Rhinelander School of the Arts, July, 2009

Maryo Gard Ewell


[NOTE:  X and Y are people who will read quotes in character. They are seated with scripts, simply joining in, conversationally, on cue].

Maryo: The year was 1948.  My phone rang.  Wakelin McNeil, 4-H Ranger, was on the line.

X: There are 9 people from rural Wisconsin who took up my offer for 4-H leaders to learn creative writing.

Y:  I wish I’d known they were coming today.  I’m pretty busy.

X: One of the women has 13 children. 

Y: A farm woman with 13 children has time to come to Madison and talk about writing? 

X: She’s here.

Y: All right, I’ll see them right now. Where?

Maryo: I found the 9 people in a hot room that looked out on the slope down to Lake Mendota.  There were 8 women and one boy. They waited for me to say something, and as I  paused a moment looking at them I  forgot that they had come to Madison to talk about the technical processes of creative writing.  They became, instead, a symbol of people I had  encountered in my wanderings, people who knew a wordless appreciation of the theater that was life. 

Y: You are like a group of my neighbors when I was a kid down in Kansas.

X: You remind me a little bit of a neighbor of mine up in Manitowoc County.  He’s a farmer.  Not really a very good farmer.

Y: Why did you come?

X: I don’t know exactly.  Except that we’ve heard that you want people to write about their own places and the folks they know well.  I think I could do that.

Y: Tell me about yourselves.  Where did you come from and what kind of places are they? 

Maryo: And then began one of the most incredible experiences I ever had.  These 9 persons stayed at the University for three days; and every day about 9:00 in the morning we would start talking together.  And as we talked our lives and the struggle in them emerged to lie against the whole fabric of our native places; and as we talked, hour after hour, a kind of fantastic play that was like life itself began to emerge and to encompass us all within its spaceless and formless self.  There were times when we would speak, not as ourselves, but as imaginary characters that grew from our talk of people and events that were as real as the earth itself.  The whole affair was a kind of dramatic ecstasy in which we were both the actors and the audience, the dancers and the music. 

When the three days were over, it was as though a kind of dream had ended, with no more explanation than that with which it had begun.  Then we awoke suddenly and realized that we had hardly mentioned the processes of writing at all and that, instead of a partly completed      manuscript tucked in pocket or purse, we had only a confused but terribly exhilarating sense of  something that had stirred our lives.

Y: I have met with hundreds of groups like this one, and I have seen hundreds of plays, but I have never had a deeper sense of theater than we have had together.

X:   I think it was because we all had something to express, and we did express it, and maybe the memory of it is somehow better than the written play.

Y: I wish there were more persons like yourselves.

X: Mr. Gard, there are hundreds and thousands of rural men and women who live on the land and love the land and who understand the true meaning of the seasons and man’s relationship to man and to his God.

Y: If that is so, the plays they send to me don’t reflect such an appreciation.

Maryo: She replied that she thought one reason the plays reflected little poetic appreciation of the area was because everything was made to seem too complex, too technical, too difficult.  She said there must be a great, free expression. 

X:  If the people of Wisconsin knew that someone would encourage them  to express  themselves in any way they chose, if they knew that they were free of scenery and stages and pettiness that plays we do seem so full of, if they knew that someone would back them and help them when they wanted help, it is my opinion that there would be such a rising of creative expression as is yet unheard of in Wisconsin, and it would really all be a part of the kind of theater we had had these past three days, for the whole expression would be of and about ourselves.   [ from Gard, Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America]

“Of and about ourselves.” 

This moment, 60 years ago, was when the Wisconsin Rural Writers Association was conceived.  Literally, within just a few years, thousands of people in Wisconsin were meeting in their communities, reading the stories and poems and plays that Gard knew lurk inside of everyone.  Gard believed that people just need to be given a little permission and a little support and that the outpouring of creativity in Wisconsin could be unbounded.  Indeed, membership in WRWA grew so fast and so big that pretty soon they had to change the name to the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association.  How many of you are members of that?

But while this is a neat story, here in Wisconsin, it’s not a surprising one.  Here at the School of the Arts a few years ago, George Tzougros, director of the Wisconsin Arts Board, said that there is something special about the arts in Wisconsin, that there’s just something “in the water.”

