A Fort Atkinson muse recognized as “one of America’s best unknown poets” continues to receive more exposure within the School District of Fort Atkinson through another form of art.
Using painting and metal sculpture, a team of artists has brought a poem by the late Lorine Niedecker to life in the halls of Fort Atkinson Middle School. It reads, in part:
“Thoughts on things
above the river beds.”
Funded by the Friends of Lorine Niedecker, Fort Atkinson Community Foundation and Fort Atkinson Arts Council, the project represents the latest of several murals throughout the community.
Known internationally, Niedecker only recently has been more widely recognized within her home state ... and community.
Called by literary experts as the “Emily Dickinson of the 20th century,” Niedecker spent much of her life on Blackhawk Island, west of Fort Atkinson. She was a reflective woman whose poetry was inspired by the nature around her.
A former Hoard’s Dairyman proofreader and Fort Memorial Hospital cleaning lady, she wrote extensively about the area’s flora and fauna, her neighbors, family and travel.
She worked closely with her early mentor, Louis Zukofsky, founder of the Objectivist Movement, and was concerned with capturing the simple rhythms of American speech and the complexity implicit in life’s simplicity.
Niedecker died in 1970 at age 67.
During the past decade, her poetry has become the focus of several public art efforts.
In 2009, local artist Jeremy Pinc painted a mural on the wall of a building at the southeast corner of East Sherman Avenue and North Main Street. It showcases a portion of one of her most well-known poems, starting, “Fish, fowl, flood ...”
It was the result of development of the first Lorine Niedecker Wisconsin Poetry Festival in Fort Atkinson that year.
Also, as part of its 2011 renovation, the Dwight Foster Public Library has a separate space to house the Niedecker Collection, celebrating the late poet’s life and works.
And in the fall of 2014, a project involving digital art, stained glass and metal sculpture was installed in the entryway of Fort Atkinson High School. Its theme: dragonflies.
“Our goal is to work through all of the School District of Fort Atkinson schools to get a poetry art piece there so every student who goes through the district will experience Lorine Niedecker,” said Amy Lutzke, Dwight Foster Public Library adult services librarian and Friends of Lorine Niedecker member.
Lutzke said that the art helps both the students and community get to know Niedecker and her work by connecting the downtown mural featuring her poetry to the schools throughout the district.
“We originally just wanted to get one poem on the wall somewhere that people had to see, but the fact that they (poems) have turned into these beautiful art installations just adds to it,” Lutzke said. “When we first saw examples of the ideas they had, we were blown away.
“Its not just people that work or attend the school who see the mural; it’s a large part of our community, as well as all the other people that come from the southern part of the state,” she added.
The Friends of Lorine Niedecker approached the school district in February 2014 with an idea for its next project, and middle school art teacher Cynthia Bliss was excited to be a part of it.
Her idea was two-fold, starting with the piece done by professional artists. The second part, slated for completion this school year, is artwork that is more heavily student involved and created.
“It has been so amazing to do this project and have the support of the Friends of Lorine Niedecker and actually have some cash to do this with some paid professional artists,” Bliss said. “It has been just a joy to work on this. It has been very much a collaborative effort.”
Work on the second student-made piece is planned to take place throughout the winter.
The new Niedecker poetry mural is in the middle school’s main hallway in a cutout originally used to house vending machines.
Bliss, who lives in Madison, had some ideas for how to create something that was both visual and textural. An experienced metal artist in her own right, however, she was going to need someone to help.
Her husband had written a story for the Isthmus on metal artist Erika Koivunen of Acme Ironworks in Madison and he suggested to call her. A painter was needed as well, and through other friends, she connected with artist Amy Zaremba of Madison.
The entire piece was a collaborative effort by the artists.
“It just makes my heart sing because now all these people have ownership in it,” Bliss said of the mural.
Even the poem chosen to be featured in the mural was mutually agreed upon by the artists.
Bliss said that this was the last of many poems in a pamphlet provided by the Friends of Lorine Niedecker.
“It just made sense: They’re (students) going through the hallway, they’re above the riverbed and learning thoughts on things,” she said. “That is what you are supposed to do here and then we visited the site where Niedecker’s cabin is and this is what you see looking out the window. Basically, you are in her space.”
The mural painted by Zaremba is a Rock River view from Niedecker’s cabin.
“This is my first big-scale mural,” she said. “It was a totally new thing for me. It was interesting to talk about it and figure out how to paint it so their (the metalwork artists’) pieces would work with the space and add to it rather than clash with it. This was a totally different experience and a successful one.”
Koivunen and Bliss then added metal pieces accenting the floral and fauna of the scene. In addition, the nook includes a wooden bench and tree stump made from a mix of recycled materials, including churned up pieces of a Madison street. Bicycle gears, spoons, forks and other items have been recycled into the imagery of the scene.
“Some things you can identify; some things you have to ask me,” Koivunen said.
Lutzke noted that after the second student piece is completed, the Friends of Lorine Niedecker likely will approach one of the elementary schools to do a project.
The school district has embraced the group’s efforts.
“The School District of Fort Atkinson is pleased to spotlight and honor of the work of Fort Atkinson native Lorine Niedecker through wonderful art displays created by our staff and students,” District Administrator Jeff Zaspel said. “This is a wonderful way for our community to celebrate talents, old and new.”
He thanked the district’s art teachers and students for working with the Friends of Lorine Niedecker to make the artwork possible.