At the tail end of the Great Depression, CALS Dean Chris Christensen reached out to well-known regional artist John Steuart Curry with an extraordinary offer. As the university’s first artist-in-residence, Curry would be given a $4,000 annual salary, a studio and a mission: to awaken the artistic spirits of Wisconsin’s rural citizens.
To position an artist on the ag college’s faculty was bold and innovative. Christensen himself described it as “one of the most interesting experiments … that has been by any institution of higher learning in the country.” And while the artist-in-residence program is now administered elsewhere on campus, current dean Molly Jahn says Christensen’s idea is still very much alive.
“The concept is that science is deeply connected with the visual arts,” says Jahn. “We’ve been making strategic moves to try to recapture that idea and show the integration of the arts and sciences.”
As one recent example, Jahn used an Ag Hall remodeling project to revive a connection to one of Curry’s outreach efforts as artist-in-residence. When the building’s lobby was renovated this summer, she had the formal portraits that hung in the rotunda replaced by paintings from the Wisconsin Regional Art Program, which Curry created in 1940 to encourage the creative impulses of farmers and rural citizens, Now administered by the UW Division of Continuing Studies, WRAP sponsors workshops and exhibits for non-professional artists throughout the state, including an annual exhibit of Wisconsin’s most notable rural art at the UW’s Memorial Union.
Five paintings from WRAP’s statewide exhibit were hoisted into the freshly painted and lighted lobby in October. The selected pieces—painted by artists Jenna Eichberger of Black River Falls, William Balthazor of Oconomowoc, Jake Stephens of Prairie du Chien, Jack Dennis of Cross Plains and Sandra Cashman of Slinger—offer a flavor of Wisconsin’s natural environment, including landscapes of farms, a snow-covered field and even the state’s most famous golf course.
The paintings will hang in Ag Hall for a year, and new artistic works from WRAP artists will be selected each fall.
“It’s really a wonderfully appropriate addition to our flagship building,” says Jahn. “The paintings remind us that the science we do is constantly reflected in and even influenced by visual images.”