Making Ho-Chunk History Visible Through Contemporary Environmental Art

Beloit art students work with artist Truman Lowe to create a piece that honors the Ho-Chunk Nation.

In spring 2018, students in Professor Jo Ortel’s “Contemporary Art in an Age of Global Warming” course were busy brainstorming ideas for their final project: a proposal for an art initiative at Nature at the Confluence, a nearby environmental center in South Beloit. After the center’s director, Therese Oldenburg, visited class and explained the Center’s history, students Ezra Rogers’19, Michael Spencer’18, and Jacob Wallis’18 were inspired to propose a cultural piece that would honor the Ho-Chunk’s inhabitation of the lands in the 1800s. Up until 1832, a large Ho-Chunk village existed at the confluence of the Turtle Creek and Rock River.

However, when the group presented their idea to fellow classmates, they met some resistance and concerns about cultural appropriation. It became clear that revisions were needed and that including a Ho-Chunk voice in the process was critical.

Enter: Truman Lowe. A professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Truman is an internationally acclaimed sculptor and installation artist, as well as a member of Ho-Chunk Nation. Jo was highly familiar with Truman’s work, as she worked closely with him in the creation of Woodland Reflections, a monograph about his life as a contemporary Native American artist. As Jo writes in her book, Lowe is known for creating large abstract works in wood and metal; works that are “inspired by many elements of his world, among them river eddies, willows, waterfalls, bluffs and dunes, and the architecture of the handmade canoe.”

Jo suggested the group reach out to Truman, and he got to work designing a concept model of an open-form structure, based loosely on the shape of traditional Ho-Chunk dwellings. This fall, Ezra decided to get even more involved with the project by making it the topic of his senior capstone; he’s committed to seeing the concept model become a reality as a life-size sculpture at Nature of the Confluence. While Truman’s original small model is made from willow branches and rawhide, the finished sculpture will be metal and measure about 12 ft. wide and 6 ½ - 7 ft. tall. Truman, Ezra, and Jo are still deliberating about what type of metal to use and are in the process of narrowing down materials. The Hooper Corporation in Madison— a company familiar with Lowe’s aesthetic— will fabricate the final piece.

Bill Quackenbush, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation, pointed out that the form of Lowe’s sculpture does not match a traditional Ho-Chunk dwelling. But, as Jo writes in her book about Truman, this is consistent with his style: He makes art “that is neither entirely representational nor exactly abstract. His recurrent themes are the natural environment and aspects, real and imagined, of his Native American heritage.” When making the accompanying signage, Ezra knows that he’ll have to be clear that the piece is an artistic representation, not an exact replica.

While Truman’s structure may not be an exact replica, it’s clear that Ezra feels that this journey—from idea to installation— is one that couldn’t be replicated within the walls of the classroom. Traveling to Madison to work on the life-size model of Truman’s concept has been a hands-on experience that Rogers describes as “something you could never get in the classroom itself.”

Fundraising for the project is still ongoing, but Ezra and Jo are confident that the project will be fully funded soon. Nicole Fredericks’17, a Beloit graduate and current staff member at the Confluence, has also played a key part in the process, contributing her skills as a successful grant writer. Nature at the Confluence Director Therese Oldenburg, South Beloit Mayor Ted Rehl, and Jo all envision that this sculpture could be the first of a series; Beloit College students could act as facilitators, identifying appropriate artists and connecting them with the Confluence site.

For Ezra, this capstone experience “ties in a lot of elements that I’ve done over my four years here.” An environmental studies and education double major, Rogers’ original hope was to create educational programming for a local environmental center like Welty or Nature at the Confluence. The sculpture will certainly accomplish this as a permanent exhibit that makes Ho-Chunk history visible and that reminds visitors to the Confluence of the long history of human interaction with land in the stateline region. However, as the first public art sculpture at Nature of the Confluence, this piece will not only commemorate past history, but it will also celebrate the present-day vitality of the Wisconsin Ho-Chunk and the cultural contributions of a prominent local Ho-Chunk artist. As Ezra was clear to emphasize, “This [project] is really about Lowe and Lowe’s perspective. We’re just the catalyst to allow it to happen.”

By: Jen Oskin
November 24, 2018

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