SOMETHING THERE IS THAT LOVES A WALL: A Bramble Conversation with Amy Lutzke of the Friends of Lorine Niedecker

Our apologies to Robert Frost, whose opening line from “Mending Wall” we have tweaked to introduce this article on the making of “poetry murals” in Fort Atkinson. Bramble asked Amy Lutzke, Assistant Director of the Dwight Foster Public Library in Fort Atkinson, and member of the Friends of Lorine Niedecker, to explain.

Bramble: How did the idea for Lorine Niedecker poetry walls in Fort Atkinson come about?

Amy Lutzke: The idea came several years ago, during a conversation between Ann Engelman and myself. As members of the Friends of Lorine Niedecker, we were pondering how we could help Fort Atkinson residents get to know Lorine – who she was and what she wrote. We came to the conclusion that we needed to get her “out” of the Dwight Foster Public Library and The Hoard Museum, where her books and papers are housed. We needed to put her in front of our community so that her words could not be missed. As for the installations in the schools, we believe that students who graduate from the Fort Atkinson School District should be familiar with Lorine and her words. We felt that putting poetry on the school walls would be a great way to accomplish that.

Bramble: Any examples you saw elsewhere that gave you the idea?

Lutzke: There weren’t specific examples of poetry/art installations that we thought of but we admired the walls at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee where quotes and poetry by Wisconsin figures are embossed. We also were aware of communities that inscribed poetry into sidewalks.

Bramble: Why not just use LN’s poems — why get an artist to do a painting?

Lutzke: We wanted the pieces to be visually appealing, not just a “sign.” The colors, the art draw people’s attention so that individuals take the time to read the words. Art/poetry also helps to communicate the meaning of the poem by illustrating aspects of it with the art, particularly in the school projects. Fort Atkinson High School selected Lorine’s poem:

to see the lake lay
and out for an easy make
the dragonfly

The artistic interpretation is stained glass dragonflies flying above found-metal cattail rushes. Mosaic pieces at the Fort Atkinson Middle School and Purdy Elementary School incorporate images of Lorine’s cabin on Blackhawk Island, as well as birds and flowers mentioned in her poetry. These images add information about Lorine that isn’t necessarily contained in the poem.

Bramble: How have the Friends worked with Jeremy Pinc?

Lutzke: We are fortunate to have Jeremy right here in our community and to have been familiar with his work. We felt he had the right skills and creativity to create the large poetry murals on the sides of buildings. In the first wall, created in 2009, we selected the words and asked that the design be simple and the words bold. In the second wall, painted this summer, we let Jeremy choose the piece of poetry and design the piece.

As for the schools, we approach each one individually to inquire about their interest in having a piece created by or for them. We offer the funding for the project and allow them to design and decide how and who will create the piece. School administration has been very supportive. The art faculty have been thrilled at the opportunity. And the students love working on the projects. The high school developed two different projects that were primarily created by students with supervision from art teacher Angie Szabo. In the middle school, art teacher Cynthia Bliss contacted muralist Amy Zaremba and metal sculptor Erika Koivunen to help create a large piece in the main hallway. Then she worked with students to create a separate installation of paper mosaic that is in the school library. Purdy Elementary created their piece working with artist-in-residence Denny Berkery. Purdy’s project was guided by a variety of staff including the principal Leigh Ann Scheuerell, art teacher Jessica Zuniga, kindergarten teacher Andrea Kratz and music teacher Heidi Kosak. Barrie Elementary teacher Susie Belzer wanted to extend the painted mural from their lunch room to a blank wall in the hallway. This mural already depicted the Rock River and historical places and people along it. Her students extended the river along the wall and included a piece of Lorine’s poetry.

There is also a mural at Olsen Elementary School in Madison that incorporates some of Lorine’s poetry. This is part of a larger mural project in Madison coordinated by Alicia Rheal through Dane Arts Mural Arts. Art teacher Anna Liska managed the Olsen School project.

Bramble: How can others do this kind of thing in their communities?

Lutzke: These projects have turned out even better than we hoped. The large poetry murals on Main Street have generated comments from a vast swath of the community. They have become photo destinations for senior pictures, weddings, even tourists who find the wall. The feedback to us is consistently positive.

High School art teacher Angie Szabo said the project “transformed our school and has shifted the way that those in our school value our department.” School children now know who “that poetry lady” was. The school district has decided to teach Lorine Niedecker poetry in both the 4th grade and high school. The community definitely knows the lines:

waterlily mud
         my life.

I think to do this in other communities there needs to be a vision that compels people. This worked for us because we had an individual, Lorine Niedecker, from our community, who made a difference in the world. We wanted Fort Atkinson residents to know about her. We also have a non-profit organization that is able to raise money to fund projects like this. We have community members, school leaders and faculty that were willing to work with us. And finally, the Friends of Lorine Niedecker have dedicated volunteers who put their time into all of the many communications and negotiations required to manage projects like this.