And the reason?  First, there’s the all-important context that we in Wisconsin share: the Wisconsin Idea.  And second, it did have something to do with Bob Gard, the man. 

I was asked to tell you a little about both. Let me start with the man, and then show you what a perfect fit he was for the context of the Wisconsin Idea. In fact, I’ll have to move back and forth between man and context, for they are inseparable.  I hope that when I’m done, you’ll see where the School of the Arts came from,  you’ll see why it makes such sense for  you to be here this week, and I hope you’ll have a few ideas to take back  home with you.

So who was Bob Gard? Well, Gard was a storyteller.  So, it seems only fitting that I tell you some little stories.  Each is, of course, an illustration of something very important that I believe he stood for.  Each is a metaphor.

First, let me tell you about my tenth birthday. I had four friends over and my folks were very mysterious about what was going to happen. When my friends arrived, we were led to the back yard.  Three large pieces of cardboard had been propped up against trees – they read, Act One, Act Two, Act Three.  We were told that the name of the play was to be “The Diamond in the Corn.”  We were provided with a big piece of quartz.  We were provided with a box of old clothes.  We were told that we had one hour, and that all of our parents would be over to watch the play at 4:00. Of course, we invented and produced and performed a play. (To wild applause, I might add.)

Another vignette.  I am now, maybe, 13 years old.  Often, over dessert, my father and I would get into punning contests.  But no ordinary puns.  No, the rule was, the pun had to be on a Wisconsin place name.  The dumber, the better.

X:  Who was that girl I saw you with last night?

Maryo:  Oh, Claire?        [Eau Claire]

X:  Hey, hiker!  Did you go on the luxury walk?

Maryo:  No, I went on the uhcono muh- walk.   [Oconomowoc]

X: Hey, waitress!  Where's my soup? 

Maryo:  Soup?  Here y'are!   [Superior]

A third vignette.  Sundays, or Thanksgiving Days, watching the Green Bay Packers with my dad.  As in many Wisconsin homes, the Sunday meal was planned to take kickoff time into account.  My father loved the Packers (as do I; in the fall, I carry my inflatable cheesehead with me at all time so that regardless of where I am at kickoff time I can simply inflate my cheesehead, and be ready).  Duh.  I thought this was just about football.  It wasn't, of course.

Next vignette.  My best friend was Becky Herb, and her father was a very prominent physicist.  Over beer one night, I remember my dad asking Mr. Herb, “Well, now, Ray, what do you think about power?”  Ray Herb looked kind of stunned for a moment.  But this drew the humanist and the physicist into a far-reaching, lengthy conversation that plumbed the meaning of what it meant to be a human being, a conversation that lasted long after Becky and I fell asleep in our chairs.

Finally.  My dad kind of looked like Abraham Lincoln.  He really did.  He was cast as Lincoln in at least two plays that I saw him in.  An old friend from grade school contacted me recently and said, “I remember your dad, he looked like Abraham Lincoln.”

Why do I tell you these stories?

The birthday party story illustrates his principle that anything, however ordinary, is the raw material for creative response.  Whatever the circumstances – a birthday party, selecting your wardrobe for the day, interacting with your friends, discussing zoning in your community – there is good material there, and it’s our responsibility to see that this situation is taken “through the creative, above the ordinary,” as he said in 1969, which adds a dimension of understanding, of significance, that it did not have before.

Those dumb puns!  Life growing up was about Wisconsin.  Always, Wisconsin.  Its beauty, its challenges, its government, its history, its people..  Place names.  Places.  The critical importance of a sense of place.  The meaning of where you live.  And how you share that life with your neighbors.

The Packers?  Because the Packers are not just a football team.  Their name, the Packers – we're talking about Meat Packers, you know: the name of the team was an homage to the working people of Green Bay.  And you know that the Packers are not owned by a single rich man: they are owned by stockholders, are governed by a board of directors, and they cannot be dissociated from their place, from Green Bay.  Their charter says that they cannot move to another city.  If they end, they end; and the proceeds of the sale go the Green Bay Packers Foundation.  Again, the importance of place.  But also, the importance of the people.  The working people of Wisconsin.  The people who own the football team. 

