STOUGHTON — The rolling landscape jets out before you with a river that has endless possibilities.
For those who love nature, you never have felt more outdoors while being inside a gallery. The green grass, the light blue sky cut by clouds.
This is where Diane Washa feels at home.
But in her new exhibit, the Madison artist is doing something that is out of her comfort zone. She is taking on the art of poetry in “Of Water, Air, and Poetry” that not only pays tribute to one of Wisconsin’s most famous poets, but she is using paintings to pay homage to another way of life.
This evening, Washa is opening her new exhibit at the Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton, where she takes on the work of the late Lorine Niedecker, a poet who not only lived in a remote cabin in Jefferson County, but whose words are painted on two murals in downtown Fort Atkinson.
“I saw a movie at the Wisconsin Film Festival called ‘Immortal Cupboard,’” Washa said of the film that tells of Niedecker’s life.
The film took home the Jury Award at the festival in 2009.
“I am not into poetry. I normally don’t get it.” Washa said. “I loved her story and can really relate to that.”
Niedecker’s words and the story hit home.
A few years back, Washa found herself on Blackhawk Island, west of Fort Atkinson, where she was painting a landscape.
“I just love the land there. The river, Lake Koshkonong,” she said.
“I painted on the other side of the road where Niedecker’s home is.”
What drew her to learn more about Niedecker was not only her work, but the way she lived her life.
Niedecker lived along the banks of the Rock River and was part of the second wave of objective poets in the 20th century.
Washa, a Wisconsin native herself, sees the naturalist side of Niedecker and relates her to the likes of John Muir. She spent time at her cabin writing, and her words capture the landscape like Washa does with her brush.
Niedecker’s approach, Washa says, is what drew her to the topic.
“I am kind of extroverted. But I like being alone in solitude,” she said.
As an artist, Washa finds herself alone with the landscape. But for this project, she was trying to find something different.
Two years ago, Washa was looking at songs she loved for inspiration. And then it dawned on her to use poetry.
She submitted a piece to the Forward Art competition and had great response.
“People respond to the art,” Washa said. “Then they fall in love with what you call it.”
The Stoughton exhibit blends landscapes and words and some of the pieces range in size up to 72 inches wide. Looking at the items on line, Washa said, is not like seeing the pieces in front of you.
The gallery is hosting an opening reception from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday (tonight) in Stoughton. The exhibit will run through December.
Washa said there also will be an online catalog and printed version of the works. The gallery also carries other pieces of her work in its collection.
Born in 1903, Lorine Niedecker spent most of her life on Blackhawk Island along the Rock River west of Fort Atkinson, more or less unnoticed by the world. Her mother was an English teacher and Niedecker graduated from Beloit College in 1922.
Writing extensively about the area’s flora and fauna, her neighbors, family and travel, this “poet of place” began to publish her poetry in the mid-1930s, but worked at the local library, as a Hoard’s Dairyman magazine proofreader and a hospital cleaning lady “just to make a little money for the really important things,” as she once wrote.
Early on, Niedecker worked closely with her 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.
During her lifetime, she published four poetry books, of which “Paean to Place” is perhaps her most famous.
To capture Niedecker’s spirit in her paintings, Washa used excerpts from the poetry.
The Great Outdoors always has been part of Wahsa’s life. She fell in love with it as a child when playing outside was her primary interest. Growing up, their home butted up against a county park.
Her artwork is a view of Wisconsin’s landscape that often is something many of us drive by each day heading to work in Jefferson County. But Washa takes the time to study the light and blends the picture into an interesting piece on canvas.
A business executive by day, Washa began taking painting more seriously in 2005. She started showing her work at galleries and exhibitions. Over the years, she has been part of dozens of shows.
Washa also has a fine arts degree from Milton College and an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
In 2013, Washa was part of the Wisconsin Poetry Festival in Fort Atkinson, where artists and poets were paired.
For her latest project, Washa does not have a favorite piece. That, she says, would be like picking a favorite child.
In the new show, she uses not only the words of the artist, but the inspiration of a life, as well.
“When I heard about her life in this little cabin, and being creative, I guess she is a role model, in an artist’s sense,” Washa said of Niedecker.
The Abel Contemporary Gallery is located at 524 E. Main St. in Stoughton.