by Anne Pryor, Wisconsin Arts Board
Designed primarily for upper elementary students and their teachers, Wisconsin Folks nevertheless delights people of all ages. The Web site's rich content details living Wisconsinites who practice regional and ethnic food, craft, music and dance traditions. Meet ice fisher and decoy carver Brooks Big John from Lac du Flambeau, and learn how he makes his decoys "swim" just so. Or meet the Queens of Harmony of Milwaukee, and learn how the a cappella gospel music they arrange and perform is a deep part of their African American heritage.
Wisconsin Folks features more than 70 individual artists and groups from all parts of the state whose work expertly expresses Wisconsin's cultural heritage. All of the people in Wisconsin Folks are recognized specialists in their communities. Some have participated as master artists in the Wisconsin Arts Board's Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program; many are award winners in their respective areas. Several have been recognized nationally; for instance, Betty Piso Christenson, a Ukrainian egg decorator from Suring, is a National Heritage Fellow.
Wisconsin Folks' winning design is easy to navigate and beautiful to look at. Tour the site and you will find engaging text written on each artist and his or her art form, quotes from the artists, lots of images, audio and video clips, and fun online activities. Lots of links let users pursue different depths of interest. For instance, if you want to know where to find a Polish polka festival after reading about Norm Dombrowski and the Happy Notes, the family polka band from Stevens Point, the "Resources" section gives that information. Another page tells how to hire each artist for a performance or presentation.
Wisconsin Folks grew out of Wisconsin's participation in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a major component of the state's Sesquicentennial celebration in 1998. To prepare for the festival, the Wisconsin Arts Board hired folklorists and photographers to research state traditions, from iconic activities like cheese making and tailgating, to less familiar practices like Hmong marriage traditions and Tibetan Buddhist mandalas. One hundred twenty traditional artists were selected to represent Wisconsin's cultural heritage at the Smithsonian's festival in Washington D.C., and at its restaging as the Wisconsin Folklife Festival in Madison. Many of the Wisconsin Folks artists were participants in both of these festivals.
The Wisconsin Arts Board always intended to utilize the fieldwork generated for the festivals in other ways as well. The main goal was to convert it for use by Wisconsin educators. The result of that intention is Wisconsin Folks. A free, online educational resource, the Web site presents Wisconsin's heritage as accessible to students and useful to teachers. The information is liked to fourth- and eighth-grade Wisconsin Model Academic Standards in Art and Design, Dance, English Language Arts, Information and Technology, Music and Social Studies.
So what constitutes Wisconsin's culture? The Wisconsin Arts Board proposes that the answer is found with Wisconsin Folks, those Wisconsinites who know their heritage and practice their traditions with artistic skill and cultural grace.