Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Liberal Arts has Moved

Hello, fellow arts lovers,

This is a quick note to inform you that Liberal Arts has a new home. 

on the new Madison Magazine website. 

Please visit this new site for artist interviews, performance previews and reviews, details on events and more.


Katie Vaughn
Associate Editor
Madison Magazine

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review: "Church Basement Ladies" Serves Up Laughs

One of my favorite things about Midwesterners is our ability to poke fun at ourselves, to examine our quirks, habits and ways of living and not take it all too seriously.

If you also appreciate a healthy helping of good-natured, self-deprecating ribbing, I’d recommend checking out Church Basement Ladies, a lighthearted musical running at Overture Center through Sunday.

The show follows the four women who run the basement kitchen of a small-town Minnesota Lutheran church in the 1960s. Four scenes see the ladies through preparations for a lefse and lutefisk supper, a friend’s funeral, Easter morning and a wedding.

All the action takes place in the kitchen, which looks exactly like most church kitchens I’ve seen, from the mint-green walls to the accordion screen that can close the room off from the rest of the church.

The characters resonate, too, particularly Mrs. Snustad, the matriarch who ensures everything in her kitchen is just so. And Pastor Gunderson, played by William Christopher from M*A*S*H, is technically in charge but knows the kitchen is not his domain.

It’s these sorts of cultural accuracies that make Church Basement Ladies funny. And the songs follow in that vein. Early on, the women sing “The Pale Food Polka” and celebrate the Bible of their kitchen, “The Joy of Butter” cookbook. Later, they explain the differences between Lutherans and Catholics and grill the youngest of the group about the rules of church cooking—namely that lasagna is never served at funerals and casseroles only answer to the name “hotdish.”

But the musical isn’t all pokes at small-town life and the Midwestern dialect. There are a few poignant moments, such as when the pastor struggles to write a eulogy for his friend and when Mrs. Snustad reveals why she’s so resistant to change.

That said, audiences come to this play to laugh and they probably don’t leave disappointed. At last night’s show, the crowd absolutely howled anytime quirky Mavis dealt with hot flashes or other symptoms of menopause. In fact, how strongly the audience—most of whom probably experienced a church basement meal or two in the 1960s—connected to the play was a highlight of the evening.

The musical was such a hit last summer that Overture decided to bring it back for a limited run. Should this second helping prove popular? Oh, you betcha.

Church Basement Ladies runs through August 23 at Overture Center. Performances are Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18–$35. For tickets or more information, call 258.4141 or visit

Photos courtesy of Overture Center.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Shared Vision

Working together on a project can be difficult. Each person brings his or her own skills, inspirations, goals and working styles, and sometimes combining them as a group can be a challenge.

Fortunately, that’s not what happened when Amy Newell, Rachel Davis and Lauren Garber Lake joined forces. Instead, the three printmakers combined their individual talents and styles to create a beautiful and poetic series of prints and collages.

The three were graduate school classmates in UW–Madison’s art department. Newell, an associate curator at Tandem Press, had collaborated with Garber Lake and Davis before, but the trio had never worked together on a project. They decided to pursue a group project and thought an arts residency at Edenfred would be the ideal place to do it.

“After hearing about Edenfred a few years ago, we had the idea to try and recreate our grad school experience,” Newell says. “There was a group of about ten of us who worked together in the studio, had classes together and held critique groups together. Everyone from this group had moved away from Madison but were always pining to come back. So we decided to apply to Edenfred as a group.”

The goal was for the group to create both independent and collaborative projects, but things didn’t work out exactly as planned.

“By the time we got our acceptance letter from Edenfred, two people were pregnant, one was getting married and a few others had backed out for a variety of reasons,” Newell says. “It was down to just me, Lauren and Rachel.”

The three spent two weeks last August and September at Edenfred. But before arriving, Davis, a Chicago artist, sent her partners the poem Giant Snail by Elizabeth Bishop, which would prove to be the project’s main inspiration.

“She thought it was so visually rich that it might make a good springboard for our collaborative work,” Newell says. “After reading the poem Lauren and I both agreed.”


