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Rhinelander Together sculpture designed to help people feel more connected to the community

Katie Thoresen
The Together Sculpture is in the process of being created at Hodag Park.

A note to listeners—this story does talk about suicide. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

Inside the community room at ArtStart in Rhinelander, artist Norma Dycus Pennycuff helps make sure the ink is even across the metal letters laying across the letterpress.

Face up and backwards the letters spell out the short phrase “We were happy.”

It was in response to the prompt: “What do you need to say to someone that you’ve lost connection with?”

Katie Thoresen

“That doesn't mean somebody died. It can, but it could be somebody who moved away,” said Dycus Pennycuff. “I think of like family members that you don't see for several years, no one's mad, you just don't run into them for several years.”

Dycus Pennycuff has been taking this prompt around the Rhinelander community into the high school, Nicolet College, NAMI Northern Lakes, and the youth art studio at ArtStart.

After free writing to the prompt, Dycus Pennycuff helps people pick out a short phrase or select words to letterpress onto a 5x7 cardstock.

“It's been very interesting to me to see things that the data is already shown. There's a lot of hurt in our teenagers that needs to be addressed somehow,” she said when asked about her experiences in those workshops. “Even though I don't necessarily have the tools where I can be like, ‘Hey, would you like therapy immediately, right now?’ It's kind of confirming those statistics and numbers in a way that's making it more real for me and makes me realize how much more those kids need advocacy.”

Mental Wellness in Oneida County

A 2023 community health report from the Oneida County Health Department showed 16% of high schoolers have considered suicide and 8% had attempted suicide.

The number of Oneida County hospitalizations for self-inflicted injuries has increased significantly over the last several years.

These numbers reflect a need in the community, especially among teens.

“It's been very apparent to me that the Northwoods is lacking in mental health care availability and resources. Anything I can do to kind of support that and there's art, it's kind of like the best of both worlds,” said Dycus Pennycuff.

The cards with phrases the group at ArtStart was creating last week will be part of a larger art project that is in the works at Hodag Park.

Katie Thoresen

The Together Sculpture

In the pavilion above the beach house, Dycus Pennycuff and Minneapolis-based artist Witt Siasoco are creating the “Together Sculpture”.

“We really wanted it to be a place where people gathered. Where people could talk about these issues of mental health,” said Siasoco. “You can use it as a bench, for sure. But you can also lean your head back and touch your head on the bench, and you'll hear the thoughts of people in the community about connecting with people they've lost connection with. Hopefully it will spark a conversation with the person that you're sitting next to.”

It will be a large bench covered in tiny mirrors.

It uses bone conduction technology, so when people lean back in certain spots, it will vibrate so they can hear what people printed on their cards from the workshops.

“It'll be nice to have real local voices in that bench so that people can hear as people reflect on it, while you look at this beautiful lake,” said Dycus Pennycuff. “Then we're also going to have mirrored text on the ceiling. That will be what people have printed in the workshops.”

One Nation/One Project

The “Together Sculpture” is part of ArtStart and Rhinelander’s greater One Nation/One Project initiative.

The city was one of 18 selected nationwide to inspire art to help heal.

In Rhinelander’s case, the focus is on mental health. The larger art project to come from One Nation/One Project is the new skate park at Hodag Park that is currently in the design phase.

The idea is to create a skate park to give teens and young adults a place to make them feel like they belong in this community.

Melinda Childs is the community and cultural development director for ArtStart. She says it was partly in response to one of their friends who took their own life.

The Over It! group that's been working to build a skate park in Rhinelander.
The Over It! group that's been working to build a skate park in Rhinelander.

“It just kind of opened all of our eyes, you know, to how that's really a pressing issue here, and in many places, but here it's closer to home. We're a small community. You feel those losses, and you feel the frustration of not having the resources, and you feel the frustration of the lack of services for people that might be on the fringes,” said Childs. “If you use the skate park analogy, we have lots and lots of support for organized sports, and we had a decrepit skate park that fell apart. We're trying to serve everybody.”

Dylan Bray is a recent high school graduate who has been using the temporary skate park at Hodag Park until the new one is built, which he is very much looking forward to not just for the better skateboarding, but also for the stronger community he believes it will create.

“I think it's great to get out, not only because you get to go out and surround yourself with other people from the community, but it's also great for your health, too. It's great exercise. It's just all around a great thing to do for yourself and the people around you,” said Bray.

Siasoco, who has worked on a similar art and skate project in Minneapolis, got involved in the skate park project early on.

He helped ArtStart and the skate park group OverIt! advocate to the City of Rhinelander for the skate park.

“They just want to see themselves invested in, and they want to see it for the long term,” he said. “If they're already identifying that a skate park is one of those things, then we should invest in those things.”

While Siasoco, Dycus Pennycuff, and all the others involved in the project know a skate park or a sculpture aren’t a replacement for mental health professionals, they do know having a sense of community and belonging can go a long way to helping improve a person’s mental health. And they know art can be that prescription.

“I think this is a pretty heavy topic, and I think it's something that needs to be talked about, and it needs to be addressed. People need to be open to meeting new people and hearing other people's thoughts because, as we've seen over the years, we've lost quite a few people to suicide and depression and social isolation,” said Siasoco. “Maybe an invite to meet a stranger at the park is something that we need to do more often. We need more opportunities to get together. This is one of those, and hopefully it just starts and there's more of these things here in Rhinelander.”

Push to End Loneliness

The “Together Sculpture” will be unveiled at ArtStart’s Push Against Loneliness event at Hodag Park on July 27th.

The 18 cities involved in One Nation/One Project will also be hosting art and health related events that day.

Childs says it’s inspired by the Federal Theater Project in the 1930s.

“It was a number of different communities, all over the country, staged the same production of a play. Of course, each community had a different flavor to it,” said Childs. “One of the lead artists of ONOP [One Nation/One Project] was really inspired by that. That's kind of how they led with bringing all of our cohort cities together from the very beginning, saying, ‘On this day, we're all going to do something.’ Every community has a little different focus. Ours is mental wellness and social isolation.”

The event includes a pop-up skate park, march against social isolation, a community meal, and performances.

“I hope people participate and realize how many other people in the community are kind of thinking along the same lines, and that we're all just trying to support each other, whatever that looks like,” said Dycus Pennycuff.

You can learn more about ArtStart’s involvement with One Nation/One Project and the Push to End Loneliness event on ArtStart’s website.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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