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Local artists open pop-up shop
In Viroqua
Artisan Alley ribbon-cutting
THE THREE ARTISTS that catalyzed the opening of the Artisan Alley pop-up shop of fine arts in Viroqua are, from left, textile artists Harriet Behar and Denise Benoit, and painter Christine Myhr. The three are seen attending a ribbon-cutting for the store on Wednesday, Nov. 17.

VIROQUA - A group of 16 local artists, many from Gays Mills and Soldiers Grove, have come together to form the Artisan Alley pop-up store in Viroqua. The move was spurred by their loss of venues with COVID-related cancellations of the Driftless Area Art Festival, the Winding Rivers Art Festival and more.

The store, located at 109 S. Main Street, next to Parrish Music, in Viroqua, is  open at least for the next two months. Their hours are: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon-4 p.m.

Gays Mills artist Harriet Behar spoke at a ribbon-cutting held for the store on Wednesday, Nov. 17.

“People tell me that I’m good at getting the ball rolling on projects, and I guess that must be true,” Behar said. “We got the idea for this store because all of our venues for marketing and selling our artistic creations have been cancelled for the last two years, so we’re very grateful to CouleeCap for their assistance in getting this store started.”

 The artists had created inventory in anticipation of various planned events, only to see them cancelled for the second year in a row. A Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) grant to CouleeCap provided the seed money to help the artists open the store. The funding was made available through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and was awarded to the store in Viroqua, as well as to the Market on Blackhawk store, featuring 20 artists, in Prairie du Chien.

“We’re very proud to welcome Artisan Alley to Viroqua’s Main Street,” Director of Viroqua Chamber of Commerce Chris Clemens said. “We are very happy to be using the WEDC/CouleeCap grant funds to support local artists who have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Amanda Warthesen, Business and Income Developer with CouleeCap, explained that the $1,500 in grant funds was used to help pay for a portion of the first two months of rent for the Main Street storefront. She said that the Viroqua Chamber of Commerce had also paid the security deposit on the space for the artisan group. 

“I also want to thank Carol Roth of Driftless Development for her assistance in helping to make the initiative possible,” Warthesen said. “Her assistance was invaluable in helping to bring people together to make this project possible.”

Viroqua Mayor and 96th Assembly candidate Karen Mischel also attended the ribbon-cutting.

“This store has come about as a result of an awesome collaboration of groups in planning,” Mischel said. “We are happy to welcome Artisan Alley to Viroqua, and very happy that we can help our local artisan community.”

Artists and products

Behar explained that the artists whose work is featured at the store are all local artists, and were chosen as the result of a juried selection process. She said that the store is another option for holiday shoppers to purchase the products from local artisans, created in part because VIVA Gallery does not have space for additional vendors.

The artists and the products featured in the gallery are as follows:

Harriet Behar:Harriet has been a weaver since the mid-1970s, inspired by numerous trips to Central and South America, as well as the beauty of the landscape here in Southwestern Wisconsin.  She creates sweaters, shirts, bags and items for the home using natural fibers including wool, cotton, silk and linen.  Her garments are tailored to hang well on the body, and hold up to every day use, while highlighting the unique nature of handwoven fabric.  In many of her works, she uses tapestry techniques to weave in birds, flowers, landscapes or abstract designs.  Dyes obtained from plants growing in the area are also used in some of her work. 

Christine Myhr: Christine Myhr graduated in 1987 with a B.A. in Art from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. In 1986, she had the unique opportunity to study abroad at The Marchutz School of Drawing and Painting in Aix-en-Provence, France. There she learned to paint with oils and watercolors; working from still life, model, and landscape, and spending a year immersed in the light, color and beauty of Provence. She also studied art history with visits to museums in Paris and painting trips to Venice, Italy. After graduating from Gustavus, she went back to France in 1989, and spent another year studying at the Marchutz School. Myhr has lived in rural Gays Mills for many years and continues learning and growing as an artist by taking workshops, and showing work at galleries and art fairs. She finds support from a community of local painters in the area. Myhr finds the beauty of the natural world inspires her to paint directly from life, hoping to capture the play of light and color by rendering what she sees.

Denise Benoit:Denise Benoit of Gays Mills is keen to keep traditional arts alive by weaving, spinning and felting wool. She designs shawls, blankets, ponchos, towels and pillows using a variety of yarns, colors and weave structures to create texture and drape. “It’s all the tiny intersections that fascinate me, where vertical meets horizontal, wool, silk, bamboo, linen or cotton,” Benoit said. “One material overlaying another, once color beside another, then to the eye, they blend and become something that wasn’t there before, the resulting web being much more than the sum of its parts.” Because some years she doesn’t make the time to ‘textile play’ until the snow flies, she calls her craft ‘Winterloom Handwovens.’

