Lidtke transitioned the West Bend Art Museum into the new Museum of Wisconsin Art. During his tenure as the Museum’s director he also conducted graduate courses in the history of Wisconsin art and wrote several publications on the subject. Since his retirement, following the opening of the Museum’s new facility in 2013, he has been working as a consultant to art collectors and museums.                         

Annemarie Sawkins, PhD.

Annemarie Sawkins is an independent curator, art historian, and author. She has curated several exhibitions for the Charles Allis/Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museums which have traveled or are currently traveling the country. Sawkins assisted with the publication of Layton’s Legacy: A Historic American Art Collection, 1888–2013 and More Love: Art, Politics and Sharing since the 1990s for the Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. From 1999 to 2012, she was a curator at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University. While at the Milwaukee Art Museum from 1997 to 1999, Sawkins contributed to A Renaissance Treasury: The Flagg Collection of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture (1999).  A frequent juror and portfolio reviewer, Annemarie Sawkins holds an MA and PhD in Art/Architectural History from McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

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