Susan Kasten
October 02, 2019

A Meaningful Collaboration

The first public sculpture to be erected in South Beloit, Illinois, honors the area’s Ho-Chunk heritage and the tribe’s continuing verve. The initial idea for the artwork emerged from a Beloit College class taught by Professor of Art History Jo Ortel, shown at the September dedication with Ezra Rogers’19, one of the student leaders behind the project.

The city of South Beloit’s first public sculpture has roots in a Beloit College art class and a longtime friendship between the college and Truman Lowe, an internationally acclaimed Ho-Chunk artist and longtime University of Wisconsin professor of art.

The steel sculpture, an artistic representation of a Native American dwelling, is located at Nature at the Confluence, an urban environmental center less than two miles southwest of campus in Illinois, along the state line.

The idea for the artwork first surfaced in 2018, when Ezra Rogers’19, Michael Spencer’18, and Jake Wallace’18 proposed it as a class project. Their assignment for a class called “Contemporary Art in an Age of Global Warming” was to devise a plan for public art at the Confluence—then pitch it as if it were real.

Professor of Art History Jo Ortel, who created and taught the course, explains that the assignment was tied to theories about sustainability that emphasize the importance of honoring and respecting local history. To that end, one of the speakers to visit the class was Therese Oldenburg, executive director of the Confluence. Rogers, Spencer, and Wallace became interested in the Confluence and its history as a Native American village after hearing Oldenburg speak. “The further we dug into the research, the more we didn’t understand why that history wasn’t being highlighted,” says Rogers. “That’s what drove us to pursue the project.”

The land, where the Rock River and Turtle Creek converge, was first inhabited by residents of a large Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) settlement called Ke-Chunk—Turtle Village in English—which thrived until the early 1830s. Later, the area was neglected and degraded by unregulated dumping. With recent land restoration and the opening of Nature at the Confluence, this location is returning to its bucolic roots with a restored prairie, hiking trails, pollinator gardens, and a mission to connect people with nature.

Professor Ortel, a friend of Lowe’s and author of a 2004 book about his art, suggested the students consider collaborating with him to give their project an authentic voice. Rogers says when they spoke to Lowe about it, “he lit up at the idea” and agreed to take on the project.

In an almost imperceptible shift, an idea that originated as a class assignment began evolving into a viable project that Ortel thought had the potential to be built.

Ortel, Rogers, and Confluence staff helped to raise funds and promote the idea of a sculpture to South Beloit officials. Rogers even had the opportunity to help build a template of the model Lowe created. Metal fabricators used the template to build the structure. The project took off as Lowe, Ortel, the students, city officials, and the Confluence leadership championed the project to honor the land’s Ho-Chunk heritage.

“Ke-Chunk Ciporoke” was dedicated in September 2019 and now stands as a visible reminder of the area’s original inhabitants and the continued vitality of the Ho-Chunk people. It also serves as a tangible tribute to Lowe. The artist, whose fruitful relationship with Beloit included many class visits and exhibits in the Wright Museum of Art, passed away in March 2019 after a battle with cancer, not long after he completed the design.

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