Vital Skills builds on the current interest in community resilience and "re-skilling" by bringing together the work of people who are preserving traditional hand skills in Wisconsin. In recent years local has become the watchword for many different concerns and efforts: creating sustainable food networks, maintaining healthy local economies, preserving regional traditions, and inculcating a sense of place. Being able to produce more goods locally creates jobs, economic resilience, and greater energy independence. While this focus on the local is overwhelmingly positive, it is often accompanied by a pervasive sense of gloom and doom about the future. The prospect of sudden and severe climate change, dwindling energy supplies, even worldwide economic collapse or global pandemic has created a sense of fear and uncertainty that permeates popular culture and political discourse. There's a reason zombies and vampires have captured the public imagination!
This exhibit was developed in response to these trends and the current fascination with gardening, canning, beekeeping, and DIY crafts. The revival of these domestic skills isn't difficult: most can be taught, if not mastered, in a weekend. But our cultural memory for most pre-industrial skills is far more attenuated. Becoming a proficient blacksmith, knife-maker, or cobbler takes time, commitment, and—most crucially—a teacher who can share their knowledge in person.
The individuals in this show are remarkably diverse, from basketmakers and boatbuilders dedicated to saving their cultural traditions, to professional artists with craft skills like papermaking, weaving, and engraving; metalsmiths who make props for historical reenactors; and custom shoemakers, gunsmiths, and leatherworkers who cater to the luxury market. Craft skills also survive in surprising niches, like university labs devoted to hand-blown scientific glass and letterpress print shops whose primary business is wedding invitations. Vital Skills will celebrate their commitment, mastery, and deep reserve of knowledge and experience, and explore the role they might play in creating a truly resilient local economy.
The artists and makers represented in Vital Skills include: Bob Bartelme, tinsmith; Backwoods Tin & Copper, West Bend; Mike Coughlin, printer and pamphleteer, Superior Letterpress, Cornucopia; Greg David, farmer and DIY energy systems builder, Watertown; Benjamyn Deneen, knifemaker, Greensteel Forge, Madison; Max Doering, motorcycle saddlebag maker, Iron Bags, Eau Claire; Tracy Drier, scientific glassblower, University of Wisconsin-Madison Chemistry Lab; Patrick Farrell, boatbuilder and decoy carver, Green Bay; Willem Gebben, stoneware potter, Colfax; Martha Glowacki, sculptor and metalsmith, Sauk City; Mary Hark, artist and papermaker, Hark! Handmade Paper Studio, Madison; “Little" John Holzwart, broommaker, Moonwise Herbs, Sheboygan; Greg Hunt, harnessmaker, Hunt’s Harness, Inc., Mayville; Greg Johnson, artist and moccasin-maker, Minoqua; Bill and Donna Kallner, fishing net makers, Wolf Moon Nets, White Lake; Wence Martinez, tapestry weaver, Martinez Studio, Jacksonport; Eric Moebius, blacksmith, Moebius Ironworks, Hubertus; Sam Rust, gunsmith, Rice Lake; Gaylord Schanilec, printmaker and book artist, Midnight Paper Sales, Stockholm; Mary Lou Schneider, decoy carver, Fond du Lac; Bob Siegel, wooden shoe carver, Mequon; Philip Simeon, fish-trap weaver, Madison; April Stone-Dahl, black ash basketry, Woodspirit, Odanah; Jarrod Stone-Dahl, woodturner, birchbark canoe builder, snowshoe maker, Woodspirit, Odanah; Alisa Toninato, sculptor and patternmaker, FeLion Studios, Madison; Jeff Trapp, Windsor chairmaker and boatbuilder, Madison; and Tong Khai Vang, blacksmith, LaCrosse Area Hmong Mutual Aid Association Blacksmith Shop.
A conversation about the importance and relevance of preserving traditional skills and the best means for passing them on. How are these skills being taught in Wisconsin now, and what other avenues might be explored? Are there important skills that are not being preserved? What allies might we find in other arenas, from environmental and cultural groups to urban planners, energy experts, and the business community? With Greg David, farmer, D.I.Y. energy-systems builder, and co-founder of Sustain Jefferson; Jim Lorman, director of Edgewood College's Sustainability Leadership Program; Ruth Olson, folklorist, UW-Madison Center for Upper Midwestern Cultures; Anne Pryor, director of the Wisconsin Arts Board's Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program; and Robert Schulz, blacksmith and founder of Driftless Folk School, Viroqua. Moderated by Vital Skills curator Jody Clowes. Presented in partnership with Sustain Dane and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Upper Midwestern Cultures.
Read Jody Clowes' article about this project in the winter issue of Wisconsin People & Ideas.
Vital Skills is supported in part by grants from Dane Arts and the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin.