Frank Wildingway, Connie Poe, Elliot Medow, Viroqua, WI
If you ask Frank Wildingway what community means to him, he will tell you that after many years of investigating this question, “community is simply being part of the human family”. We are all one together. And indeed, as I wander through the spaces of the ARK, this sentiment is captured in every part of his vision. The walls of the building —an old, historical church, recently re-purposed as a community arts space— blossom with story and meaning. This labor of love is a grand endeavor still in process, as Frank sees the building as a vessel waiting to be filled. He notes that the space has been bringing people together for 115 years, and that it will continue to do so. In its current form, the ARK draws people in through work, art, performance, writing, meditation, story, and food, but the space continues to evolve in its vision to unite people of all ages and interests within a communal space of exploration and creation.
Dreaming to repurpose a church since he was a young man, Frank was taken by surprise one spring day in 2011 when he noticed a tiny “For Sale” sign in a window of the delapitated neighborhood church. Immediately, a group formed to imagine how the space could be used and how they might come up with funding. Many people came and went during this creative brainstorming process, and ultimately a smaller group with more focused vision formed. Now Frank, Chris Cox, and small Board have nurtured the enterprise from its first days to its current evolution.
They gained their first foothold after a generous benefactor appeared out of nowhere to purchase the $50,000 building outright. Soon afterwards, the newly-formed board sold the church bell for $5000, generating a small amount of capital to begin the renovation process. The vision was on its way, but there was still a tremendous amount of work to be done… ripping out 1000’s of square feet of carpeting, tuck-pointing the basement and remediating water issues, replacing the roof, and making the kitchen a workable space. Frank gathered some local students who wanted to do community service, and combining his own sweat equity with theirs, they were off and running. With many hands, thousands of volunteer hours and a matching grant of $25,000, the ARK began to take shape over the next year. Nearly four years later, it now has a working commercial kitchen, a sizable stage and performance space, a large community meeting room, and several other, smaller rooms dedicated to things like making giant puppets for our town’s annual Harvest Parade, a recording studio and smaller theatre space, a writing center, and a weekly meditation meeting. The vessel is being filled as Frank imagined, with theatre, music, storytelling, writing, food, and community gatherings of all sorts.
But arts in the ARK are not limited to the ways in which people are held together by the confines of structure; the structure itself is slowly being transformed into its own work of art. Once Frank’s vision began to take form, it caught the attention of local artists Connie Poe and Elliot Medow. Accomplished artists, quiet by nature, and returning to their mid-western roots after an extended time spent in New York City and Tuscon, Connie and Elliot looked for ways to fit into the local landscape. They began by helping out with small jobs around the building but were quickly pulled into a more involved project: transforming the building’s basement walls into an experience of story and art. The walls are now covered with exquisite stories- stories that invite viewers on a journey both personal and universal.
As I walk down one hallway, I find 108 small portraits, each with a sentiment written across the bottom. Though all art is interactive in some way, Frank’s intention for these pieces calls the viewer to participate – walking down the corridor and reading each statement aloud:
“That is Brilliant!” – “I Want a Donut.” – “Why Don’t You Just Shut It!” – “I am Black.” – “I am White.” – “Too Soon.” -“Too Late.” – “Huh?” – “I’m quiet.” – “I’m loud.” – “I can’t.” – “I will.” – “I am beautiful.” – “I am ugly.” – “I am weak.” – “I am strong.” – “I am lost.” – “I am found.” – “Did I just Say That?”
Articulating these statements aloud animates the idea that “each of us feels and experiences all of these sentiments at some time in our lives,” and it has a penetrating effect on the reader.
Moving from Frank’s portraits into the adjacent hallway, one comes across a series of mandalas painted by Connie Poe. I was fortunate enough to have Connie explain each one in detail, but even without her commentary, the viewer is able to piece together something rich and meaningful. Her 6 foot rings depict the circle of life, beginning with our creation in the sea, moving into the narrative of Connie’s personal life, then back out to the universe that binds us together. Connie’s background in architecture brings form and beauty to the complex nature of storytelling through symbol.
In yet another corridor, Elliot’s longtime interest in street art is reflected on the walls of this small-town, former church. Drawing inspiration from Frank’s story of connectedness, Elliot uses the populist form–typically seen in much larger cities–to focus on elements of the “divine feminine.” In a series of masks of different ethnicities, he weaves a narrative of what James Joyce referred to as “mama matrix most mysterious”. Elliot says that his “intent is to dissolve the boundary between viewer and art so that they may experience the interconnectedness in nature of which we all are part. Women are most closely connected to nature through the moon cycles, and [he] believes that the last 5000 years of male domination is cause for the planetary fix we’re in. In order to save the earth and its inhabitants, [we] must again embrace the feminine principal.” As his portraits wend around the corridor, they ultimately lead the viewer to a mystical door painted with a Fibonacci moon. The “Moon Room”, when completed, will be used for listening and meditation.
Day by day, the labor and love that have gone in to transforming this once run-down building into a vessel -uniting the community through all of our primal human needs –connectedness, reverence, beauty, vulnerability, food and love- continues to build and evolve within the space at The ARK. Frank’s dream –that artists of all persuasions will continue to collaborate and contribute to this experiential endeavor- has gained considerable traction as world class performers have remarked time and again that the experience there is full of “heart”. In the end, the story of The ARK is a most important lesson on what can happen with purposeful vision and patience, even in the face of limited funding.