Wisconsin is an interesting state.  Famous for beer and dairy, there are several larger cities but much of the state is isolated.  I based this project on the book Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, and the subsequent movie of the same name directed by James Marsh.  During this era of Wisconsin’s history, from 1885 to 1900, people appear to have gone wildly insane.  They killed themselves, their wives, their children, strangers; they broke windows, and burned barns; a diphtheria outbreak killed hundreds of children; bank failure was widespread.  I want to create a simple and beautiful majolica planes onto which to present and explore semi-narrative images relating to the experience of interacting with this information.

Many modern majolica artists use vibrant colors and abstracted shapes and patterns.  However I relate more to the renaissance majolica tradition, which was more narrative and figural.  I want the majolica color scheme to be morose and dark, like a hand tinted photograph, while using the expressive qualities of majolica with layering, sgraffito, and washes to create a complex surface.  I want the surface to be full and descriptive, intricate and maybe a little horrifying.  Accompanying the majolica pieces, I made a series of tiles with historical images of mental institutions designed by Thomas Story Kirkbride.  Kirkbride designed a plan for institutionalizing people, one that was used at the Mendota Asylum where many Wisconsinites have been hospitalized from 1860 to the present.

I am drawn to textures and distorted figures, and I have a background interest in Wisconsin history.  The film and book present a different approach to looking at history, one that is far more appealing to me.  Images and text are presented together, though not necessarily with anything in common and lacking the causality that most people expect.  I want my pieces to reflect this, providing an immersive and engaging experience, but also a distance and fluidity.   The text and images provide some information, but there’s little context or correlation, and the audience has to process the information in their own way.

Wisconsin has changed a lot in 110 years, but the character of the inhabitants doesn’t seem too different.  Part of my fascination with Wisconsin Death Trip is identifying with the strange and captivating past of my home state.  While the modern population isn’t quite so murderous or suicidal, the events carry the abnormal character that has been passed down to the present.  There is a magical and charismatic quality of the land, a quality captured in 1890 that even today is still ethereal and seductive.

As far as we know, there is nothing in the water.

If you are interested in the bibliography for this project, click here.

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