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School of the Arts: Many Hands and Much Work

Matthew Rethaber

Each summer Rhinelander gets hit with what amounts to an explosion of creativity: School of the Arts Rhinelander sets up camp for five days in a local middle school, and holds a slew of art classes for adults.  2013 marked the program's 50th anniversary.

Even though more than half of the 150 students enrolled in School of the Arts are newcomers, it’s not hard to spot the longtime attendees.  They’re wearing nametags with colored ribbons to indicate their veteran status. Lee Densmore sports a tag marking 15 years.  He’s here for a poetry class.

“Poetry is something is something that you are honest about. And there are so many things that you aren’t honest about. You do things because there’s a rule, or because you had to do it. But when you do poetry, you’re saying something that you think ought to be said. It’s not trying to kid anybody.”

Densmore writes poems about everything: people falling in love…or a bug crawling across the road.  At the age of 96, he says he’s still learning from School of the Arts classes.

“Well it’s the ambiance of this place that’s the great thing. The moment you enter this door…and you hear this noise…you know, everybody’s here because they want to do something special. All by themselves.”

Another longtime poetry student is Nancy Rafal from Bailey’s Harbor.  She says coming to School of the Arts helped her think about her work in a different way.    

“At the time I considered myself someone who occasionally wrote poetry. But I couldn’t call myself a poet.”

That’s changed says Rafal - who has since had several poems published. Coming to take one’s art more seriously later in life is a theme here at School of the Arts.  Take watercolor instructor Mary Ann Inman. 

“I used to work in a factory. And I got laid off and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I went to school and I got a bachelor of fine arts degree. And I’ve been teaching ever since. I made drill bits for Black and Decker.”

She graduated from art school at age 50.  Now she has over a dozen years of teaching under her belt.  

Credit Matthew Rethaber / WXPR News

She specializes in a variety of media that involve water and watercolor.  Today’s project has five women - hands dyed inky black - laying out wet paper to dry.  A powerful smell of oranges fills the air. They’re engaged in an unusual process called activated ink.  It involves soaking magazine photos with citrosolv, an orange based cleaner.  The solvent lifts the ink from the page and creates dark swirls of color.

“All this black ink…it just comes oozing out. I love the combination of- where you don’t know what happens next. I love that feel – things aren’t planned and predictable. And I think that it’s really beautiful.”

Inman says students can use the new images for a collage, or just leave them be.

“I love them in their own right! They make beautiful abstracts. See this red one? That’s gorgeous.”

Inman has been teaching at School of the Arts for the past decade, making the four and a half hour drive from Clinton, Wisconsin every year.  She says her goal is to give students the freedom to be themselves.

“So the biggest thing that I do for people is give em permission to paint or do whatever they want to do. That it’s ok. You know if we all made art that looked alike, it wouldn’t be interesting at all.”

Mary Ann Inman’s students aren’t the only ones learning interesting new techniques for art making.  A few doors down is a group making scrap metal jewelry.  Hammers on metal echo down the hall.  

Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News

The science lab seems an appropriate room for this class, since instructor Louise Schotz used to be a high school chemistry teacher. 

“Since I have retired, I have studied art and jewelry making. And I have a small business of my own and operate out of my studio in Irma. What I like about it is that every piece is different. I just enjoy making something and I don’t really want to know what it’s going to be until it’s almost done. It’s kind of a discovery thing – I don’t know if that has anything to do with science in the background or what.”

Students are making earrings, pendants, bracelets; one woman works on a fishing lure.  Shiny bits of copper and brass litter the room, along with spools of wire and an array of special tools.

“My favorite is…the torch. To put a ball on the end of the copper wire, you just put the end of the wire in the torch and watch for a ball to form. If you can find that spot, it happens really fast.”

Other tools include hammers, anvils, and a metal press that embosses different patterns.  There are also several kinds of hole punches. 

“This is hole punching heaven over here. We have many different ways to make holes in metal.”

The tactile process of metal working is one kind of art making.  But down the hall is something completely different. A few doors away writer John Lehman is teaching a memoir class. 

“The goal of the workshop is to give people some tools so they can take the enormity of their life and narrow it down to a manageable size. And I think the secret of that is what’s going to be interesting to an audience.”

Lehman says a good memoir creates a moment of reflection…for both writer and reader.

“The result for the person taking the workshop is they have a chance to reexamine some of the things in their life that they’ve passed by or passed on. And the benefit for the audience is they get an example of somebody doing that, so they can do that with their own life.”

From memoir to metalwork, poetry to painting: School of the Arts is now looking ahead to its 51st summer in 2014.  

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