The walls of Fort Atkinson’s iconic Cream City Brick shops are growing steadily more colorful — but not less historic.

In fact, the latest colorful addition only increases the historic feel of the city’s traditional downtown with another tribute to Fort Atkinson’s native poet, Lorine Niedecker, and the creative spirit that infused her earthy everyday life.

The third poetry wall undertaken by the Friends of Lorine Niedecker now is under way on the north side of Hometown Pharmacy and is expected to be complete by the end of the month.

The series of poetry wall murals invites local residents and visitors alike to learn more about their hometown poet, and also to take a look at themselves, how they relate to their place, and how to put that in words.

“We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to showcase Lorine Niedecker’s poetry in downtown Fort Atkinson,” said Amy Lutzke, secretary/treasurer of the Friends of Lorine Niedecker, the group that spearheaded the project.

“When the poetry walls first started, we wanted to capture the local imagination and get people thinking as well as raise the visibility of Fort Atkinson’s hometown poet, Lorine Niedecker,” said Ann Engelman, a longtime member of the Friends group.

Cynthia Holt came up with the idea, asking, “What if we used Lorine’s words and created public art to go with them?”

The first poetry wall created by the Friends of Lorine Niedecker was supported by with grant funding from the Wisconsin Arts Board and a matching grant from the Fort Atkinson Community Foundation.

The poetry snippet featured on that first wall came from Niedecker’s “Paean to Place,” plucked from a stanza that read:

Fish

fowl

flood

Water lily mud

My life

By featuring these words, project coordinators wanted to inspire people to come up with their own six-word poems or sentences to describe their lives.

(Like “Cat-Book-Fire-All I Desire/My Life”)

“It had its critics,” said Ann Engelman, a longtime “Friends” member. “It was a mural, but not a picture. Some people wondered, ‘Why bother?’ But it has grown on the community.”

In the years since, Engelman said, the public art wall has spurred lots of comment, most of it positive.

She relayed a story one local mom told her about reading the original poetry wall with her children.

It got so every time their car would pull up to the stop sign at that intersection, the kids would recite the words in unison from their spots in the back seat.

Coordinators of the project chose Fort Atkinson artist Jeremy “Guzzo” Pinc to do the murals. Not only was Pinc local, but he was incredibly dynamic and even at that time was making a name for himself across the region.

In addition, project coordinators knew Pinc would work with the local community to preserve the downtown heritage.

“He did a lot of research, and as a result he chose not to paint on any original (untouched) Cream City brick,” Engelman said. “Rather, he chose walls that had been painted before.”

WALL 2

Flash forward another decade and the second poetry wall went up on the brick facade right across the intersection.

This wall was a little less straightforward, with a crazy quilt look. The words from the poem were right there next to each-other but done in a variety of styles as if cross-stitched over different-colored backgrounds that had themselves been sewn in from various sources.

“This wall was more of a puzzle. It flummoxed some people,” Engelman said. “But if you spend three minutes in front of it, you can sort it out.”

The textile and stitchery look of the second wall was a nod to the famous quilt collection on display at the local Hoard Historical Museum.

“The overall idea was to make people think about themselves in relation to their place,” Engelman said.

This too featured a clip from “Paean to Place.” a poetry snippet that reads:

“I was the solitary plover

a pencil

for a wing-bone

From the secret notes

I must tilt”

WALL 3

Poetry Wall No. 3, in the process of being completed right now, challenges people to reflect on their thoughts.

“We are in the middle of a very divided time,” Engelman said.

She noted that the Friends of Lorine Niedecker wanted to create a piece of public art that brought people together

This poem reads:

“Mergansers

fans

on their heads

Thoughts on things

fold unfold

above the river beds”

The third poetry wall was meant to unfold quietly, without the “hoopla” of public dedications that has accompanied the previous walls.

“We want people to make the discovery on their own,” Engelman said.

“It looks great,” Lutzke said of the new wall, noting that the location is highly visible and the colors fit really well with the setting and with Niedecker’s work and natural themes.

The poetry fests which the Friends of Lorine Niedecker had been so intimately involved really took a hit due to the pandemic, and plans for another were placed on the back burner.

Instead, the Friends group decided to focus again on outdoor art that celebrated the words and ideas of Fort Atkinson’s native poet.

Engelman said that Niedecker — and those who have celebrated her in the local community since her passing — has put Fort Atkinson on the literary map.

“We are home to the Niedecker collection — her papers, her letters are preserved at the (Hoard Historical) museum and the (Dwight Foster Public) library.

Her writings have been digitized a part of the University of Wisconsin Historical Museum’s special collections.

Meanwhile, the Friends of Lorine Niedecker have built partnerships with humanities, arts and cultural organizations and institutions from around the region.

“There is value in poetry you can’t quite find elsewhere,” Engelman said. “At the times you want just the right words, maybe a wedding, a funeral or a ceremony honoring someone you care about, it’s hard to craft the sentiment you want on demand.”

In poetry, however, people can find just what they wanted to say, and ultimately, exposure to well-crafted words helps people hone their own words and deepen their own thought.

“When you think about your own words, it helps you define yourself in your place. I think that helps you balance and settle, especially in turbulent times like these,” Engelman said.

She encourages everyone to check out Fort Atkinson’s own “poet of place” and to think about her words — do they still apply to this place, and to the natural world that abounds around us, connecting the people who live here now, and those who came before?

“She is the brick that brought all of this together — the poetry walls, the murals in the local schools,” Engelman said. “None of this would have happened without her work.”

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