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FOLK ART SCHOOLS | INTEREST ‘HAS JUST EXPLODED’

In the 21st century, a boon in folk schools

  • 6 min to read

Folk art schools are a bit like a torch relay — passing the flame of tradition from one person to the next.

In Wisconsin, their future is looking very bright.

In little more than a decade, two schools that teach old-time skills like blacksmithing, bee-keeping or bent willow furniture-building have sprung up in rural southwest Wisconsin. Next summer, there will be another new folk school program near Dodgeville. And in Viroqua, plans are in the works for a four-year micro-college, where students can immerse themselves in back-to-the-land and homesteading skills.

Interest “has just exploded” at Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, said the nonprofit’s board president Mike Christensen. Though Shake Rag calls itself a center for the arts, the school offers folk school-style workshops in everything from forging knives and making natural dyes, to multi-day retreats for writers, mixed media artists, gardeners and woodcarvers.

Christensen estimates that Shake Rag Alley students — who come for personal enrichment, not for credits or a degree — pour $242,000 a year into the historic, 2,600-resident town of Mineral Point. Many travel from across the country and even Europe. Others might be local.

“We say we attract people from across the street,” said Christensen,“and across the world.”

A broad mix

In September Lynn Ovenden came to Shake Rag Alley from northwestern Illinois for a five-day class called “Building Sculptural Character,” taught by master instructor Kate Church, an artist from Nova Scotia, Canada.

Ovenden first discovered Shake Rag as a member of a group that calls itself “Make What Ya Brung.” Members, who travel from across the Midwest, show up with supplies twice a year, and enjoy the company of others as they create whatever they want in space rented from Shake Rag. Ovenden got hooked on the school, and now comes for other classes, too.

Like “Make What Ya Brung,” the inspiration and skills passed along at folk schools are a broad mix.

Through the 11-year-old Driftless Folk School based near Viroqua, for example, adult students delve into subjects like herbal medicines, goat-keeping or cooking with rabbit. A one-day class in building a solar food dehydrator or making Gouda cheese might be held in an instructor’s backyard workshop or home kitchen.

At The Clearing Folk School and Sievers School of Fiber Arts in Door County, both of which have been around for decades, students can take week-long courses and stay in quaint cottages and dormitories that become part of the school experience. Students eat their meals together.

“About 75 percent of our enrollment each year are returning people,” said Ann Young, owner of the Sievers School of Fiber Arts on Washington Island, with courses in folk and fiber arts from June through October.

Some 400 people this year signed up for the school’s 45 classes, which are intentionally kept small, she said. Students have come from all 50 states and 10 foreign countries.

“The camaraderie, the bonding of students and teachers, the bonding of students who are emailing each other all winter about when they can come knit together — the island atmosphere really encourages that,” she said.

‘Folk school’ concept

The pure definition of “folk school” goes back to 19th-century Denmark, where N.F.S. Grundtvig developed a hands-on model of learning, with deep roots in the land, cultural heritage and community.

Grundtvig’s idea led to boons in the folk school movement in America in the 1920s, 1970s, and early 2000s, said Dawn Murphy of the Folk School Alliance and the Folk Education Association of America.

The recent surge has been striking: Of the 49 folk schools nationwide listed with the Folk School Alliance, 29 were founded within the last seven years, she said.

Deciding who is a “folk school” is “a hot topic” among people in the field, Murphy said. In her view, the label belongs to a learner-led or very communal learning community, where learning is focused not only on the individual but also the greater community.

Set in the Driftless region of Vernon County, the Driftless Folk School grew out of a community where “people know a lot about gardening and food and woodworking and green building,” said Jacob Hundt, a founder of the school.

“A group came together and said, ‘How can we share these skills, and build an educational opportunity for adults in the community?’ It’s also a way to share what’s here with people from elsewhere, and bring some income to folks who are homesteading or doing traditional crafts, as a way to build their livelihood around those skills.”

Driftless looked to the examples of the highly regarded John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina and the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. While Driftless Folk School offers classes like “Nature Writing for Families,” its most popular courses tend to cluster around food, such as sauerkraut-making, and carpentry skills like timber framing, Hundt said.

In the last five years the Driftless Folk School has begun developing a campus on a farm near La Farge, about 25 minutes east of Viroqua. Hundt also is part of a team creating Thoreau College, a small, residential, four-year liberal arts college envisioned to “incorporate a lot of folk school ideas as well as an academic curriculum,” he said.