The story about Mr. Herb, the physicist?  My father believed that no idea was too big for human beings.  “Power” wasn't something that belonged to scientists or social scientists.  “Power,” like God, or meaning, or humanity, or beauty, is a big idea, worthy of discussion, and he passionately wanted all of us to talk about the biggest of ideas.

And finally, noting his resemblance to Lincoln?  He was proud of that.  Of the people, by the people, for the people, was the hallmark of his life.

Now I need to switch to telling you a little about the Wisconsin Idea and the arts.  But remember as I do so the five little vignettes, because the fit is a perfect one.

When I was growing up, I also saw how little my dad was home.  Perhaps that's one reason I'm a community arts person by heart and by profession today: to see my dad, I had to accompany him on some of his trips, and I did.  He was utterly driven by the Wisconsin Idea.   

That was a grand and brilliant idea, conceived in the early 1900’s by Governor Fighting Bob LaFollette, and University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise, that the boundaries of the University of Wisconsin campus are the boundaries of the state of Wisconsin. Fighting Bob and Charles were undergraduate friends at the University of Wisconsin, both influenced by the ideals of President Bascom, about the relationship of education and, we’d call it today, community-building.  La Follette and Van Hise believed that the University's mission was to deliver an education to anyone in Wisconsin, whether they could get to Madison or not, to make Wisconsin and its communities as strong and government as participatory, as possible. So that was the impetus behind the creation of WHA Radio …

X and Y  - “oldest station in the nation” -

Maryo: - to deliver distance-learning classes to people. That was the impetus behind correspondence courses which were invented in Wisconsin; and the mandate to professors to be off campus, in Wisconsin's communities, helping people learn.  LaFollette and Van Hise believed that if everyone's passion to learn were fulfilled, if everyone's talents were fulfilled with help from the University of Wisconsin, then the university would have justified public funding. But also, Wisconsin and its communities, economics and government would be healthy and strong, for people would be working at what they loved, and participating in civic affairs would follow.  A famous Dean of Extension, Louis Reber, supposedly said this:

X: Whatever the people wanted or could use, I favor bringing to their doorstep, whether it be philosophy or sanitation, literature or labor relations.

So the Wisconsin Idea was broad, and was all about service, putting the experts to work to serve the needs of the people.  In the arts, President Van Hise said:

Y: I would have no mute, inglorious Milton in this state; I would have everybody who has a talent have an opportunity to find his way so far as his talent will carry him. [quoted in Howe, Wisconsin, An Experiment in Democracy] 

During the 1920’s, Professor Edgar Gordon of the Music Department – Pop Gordon they called him – put this idea into action, crisscrossing Wisconsin by train, helping people form community singing societies.  Pop didn’t stop at inspiring singing in person; he also was the original Singalong Man, broadcasting songs on the radio for home singalongs. 

Theater was especially vibrant in the early days in Wisconsin.  Professor Thomas Dickinson at the University of Wisconsin in Madison wanted to start staging plays in the late 19-aughts.  Sadly, at the time, this just couldn’t happen on campus – was live theater really education? – so he took his dramatic urges off campus and the Wisconsin Dramatic Society was the result.  Not only did it involve students, but it involved anyone in Wisconsin who wanted to write plays, to get better at writing plays, and to produce plays.  You surely know the name of Zona Gale, playwright from Portage, who wrote “The Neighbors,” perhaps the most famous of the plays written for the Wisconsin Dramatic Society.  There was a strong overtone of community engagement among the Dramatic Society folk, too: Miss Gale indicated, in her preface to “The Neighbors” that any group that planted a community tree – a Christmas tree, a shade tree – could use her play royalty-free. 

X: One tree for every performance. And if the producers wish to give really good measure for the use of the play, it is recommended that they conclude the evening with a community gathering, with community singing and dancing, and a discussion of the things which their community needs. [quoted in Grassroots Theater, p 15-16]

And we thought that WE invented community-building through the arts!

There was a Bureau of Dramatic Activities at the University, within Extension, and the Bureau worked with groups such as the Vernon County homemakers who conceived of the idea of a “home talent play” that they could produce at the county fair.  During the 1920’s he Bureau helped by providing scripts or even on-site technical help in directing and producing the shows, and within just a few years, a score of Wisconsin counties was competing for statewide prizes in local playwriting and production.