Here is the poem:

Giant Snail
By Elizabeth Bishop

The rain has stopped. The waterfall will roar like that all
night. I have come out to take a walk and feed. My body—foot,
that is—is wet and cold and covered with sharp gravel. It is
white, the size of a dinner plate. I have set myself a goal, a
certain rock, but it may well be dawn before I get there.
Although I move ghostlike and my floating edges barely graze
the ground, I am heavy, heavy, heavy. My white muscles are
already tired. I give the impression of mysterious ease, but it is
only with the greatest effort of my will that I can rise above the
smallest stones and sticks. And I must not let myself be dis-
tracted by those rough spears of grass. Don’t touch them. Draw
back. Withdrawal is always best.
The rain has stopped. The waterfall makes such a noise! (And
what if I fall over it?) The mountains of black rock give off such
clouds of steam! Shiny streamers are hanging down their sides.
When this occurs, we have a saying that the Snail Gods have
come down in haste. I could never descend such steep escarp-
ments, much less dream of climbing them.
That toad was too big, too, like me. His eyes beseeched my
love. Our proportions horrify our neighbors.
Rest a minute; relax. Flattened to the ground, my body is like
a pallid, decomposing leaf. What’s that tapping on my shell?
Nothing. Let’s go on.
My sides move in rhythmic waves, just off the ground, from
front to back, the wake of a ship, wax-white water, or a slowly
melting floe. I am cold, cold, cold as ice. My blind, white bull’s
head was a Cretan scare-head; degenerate, my four horns that
can't attack. The sides of my mouth are now my hands. They
press the earth and suck it hard. Ah, but I know my shell is
beautiful, and high, and glazed, and shining. I know it well,
although I have not seen it. Its curled white lip is of the finest
enamel. Inside, it is as smooth as silk, and I, I fill it to perfection.
My wide wake shines, now it is growing dark. I leave a lovely
opalescent ribbon: I know this.
But O! I am too big. I feel it. Pity me.
If and when I reach the rock, I shall go into a certain crack
there for the night. The waterfall below will vibrate through
my shell and body all night long. In that steady pulsing I can
rest. All night I shall be like a sleeping ear.


Since Newell, Davis and Garber Lake, a professor at the University of Florida, are all printmakers, they had common ground in working together. Yet each was able to incorporate her own aesthetic and technique into the project.

“We each have our own visual language and brought that, along with all of our tools and bags of tricks, to the studio,” Newell says. “We have looked at each others’ work for years and have a deep appreciation for each others imagery. I think if you are familiar with our individual work you can break down some of the collaborative images into ‘Lauren’s mark,’ ‘Amy’s mark,’ ‘Rachel’s mark,’ but I think their success is in the melding of our individual styles.”

The group’s collaborative prints and collages, as well as wood reliefs by Tandem Press printmaker Andy Rubin, are showcased through August 31 at Sundance Cinemas Madison. A special artists reception with poetry and music takes place tonight at 5:30 p.m.

Images courtesy of Amy Newell.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Keeping it Hot

If you’re bemoaning the fact that it’s August and summer is winding down, I don’t want to hear it! August in Madison is fantastic and absolutely summery thanks in part to two events held annually this month—and only this month.

Both Jazz at Five and Dane Dances are free weekly events open to the public. And both kick off this week, Jazz at Five today and Dane Dances on Friday.

Now in its sixteenth season, Jazz at Five is held, as you might expect, at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays on the 100 block of State Street, right where it meets the Capitol Square. The event offers two sets of live jazz music ranging in style and featuring local, regional and national performers.

Some listeners set up picnics at reserved tables, some bring or rent chairs and others simply stand and take in the music. Jazz at Five sets up a beer tent and other food and beverage vendors are on hand, too.

In case of rain, the concert takes place in Overture lobby, which is quite a nice setting as well. Decisions are made by 2 p.m.—call 310.4462 or tune in to WORT if the weather is questionable.

This season brings about:

The Francesca Johnson Quartet
This young Wisconsin jazz singer, who returned to Madison last year, has a voice that evokes the jazz tradition of the 1950s.
August 5, 5 p.m.

Mike Frost Project
Says Frost of his Chicago-based group, “We play straight-ahead jazz … Essentially we perform a modern-day version of an earlier style but in our own way.”
August 5, 6:30 p.m.

Tim Whalen Nonet
Innovative and unique, Whalen’s hard-swinging group plays with the intricacy of a big band but maintains the freedom of one much smaller.
August 12, 5 p.m.

Leo Sidran, Ben Sidran, Richard Davis, Joy Dragland and Louka Patenaude
This concert marks the first time these five Madison jazz legends, treasures and protégés perform together.
August 12, 6:30 p.m.

Seven Steps to Havana
This septet of international talent with musicians from Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, Ethiopia and America offers music combining salsa and jazz.
August 19, 5 p.m.

Jan Wheaton Quintet
Madison’s beloved jazz vocalist Wheaton credits Nancy Wilson, Billie Holiday and Roberta Flack among her influences.
August 26, 5 p.m.

Richie Cole
A master of the sax, Cole also has more than three thousand compositions and arrangements to his credit today.
August 26, 6:30 p.m.

For more information, call 310.4462 or visit

Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, Dane Dances is held Fridays at 5:30 p.m. on the rooftop of Monona Terrace. Here, all members of the community are invited to get together and boogie down to sounds spun by DJ Laurie Mlatawou and well-known bands.

Ethnic food vendors offer snacks and cocktails and the Lake Vista Café has a special menu for the event each week.

In the case of inclement weather, call 261.4000 after 2 p.m. for an alternative location (either inside Monona Terrace or the Alliant Energy Center).

Here’s what to expect this season:

Christopher’s Project
This rhythm and blues and contemporary jazz group has opened for such legendary acts as The Temptations and The Supremes.
August 7, 6 p.m.

Grupo Candela
This twelve-member band offers up dance-worthy music styles ranging from salsa to merengue to bachata.
August 7, 8 p.m.

Altered Five
Made up of five southern Wisconsin music veterans, this group performs an exciting brand of “rockin’ rhythm ‘n’ blues.”
August 14, 6 p.m.

In Black ‘N White
This popular group has gotten crowds up and dancing throughout the Midwest, including at Milwaukee’s Summerfest.
August 14, 6 p.m.

Primitive Culture
This local band offers a unique blend of funk, blues and tropical rhythms.
August 21, 6 p.m.

A versatile group from Illinois, BBI plays everything from Motown to R&B to classic rock and dance hits.
August 21, 8 p.m.

Que Flavor
Traditional Afro-Cuban dance grooves and other Latin music styles categorize this Madison favorite.
August 28, 6 p.m.

Eddie Butts
This longtime Milwaukee-based band mixes jazz, pop and R&B.
August 28, 8 p.m.

For more information, call 358.5894 or visit

Photos courtesy of Mark Barrett of the Steinway Piano Gallery and Dane Dances.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Worlds Combine

Infinite, sublime, transcendent, enduring, timeless. These are a few of the words often used to describe landscapes.

Mai Wyn Schantz rejects such nostalgic approaches to this type of artwork. Instead, the Wisconsin native-turned Colorado resident injects her paintings with a sense of time, immediacy and contemporariness.

About ten years ago, around the time she graduated from the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design in Denver, Schantz began painting on aluminum. The material provided a frame for her scenes of nature, but it also did more. It placed those scenes in the context of the present-day world.

The juxtaposition isn’t meant to be jarring. Says Schantz in her artist statement, “Despite our fast-paced, industrialized world, we are still innately tied to the land and continually seek to reconnect.”

Her work is about finding a balance between the seemingly opposite forces of the natural and manmade worlds. “It’s the idea that the two can be integrated and the two can be beautiful together or on their own,” she says.

As Schantz has developed her art, she’s made some changes. More aluminum shows through her paintings, say in the space between the trunks of trees. And she’s been focusing on closer-up views of nature than in the past. Instead of vaster and grander imagery, she’s finding—and showing—beauty in water streaming over rocks and lily pads floating on ponds.

“It’s just about stopping and looking at something a little closer,” she says.

Schantz has also been working with a new modern medium: stainless steel. It’s heavier and more durable than aluminum, she says, and it’s more reflective, allowing light to play a stronger role in her works.

A series of Schantz’s recent paintings will be showcased in August at Grace Chosy Gallery. She hopes viewers understand her contemporary approach to the landscape tradition as well as to nature.

“When I did sunsets, people used to say it made them look at skies differently,” she says. “I hope they look at trees a little closer and appreciate the simple beauty.”

Schantz’s work will be showcased at Grace Chosy Gallery, 1825 Monroe St., August 7–29. Gallery hours are Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. For more information, call 255-1211 or visit

Images courtesy of Mai Wyn Schantz.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Square Dance

Once again, Art Fair on the Square proved its place as a quintessential summer event in Madison.

From paintings to photography, metal sculpture to glass art, textiles to jewelry, the annual arts extravaganza was a visual feast.

Here are just a few of the artists whose work jumped out at me as I wound my way around the Capitol Square.

Barns, houses and other rural imagery take on an exquisite, quiet beauty when they’re rendered in pastel landscapes by Chicago artist (and UW–Madison grad) Clare Malloy.

One of Colorado photographer Alan Klug’s specialties is beautiful brown-toned photography of scenes in the United States as well as abroad.

Who knew the humble cow could be such a great muse? Illinois painter Sue Skowronski did, and it’s a pleasure to see the animal from her point of view.

From the vibrant colors to the large scale, David Oleski’s paintings of apples, flowers, a cup of coffee and much more are intriguing, playful and impossible to ignore. I’d love to see more from this Pennsylvania artist in years to come.

It’s hard to know what to expect when you look at a work by Justin D. Miller. And that’s part of what makes exploring the whimsical, fantastical paintings by this Chicago artist so enjoyable.

Eric Lee back-paints sheets of glass, creating bold, colorful and expressionistic glass wall hangings and furniture.

Painting and textile traditions meet in the art of Georgia artist Kathrine Allen-Coleman, who creates mixed-media work that often includes actual dresses.

Urban architecture and natural landscapes alike provide inspiration for Ohio photographer Chris Coffey.

Photos courtesy of the artists’ websites:,,,,,, and

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Art for Thought

What is art? For one, it’s probably a question that’s existed as long as people have been making art. Some argue that they know art when they see it. But what about when you don’t think something is art, but you’re told that it is? What if the works of art on display are things you see—and use—in your daily life?

These are just a few of the questions raised and explored in Return to Function, an exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art that opened in May and runs through August 23.

The show features contemporary artists, many from outside the United States, who create functional objects based on theoretical principles ranging from economics to the environment. Their artwork questions preconceptions about and everyday objects as well as sculpture.

MMoCA’s curator of exhibitions Jane Simon acknowledges the exhibition is among the most challenging the museum has presented. The exhibition catalogue provides an insightful introduction to the concepts presented, drawing interesting comparisons to Marcel Duchamp (who famously exhibited a urinal titled Fountain) and his peers of the early twentieth century.

“This show is a dialogue about art,” Simon says.

The work that greets visitors is Jules de Balincourt’s Personal Survival Doom Buggy, a real doonbuggy stocked with supplies essential to survival in “a post-September-eleventh world,” Simon says.

Also taking on the topic of survival, in very different ways, are François Curlet’s North Park #3, an orange Hermès box and bag with compass embedded in it and a comment on navigating the urban jungle of commercialism, and Ralph Borland’s Suited for Subversion. Borland sought to create a way to protest without getting hurt, with the idea that if a person could safely protest he could ensure his voice would be heard. The heart-shaped padded red suit covers a person’s head and torso. An added detail is a heartbeat that emits from it; the idea behind it was that if police heard a human heart they would recognize that the protester is human.

Several works explore the notion of shelter. Michael Rakowitz’s P(lot) is a temporary shelter that can be set up in a parking space and draw heating and cooling from nearby buildings. Huong Ngo’s Pop-Up Studio, a huge and portable square bubble powered by a simple fan, creates a livable and workable space within its soft walls. And Lucy Orta’s Refuge Wear Habitent is a silver poncho that can be worn, folded up and carried or used as a tent. Some models have a whistle or compass and some can be warmed with body heat.

A few objects are quite small in scale but not in impact. Antal Lakner’s Iners is a series of objects aimed to make people more active, such as an extremely heavy cell phone on display. And then there’s Claire Fontaine’s In God They Trust, a quarter which she has fashioned into a box cutter.

Among the most startling works is DIY (Coffin) by Joe Scanlan, an actual homemade coffin made from three Ikea bookcases. Coffins are typically expensive, Simon points out, so a do-it-yourselfer is quite a democratic gesture. Also poignant is Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga’s Vigamundo: A Migrant’s Tale. The main character of this video game is a migrant laborer; in between levels, statistics about migrant workers flash on the screen.

Visitors have responded well to the exhibition since it opened in May, Simon says, adding that a high school tour especially liked it. She hopes people find the show challenging and eye-opening.

“I hope they understand art can be engaged with issues of the day, even the mundane issues of the everyday,” she says. “It’s not just paint on a canvas.”

For more information on Return to Function, visit

Photos of Orta, Borland and Fontaine’s work courtesy of MMoCA.