“We have six people living here for the year, who we’re calling founding fellows, who are working on the creation of this project,” Hundt said.

Eventually, Thoreau College hopes to enroll about 30 students a year. “We encounter people over and over in connection with the folk school who would say, ‘Can I come here full-time?’”

‘Learning vacations’

Each of Wisconsin’s folk arts schools seems to have sprung organically from its surroundings.

The Clearing was once the summer vacation home of the great landscape designer Jens Jensen, who converted it to a place of learning in 1935. Today its most popular classes are in painting, woodcraft, writing, nature studies and fabric arts, said director Michael Schneider. Students are urged to spend time outside in The Clearing’s 128 acres of woods, shoreline and open meadows.

Many, he said, have been coming “for decades.”

“Just think about it — adult education has been a growing industry for what, 30 or 40 years,” and today there are many places around the state to take classes in the arts and folk arts, including Door County’s Peninsula School of the Arts and Bjorklunden, Schneider said.

“I think a lot of people are interested in ‘learning vacations.’”

In La Pointe, the Madeline Island School of the Arts offers multi-day courses in quilting, fiber arts, painting and writing. Lost Creek Adventures’ School for Self-Reliance and Folk Arts, based in Cornucopia, grew out of a business that offers kayaking and wilderness trips in the Apostle Islands. Students travel from as far as Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Madison for its occasional classes in skills like identifying edible plants, building insulation-dependent shelters or cooking without metal.

“We’re fairly small at this point,” said owner Greg Weiss, whose students have ranged from age 7 to 70. Kayaking trips are still the “bread and butter” of Lost Creek Adventures, but he hopes the school component will grow.

The emphasis is on self-sufficiency, while tapping into the outdoor expertise of people who live in the area, he said.

“Some people want to learn how to build a friction-fire with a bow drill, or something like that,” Weiss said. “They feel that is self-sufficiency. Some want to learn how to grow fruit trees, and for them that is self-sufficiency.”

A home for ‘Woodlanders’

In Mineral Point, Shake Rag Alley bills itself as an “arts center” — and its yearly line-up includes classes ranging from fine-arts painting to jewelry making. But the nonprofit owes its existence to a group that makes rustic crafts and calls itself the Woodlanders.

Shake Rag Alley itself is a 2.5-acre collection of about a dozen buildings, from an 1830s log cabin to a 1948 Quonset hut recently converted to a bright, airy space for classes.

The core property was once owned and restored by Eadie and Al Felly, best known in Madison as the owners of Felly’s Flowers, as a garden showcase that charged admission and featured working artists.

After Shake Rag was sold to Glen and Harriet Ridnour for their antiques business, the Woodlanders met there each summer to learn such skills as woodworking, needle-weaving and basketry. When Sandy Scott and Judy Sutcliffe, longtime Woodlanders from Iowa, heard in 2004 that Shake Rag was about to be sold, they rallied friends and showed up at the Ridnours’ door with a $100,000 down payment.

Then came the job of turning the property into a viable nonprofit. Today Shake Rag Alley boasts a course catalog of 48 pages, an outdoor stage for performances, many special events and a growing campus maintained by legions of volunteers.

In the past five years, “we’ve grown by leaps and bounds,” said board president Christensen, now 30, who attended his first Woodlander Gathering at age 14 and has not missed one since.

A new school

for old traditions

Since its founding in 1966, Folklore Village outside Dodgeville has welcomed busloads of elementary school children during the week and families on weekends to experience folk traditions. Starting next summer, it will also be home to a folk school with one- to five-day courses for adults.

The initial focus will be on Scandinavian arts such as Norwegian rosemaling and lefse-making, with plans to expand to other ethnic traditions in the future, said Folklore Village executive director Terri Van Orman.

Van Orman came to her job three years ago with experience in folk schools — as a professional weaver who helped create the Ozark Folk School and managed the Arkansas Craft School in Mountain View, Arkansas, for half a decade.

In its first year, the Arkansas Craft School had 17 students, she said.

“By the time I left, we had over 150 students coming from coast to coast.”

“These things spread pretty quickly, in my experience,” Van Orman said. “Once the word gets out, people tell their friends, and the friends tell friends, and they come back a second year — and they keep coming.”

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Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.