Joseph Schwarte:Joseph Schwarte, a Chicago native, has lived in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, since 1994. He designed his first piece of furniture while he was serving in the Army. That was 1967, and he had it built by a local cabinetmaker. “I had no idea that is how I would end up making a living. and doing the building as well.” Schwarte said. After his discharge (1968) he worked as a laborer for a while before using some GI Bill benefits to go to the American Academy of Art for one year. “After that, I knew I wasn't good enough to be an ‘artist,’ drawing and painting, so I worked in the trades,” Schwarte said. He said that he saw his future when he went to the Art Institute of Chicago to see an exhibit called ‘The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1876-1916.’ He said that furniture was functional, practical, and could be beautiful. Shortly after that he discovered deStijl and Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, and began to see furniture as sculptural as well, a quality he tries to incorporate into his work. 

Elin Haessly:Elin Haessly operates Viewpoint Farm Fibers and Handwovens from her farm in rural Soldiers Grove. Haessly was born and raised in Denmark, and has lived in the U.S. since 1983. In 2006, she and her husband retired to the farm, and she was able to bring to fruition a dream that she had since her youth of raising sheep, to be able to harvest the wool and dye it with natural dyes and plants. She spends her days spinning, dyeing and weaving the wool into heavy wool rugs, blankets, shawls and scarves. Her rugs are woven in the Swedish way, which she learned in her youth. She can make a rug in any color to match the décor of your home.

Kathy Fairchild:Fairchild graduated from Ohio State University in 1973 with a degree in Art Education. Shortly after that, she and her husband Paul moved to Wisconsin. She worked for many years in various settings as a photographer. She says her watercolors seem to be an ongoing process of adapting her photographic vision into works of pleasing composition and successful execution. Having pained with the Viroqua Painters group for some years now, she feels the input of fellow artists has been a great benefit. Watercolor represents its own realm of challenges, and she continues to work toward better meeting those. She particularly enjoys images of nature, and for some reason is also very drawn to forgotten buildings and their testimony of times gone by.

Nancy Garden:Nancy Garden began to explore weaving in a summer course at UW-Whitewater in the early 1970s, where her very first project was a full-length, hooded, plaid wool poncho. Whether it’s a rug, shawl, bag, blanket or tea towel, she loves trying new colors, patterns and yarn. As she is weaving one project, the next one comes to life in her mind, and she is eager to see it develop. “The possibilities are endless, and I enjoy them all,” Garden said.

Amy Arnold and Kelsey Sauber-Olds:These two artists are a husband-and-wife team who began their careers each focused on their own work. Kelsey made custom and studio furniture, and Amy made fiber and clay dolls, and recycled wool hats. In 2013, Amy made her way into the wood shop and began carving figurative sculptures in wood. Amy’s presence in the wood shop led the two to draw upon both their experience to create a common vision. Each of their figurative wood sculptures is one-of-a-kind, and created by their hands alone. The two do the rough shaping of Basswood with various power tools, and the finer work of carving faces and texturing surfaces is done with smaller chisels, gouges and knives. The pieces are finished with layers of milk paint. As the two work to evolve their artistic collaboration, their interest lies in exploring a balance between human and animal, wild and tame, crude and refined, movement and stability, humor and seriousness, adult and child, and toy and art object.

Chris Cox:Chris Cox operates ‘Spoken Wood Design,’ where he uses lumber trimmed from massive, hand-hewn, beams salvaged from pioneer barns and cabins in Wisconsin and Iowa. Most of the structures were in use for over 100 years, and saw farming change from horsepower to diesel power. As farming culture changes, so too did the buildings that support it. The wood he uses was cut from old-growth trees in the 18th and 19th centuries by hand saw and ax, then shaped by hand with adzes and muscle. In his work, he tries to present as much of that old effort as he can. Each of his pieces is unique, and has its own story and history. Like all reclaimed, upcycled, repurposed and recycled products, there are flaws and cracks, axe marks, and knotholes. It’s not IKEA – it’s spoken wood.

Joan Bailey:Bailey reports that she is very happy to be included in the Artisan Alley store. She has been creating jewelry since 2007, after being juried into the Red Door Gallery in Richland Center.   Starting out, she primarily used just beads. Over time, and after a few classes, she has incorporated metals into her jewelry as well.  She mainly use sterling silver, along with copper, brass and gold-filled metals.  Another medium she started working with a few years ago is eco-printing.  This process uses leaves and flowers, heat and pressure, to impart colors and shapes on fabrics and paper.  She makes one-of-a-kind silk scarves with this process.  Bailey says that being able to create a piece by hand, that someone else appreciates enough to wear, gives her the encouragement to keep creating her pieces, and is something she truly loves to do.

Zoe Francis-Craig: Zoe is a printmaker, potter, illustrator and graphic designer, currently living in Viroqua. In her artistic practice, she aims to explore and communicate themes of place and landscape, including the smaller and larger ways that we all interact with and relate to the natural world and the things in it. She is interested in the processes and intricacies linking sight and light – the ways we see or don’t see the world around us, as well as the ways we interpret and tell stories about our worlds. She is available for commission pieces, including pet and house paintings, as well as illustration and graphic design work.

 The other four artists in the group are:

• Jeremy Hiles: photography

• Jackie Reeves: water colors

• Paul Vick: pottery

• Karen Reckinger: jewelry

More information about Artisan Alley can be found on their website at: