"My friend, we are no longer in the busy world. We have left its turmoil, strife and selfishness. We are now in the primeval forest."
So begins an initiation ritual of the Modern Woodmen of America, and it serves as a good introduction to the Painted Forest in Valton, Wisconsin. Here, just before the turn of the 19th century, a German immigrant and itinerant painter named Ernest Hupeden began painting in exchange for room and board.
It started with the stage curtain painted with a scene of a recent battle from the Spanish-American war, but before long all four walls were covered with evocative imagery and forest scenery.
Much of the work presents allegorically the initiation ritual of the Modern Woodmen, a fraternal organization that provided life insurance to its members. Themes of isolation and death are throughout the work as well as deliverance from these evils. In the detail below, the initiate is being burned at the stake.
Through brotherhood the Woodmen would defeat social isolation, and through mutual insurance provide compensation for early death. The work culminates with an image from the future of Valton as a big city. Inside the bank, a widow cashes a check from her husband's Modern Woodmen policy.
Valton never became the big city depicted and remains a very rustic place where you'll probably pass an Amish horse buggy or two on the way there. If you can't visit it in person, you can see this panoramic work through our Quicktime panoramic tour.
Source: Lisa Stone in "Sacred Spaces and Other Places," The School of the Art Institute of Chicago Press.