MT. HOREB, WISCONSIN – A bright, windy afternoon in September, 1982. Farmers, shopkeepers, local business people, children, elected officials gather in Richard Losenegger’s rolling cornfield, squint into the afternoon sun and smile. The object of their gawking – eight telephone poles ninety feet in height embedded in the black prairie sod, draped in sails of multi-colored fabrics . . . a Prairie Ship, a schooner for the imagination. The designer of the ship, fabric sculptor and Mt. Horeb resident Naj Wikoff, beams and thanks the community, saying, "Enjoy it. You made it possible." The Mt. Horeb High School Band strikes up a march, a bottle of champagne breaks against the main mast, and the Prairie Ship sets sail; a two month voyage that is to draw national media attention, some controversy and an army of onlookers circling Losenegger’s field at all hours of the day and night.
How is it that this unlikely midwestern farm community of 3,000 people came to be the site of a major work of public sculpture, costing tens of thousands of dollars, most of it donated or contributed in-kind by the citizens? A partial answer can be found in the particular kind of community arts work that led to its creation.
Cultural animation from the French animation socio- culturel, is a term that has gained increasing use internationally to describe community arts work which literally animates, or "gives life to," the underlying dynamic of a community. The animateur is a community artist who helps people create and celebrate their own culture, drawing freely on the particular aspirations, myths, ethnic or historical heritage that bind them as a community. The animateur is a catalyst and synthesizer, as well as an organizer of work and an imparter of skills. Living and working in the mainstream of community life, the animateur comes to know the community intimately and is accepted as the community’s own. Animation work, by definition, involves people in a process of channeling their own creative energy toward a common goal. The process, as much as the product, enriches community life and imparts a sense of common identity.
Though community cultural animation is a continuing process, not limited to a single project or event, the Prairie Ship can be viewed as animation work, most notably because of its highly participatory project design. Artist Wikoff developed the initial concept and specifications for the Ship but then carried the project much further by organizing the work and enlisting the volunteer effort to set the project in motion. Wikoff recruited workers from the ranks of local service clubs and cultivated friends and neighbors to perform key roles in the physical aspects of sewing sails, mounting hardware and preparing the site for the sculpture. Others attacked organizational hurdles such as fundraising and promotion. Where problems were encountered – and many were – creative solutions were found, often by the volunteers working on the project. When particular materials needed were unavailable or too expensive, people improvised. Local businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, the Arts Council, the high school and others were approached and agreed to participate in some way. Funding for the project was gradually pieced together from local contributions, state and local grants. This local initiative shaped heavily the ultimate success of the project.
Local control and multi-directional involvement are key elements of animation work. The Prairie Ship was not created as a result of an "outreach" program from an arts institution but emanated from the heart of the community. The strong sense of ownership in the project later expressed by the participants was closely linked to the Ship’s local origination.
Finally, animation work is essentially critical in nature. The Prairie Ship challenged the citizens of Mt. Horeb in at least two important ways: their traditional concept of art and their perceived limits in working together. As art, the Ship conveyed an image of the whimsical, together with the monumental and archetypical, resulting in a work which could be enjoyed on many levels. It was nonetheless vastly different from the mainstream of art produced in Mt. Horeb. From the beginning, the project drew skeptics predicting that the financial and logistical obstacles would prove insurmountable for the community. As support for the project gradually increased, the perceived limitations were pushed back and work on the project became an expression of community spirit.
The Prairie Ship stood for some six weeks before it was dismantled in October, 1982. An effort to revive or recreate the ship in 1983 did not succeed, primarily because of financial considerations. The lasting impact of the project, however, is still evident. The Ship has become identified closely with the "image" of Mt. Horeb itself, a topic under considerable discussion locally as the new highway is scheduled to bypass the community in the fall of 1984. A recent (December, 1983) model for the community’s sign presented to the Chamber of Commerce incorporates the design of a ship. One resident remarked that the Ship has left an "impression that a permanent monument leaves."
Shortly following the close of the Prairie Ship, a group of volunteers that had worked on the project were asked to enumerate the "benefits" that the Ship brought to them or to the community-at-large. The following responses were given: "Brought diverse people together to do something… Made ‘believers’ out of skeptics . . . Enjoyed the work of art . . . Drew traffic . . . Good for business . . . Put Mt. Horeb on the map . . . Shows Mt. Horeb appreciates the arts. .. Generated pride in the community. . . Put ‘art’ in a different setting . . . Brought people to town . . . Made me feel ‘at home’ . . . A memorial . . . The ‘size’ and ‘sound’ made me more aware . . . Naj is charming . . . It was fun . . . Could enjoy from different perspectives . . . Captured my attention – permanent, yet changing . . . Reminded me of things close to me . . . Even the children were involved with a piece of sculpture. . . It is art that is alive. . . "
The Ship’s seafaring overtones and the closeness to the land deeply touched this community of Norwegian immigrants. A year following the project, the ship is still indelible in the minds of many, a symbol of community spirit and cooperation. Equally important is the shared experience that placed this image in the community’s collective consciousness. The role of the animateur is to enable "just plain folks" to participate actively in building culture, not just consuming it. In doing so, people and communities can find a new sense of empowerment and identity.
Peter Reynolds is Community Development Director for the Wisconsin Arts Board. Naj Wikoff is also involved in the ETA Project, which is bringing together people concerned about education, transformation, and the arts. The project is coordinated by Milenko Matanovic of the Lorian Association, P. O. Box 147, Middleton, WI 53562.