UW President Glenn Frank was especially interested in theater of this kind – theater of, by and for the people.  He wasn’t especially interested in the production of plays written by people outside of a community; he was intrigued by the idea of what was called “folk drama” – plays written locally, about local issues.  In 1925 he said, 

Y: There’s a gap somewhere in the soul of the people that troops into the theater but never produces a folk drama… The arts are vital, if in the years ahead we are to master instead of being mastered by the vast, complex and swiftly moving technical civilization. [quoted in Grassroots Theater]

And art, too!  During the 1930’s, there was a Dean of Agriculture named Chris Christensen.  He had a vision, totally in keeping with the Wisconsin Idea, of turning the College of Agriculture into something like the Danish Folk School in which the people, the farmers, learned about their own culture while they learned about farming.  Dean Chris said,

X: I feel very definitely that education in our agricultural colleges must be broad and include many things beyond those methods and practices used in making money.  Our educational process needs to deal with good literature, art, music, history – the cultural side of life – as well as the practical training for better farming.  An understanding and appreciation of art, I believe, is an important phase of an enriched cultural development among rural people.  [Schmeckebier, Laurence,  John Steuart Curry's Pageant of America, New York, American Artists Group, 1943, p. 82] 

With this perspective, Dean Chris thought that an artist-in-residence for the College of Agriculture might be just the thing. Think of it.  No other college or university art department in the nation had envisioned this but, yes, the College of Agriculture in Wisconsin did!  The idea was that Dean Chris’ artist wouldn’t teach regular classes but would be of service to the other departments, as needed, and most importantly would help rural people statewide paint and draw, just as the theater and music people were helping Wisconsonians produce plays and sing.  So the Dean hopped a train to Iowa and asked his friend Grant Wood to recommend someone. Grant thought that John Steuart Curry, formerly of Kansas, now in Connecticut, would be perfect, so the Dean hopped a train to Connecticut.  And the rest is history: Curry became the Ag school’s artist-in-residence.  His service to the campus even included sketching the football team in scrimmages; his service to Wisconsin’s latent painters was extraordinary.  His mantra – “paint what you know” – elicted breathtaking work from farmers and their family members across the state.  He said,

Y: If you feel the significance of the life, the design builds itself.  The feeling inherent in the life of  the world cannot be ignored or trifled with for the sake of theory. [Mathiak, Lucy, “Bringing Life to

Canvas:   John  Steuart Curry and the Rural Art Program,” The Art of Rural Wisconsin 1936-60 Exhibit Catalogue, Madison, Department of Agricultural Journalism UW-Madison, 1985, p. 6]

By learning to see, by painting through their own eyes and hearts, rather than by some textbook method, people created remarkable pieces – on paper, board, on any surface at all.  This, too, grew into a movement, initially the Rural Art Project, then the Wisconsin Regional Artists.  About the same time, 1936, “Let’s Draw!” went on the air on WHA, and thousands and thousands of young Wisconsonians got their first art lessons via the voice of Mr. Schwalbach.

Bob Gard was totally bitten by this Wisconsin Idea bug when he came here in 1945.  He was determined that there would be no mute Miltons in Wisconsin.  If someone wanted to write, well then he would help them write.  He was determined that there should never be unproduced plays.   If there were such plays, especially plays which were about a local place, which ascribed meaning to a locale, well then he would do what he could to help ensure that they were produced.   

Driven by this vision, he became a Knight of the Wisconsin Idea, working backstage at the University, which he has described in Grassroots Theater.

X: The backstage of the University of Wisconsin exists in a converted monument works, in a side of the football stadium, and in huts and basements.  In the warrens of these places is the material of tremendous educational schemes in almost every subject.  Here are Great Books programs, citizen's forums, leadership courses, vast schemes of audio-visual development, hundreds of correspondence courses taught by green-eye-shaded men and women who read manuscripts and mark papers in the warrens and never see the students they correspond with.  Here is a department that answers questions about any subject.  Here, in special institutes, is professional education for mail carriers, firemen, preachers...factory foremen, recreational leaders, district attorneys... Here are fleets of cars, oiled, gassed, ready for the road.  And here are drivers, many with PhD's, to hurl the cars about the state, crossing and crisscrossing, holding the steering wheels like the reins of chargers, carrying out missions, leading a new kind of crusade... In Madison, in many modest homes, wives wait for their men, their Knights of the Wisconsin Idea, and wish guiltily at times for quiet professorships in tiny colleges.  Travel, speed, and sometimes death are all part of the backstage of the Wisconsin Idea.  Fog, slippery roads, deep snow, perpetual colds, hotel rooms and lonely beds are the commonplace items.  The Knights are sober men, basically good family men, and they have a tremendous belief that what they are doing is important. [Grassroots Theater]

Do you remember the story we started this talk with, about the writers workshop for the 7 people held in 1948?    After the Tall, Gray lady had talked about the possibility of an expression “of and about ourselves,” Gard, and his staff of two, invited anyone in Wisconsin to send them manuscripts, just to test the waters.  He thought that, perhaps, they might receive 50 samples.

Y: It was with some dismay that we found our mailboxes loaded each morning with manuscripts.  To the horror of my already overburdened small staff, over 1000 poems were sent in a few days time.  There were short stories, too, and a few plays.  The curious thing was that the material was, for the most part, excellent.  For a while, until I could get special help, we were all reading innumerable manuscripts every day, at lunch, at dinner, at night, and all of us would usually be walking from this to that task with several rural life poems or stories or plays sticking out of our pockets.  [Grassroots Theater]

In its first year, the membership of WRWA surpassed 1,000, with regional chapters in 8 counties.  Gard was driven to help people write. Everyone who ever met him has exchanged at least one story in which they'd been babbling along, Gard looking off into the far distance, and all of a sudden, in the middle of a sentence he'd interrupt and say, “Mike, there's a book in that.”  “Maryo, why don’t you write that up.”  “Miranda, I think there's a solid little book of poems there.”

After his death, my mother had me go through my dad's library.  There were scores and scores of books there, and most had inscriptions in the flyleaf:

X: If everyone you have helped had sent you a copy of their published works, your library must be floor to ceiling on all sides, filled with books you have inspired.  Thank you for your help and encouragement.”  Jean Lindsay Johnson.       [inscription in a book in Gard's library]

Y: “You are, by your very being, the quiet activator of my endeavors.”  Connie Conrader, Author of Blue Wampum.    [inscription] 

X:  “Especially for Robert Gard: his creative writing class at College Week for Women was my first stepping stone.”  Fran Sprain, authors of Places & Faces in Marquette County, Wisconsin.    [inscription]

Y:This must be your sixtieth volume of appreciation from grateful young authors, but I hope it is a credit to your sympathetic patience, deep perception, and unlimited optimism.  Thank you for all your help.  I hope you approve of this book.”  Gratefully, Chuck Mark, author of Run Away Home. [nscription]

In his library there were books on insects of Wisconsin, murders of Wisconsin, stories and lore of Wisconsin; family histories; and books on farm life.  Yes, if it was your passion, Bob Gard wanted you to write about it.  In a foreword to Pen & Plow, the WRWA journal, he said,

X: The hope was to develop in this state a worthy homegrown literature of the people.  The writers were to be the people themselves, the folks from farms, towns and crossroads scattered from the lakeshore to the Mississippi, from the resort country of the North to the lead-mining towns of the Southwest.  The material in this booklet is a further insight into the heart of Wisconsin, a soul-searching by the people themselves for the universal truths and impulses. [Pen & Plow]

Gard was a writer himself, and he especially wrote about Wisconsin – her stories and her people.  He certainly didn’t coin the term “sense of place,” but that was what mattered to him. He felt that an artist must investigate personal questions like, Why did I come to this place?  Why do I stay?  What am I looking for?  And the artist then must struggle to understand and articulate his or her community.  Who came there first?  What were their dreams?  What were their struggles in terms of class, in terms of race?  What was their dignity?  How does all of this inform how the community is today? What is the meaning of living here?  Gard saw “people” and “place” as inseparable ideas.  In the preface to his last book, Coming Home to Wisconsin, he says this, as he looks back on his career: 

Y:  This is a book filled with the present and the past, which achievement and failure, with love for a state which I have made my own.  It is about land and wind and people who came seeking the meaning of their lives; and it is about me who also came seeking the meaning of mine…  I hope that within this book a person – myself – and the land – Wisconsin – are portrayed as inseparable.... [Gard, Coming Home to Wisconsin]

By 1970, the arts extension program had hit its zenith. Twenty-eight artists in Extension with mandates to do Wisconsin Idea work in all of the arts: to assist community and liturgical dance programs, to work with high school bands or rock-n-roll bands  or the state's Youth Symphony or organists in rural churches or Norwegian Folk Fiddlers or African drummers; to help strengthen community theater and 4-H drama; to continue Curry’s work of the Regional Art Program; to support  the Regional Writers Program, and more – including, to found and nurture the School of the Arts at Rhinelander.  Gard's Wisconsin Idea Theater inspired people throughout the state. The “Theater” was not a place, but rather, it was a vision. A vision of Wisconsin's “uprising of creative expression.”  But the Wisconsin Idea Theater was also the name of a touring company, run by his colleague David Peterson.  David wrote and produced plays that captured Wisconsin stories and history and toured statewide, to places ranging from county fairs to Camp Randall Football Stadium in Madison and even to Spring Green where the company performed for Mrs. Lyndon Johnson.  And what was the show that they presented to Mrs. Johnson?  Well, isn’t it fitting, given where we are today, that the show was “Hodag!” based on the Rhinelander story that you surely know if you’ve been in town for more than 5 minutes, or if you look at the mascot for this very school out front.  The show premiered here, of course, complete with a parade.  A Wisconsin story, but written of, by and for Wisconsin people.  And guess who played the leading role, that of Gene Shepard, the Rhinelander trickster?  Well, our very own Rogers Keene, of course:

Y (sings): It’s known as a Hodag, oh it’s frightening

            Hodag, but enlightening

            Soon the world will hear the fame of it

            What’s the name of it

            Hodag, it’s bewilderin’

            Hodag, keep your children in-

            Side, because it’s rushin about

            And it might get out

            It’s 10 feet long and covered with hide

            Unless I’m wrong it’s 4 feet wide

            Mean and ugly and fit to be tied

            Wait’ll you see it, you’ll be petrified

                                                                        Peterson, Dave, “Hodag!” 1967

Yes, even the “Hodag!” song hearkened back to President Van Hise worrying that there might be a “mute, inglorious Milton” in Wisconsin if his or her talent were not discovered.  It responded to  President Frank's fear that if people didn't make their own art, if people were mere passive consumers, then they would mastered by technology, would be seriously compromised as a democratic people.

Gard said,

X:  In terms of American democracy, the arts are for everyoneAs art activity is developed, the community is re-created.  The vital roots of every phase of life are touched.  As the community is awakened to its opportunity in the arts, it becomes a laboratory through which the vision of the region is reformulated and extended       .[Gard et al, The Arts in the Small Community]

So here it all comes together. The Wisconsin Idea and the personality of Bob Gard.  Abraham Lincoln and Robert LaFollette’s and Charles Van Hise’s and Bob Gard’s passionate belief in democracy: government of, by and for the people, with the arts playing their part in making this vision real.  The Packers – the team owned by the people, unable to be severed from its community.  The birthday party – creative vision in the most ordinary of events.  The conversation with Mr. Herb – always thinking big.  And ah, those puns – it’s Wisconsin, always Wisconsin.  The person and the Wisconsin Idea and the place, inseparable.  

I want to close with Gard's words, written in 1969. 

Maryo:  If you try, what may you expect? 

X:  First a community, Welded through art to a new consciousness of self:

A new being, perhaps a new appearance.

Y: A people proud

Of achievements, which lift them through the creative, above the ordinary.

Maryo:  A new opportunity for children

To find exciting experiences in art, And to carry this excitement on

Throughout their lives.

X:  A mixing of peoples and backgrounds

Through art.

Y: A new view

Of hope for mankind and an elevation

Of man, not degradation.

Maryo:  Let's close this talk together, for it is “of and about ourselves”:  Repeat after me:

  New values for individual and community life .......       

And a sense that here In our place.......  (now let's do this again, but you shout out the name of     your place)

And a sense that here in _______________ 

We are contributing....

To the maturity of a great nation....

If you try....

You can indeed...

Alter the face and the heart of America.