At first glance, Vital Skills seems tailor-made for a history museum. So what is this study of traditional handicrafts doing in an art space, the Wisconsin Academy's James Watrous Gallery (through May 5)? Some answers emerge upon closer examination.
This exhibition isn't just about the cultural heritage of basket weaving and canoe building. It's also about what curator Jody Clowes calls "the intricate dance between hand and mind." Though the objects in this exhibition are diverse -- wool tapestries, studded leather saddlebags, laboratory equipment, duck and swan decoys -- they all highlight the effort inherent in creating and, by extension, the passive nature of consuming.
Cast-iron skillets shaped like Midwestern states suggest that creation can be a chain reaction. Alisa Toninato, a metal sculptor at Madison's FeLion Studios, carves the states' outlines into laminated wood to create plastic patterns, into which she pours molten iron. From there, she makes pans that another type of artisan -- a cook -- can use to make pancakes shaped like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois or Michigan.
Handmade linen and flax paper by Mary Hark shows how one artwork can serve as a canvas for another. It also explores the old adage "One man's trash is another man's treasure" through an environmental lens. Many of these colorful, textural pieces incorporate the pulp-mulberry plant, an invasive species that crowds out native flora. By partnering with artisans in Ghana, she finds ways to make this pernicious interloper both beautiful and useful.
Some of the items on display may make you ponder how objects become art, especially a hand-carved gun near the gallery's entrance. What makes this object an artwork? The tiny leaves that decorate its stock? Its sturdy steel and beautiful walnut wood? The danger it presents or the way it helps a hunter feed his family? Perhaps it's that the artisan, White Lake resident Sam Rust, carved it for his granddaughter. One thing is clear: The rifle is an emblem of pride, a symbol of what the 363 people in his Northern Wisconsin community hold dear.