Grabhorn, left, and Bednarski were at the Capitol almost every day. For more photos, click gallery, above.
In February, Madison playwright Doug Reed was assigned the summer slot at Broom Street Theater. He had a new script in the works.
But all his free time was spent at the protests that were engulfing the city, so he wasn't getting any writing done. It occurred to him that perhaps these separate activities should become one.
Reed, whose work has been produced in New York, Chicago and L.A., as well as several theaters in Madison, started writing The Lamentable Tragedie of Scott Walker, a "Fakespearean" tragedy set in Elizabethan-era Madison. He called costumer Carola Breckbill, hoping she wouldn't think he was nuts. Her first response: "How big do you want the codpieces?"
Rehearsals began in June, and Reed says the response from cast and crew was tremendous. In community theater it's often hard to get enough hands on deck. "You put out the call and people are grudging," Reed says. "With this, the response was, 'What can I do?' I fear I've reached heights with this play that I'll never reach again. Everyone's been so energized."
The play opened at Broom Street July 29 and runs through Sept. 4. "I felt terrible because stuff has been going on since March and I've been in my basement in my pajamas finishing a script," says Reed. "It's felt like a very lonely sort of activism."
Last winter, the Capitol became a stage for impassioned crowds, national news crews and famous faces from both sides of the aisle. As tempers rose and temperatures dropped, the unfolding scene was tragic, inspiring and fraught with complexity.
In other words: It had all the makings of good art. Artists took notice. They created work inspired by the protests.
And artists are still doing that.
Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill was announced Feb. 11, and by Feb. 16 crowds at the Capitol were estimated at 30,000. Creative expression began virtually from the start.
"Part of what stood out were all the snow sculptures," recalls activist Jenni Dye of the earliest days at the Capitol. "As I walked around the Square, at each corner someone had made tiny Calvin and Hobbes-style snowmen. For me, they said something about our perseverance."
Art of a more permanent nature also was a vital part of the protests, like the iconic design of a blue fist in the shape of Wisconsin, seen on posters and Facebook profiles throughout the state and beyond. The image is the work of graphic designer Carrie Worthen. "It's the gesture that speaks to people," she says of the raised fist.
"My art's always been a little political," printmaker Craig Grabhorn tells me over iced tea on a blistering summer afternoon, "but it's never been this blatant." This winter, Grabhorn was one of the foremost artists involved in the budget protests, with thousands of activists carrying posters emblazoned with his designs.
Grabhorn's wife, Nina Bednarksi, is a Milwaukee-born painter whose work has been shown in galleries as far away as Miami and New York. Before the protests, Bednarski's paintings were primarily of wildlife and plants. "I was motivated by the people and the huge outpouring of human connection," Bednarski says. "I wanted to serve as a catalyst for other people to express themselves."
The first night of the protests, Grabhorn designed the now-iconic image of a rat eating the state of Wisconsin. The next morning, he and Bednarski went to the Capitol with 15 copies. There they met photographer Eric Baillies, who over the next few weeks became a close collaborator and friend.
For the next month, the trio were at the Capitol almost every day. Baillies was there 26 days in a row. Bednarski showed up more than 80 times. Like many people, Grabhorn used vacation time from work to be at the protests.
At night, in the icy garage of Grabhorn and Bednarski's studio in Lake Mills, spray cans and poster board littered the concrete floor, and freshly painted posters lay out to dry in the moonlit drive.
"Our factory was turned on for weeks," Bednarski remembers. "We got very little sleep." Baillies, she says, "was often out to help bring supplies and document the process."
The artists' posters are mostly stenciled with block-lettered proclamations: "This is a fight for democracy and human rights! Hold the line!" and "Trap the rat because there's no cheese left." Bednarski says many of the posters' messages came to her in dreams.
When the protests built to a fever pitch, with as many as 100,000 people marching on the Capitol in a single day, the trio converted a narrow alley off the Square into a makeshift studio, where they stashed spray paint, stencils and supplies.
"Everything had to be so immediate," Bednarski says.
The posters weren't signed, and no contact info was attached for the artists, but word of mouth soon spread. Within days, people were calling Grabhorn from all over the state, asking how they could get a sign. Thousands of posters were printed, mailed and handed out at the Square.
Bednarski, Grabhorn and Baillies are putting together a show called "Forward Reaction, Truth Hits the Streets," which will be a retrospective of their collective work from the protests. It will include 40 to 50 photographs, signs and posters; stop-motion videos; and large, interactive installations. The show opens Dec. 9 at the Common Wealth Gallery.
"The historical side of it really interested me," Baillies says of the Wisconsin movement he photographed. "And just the energy. The willingness of people to come up to you, to tell you their story, ask you what you're doing - that human interaction we so often miss."
"The art allowed me to get some anger out," Grabhorn says. "We wanted to show that it was okay to be that angry."
Some protest-related art endeavors are ongoing, like stencil and sticker artist Lester Doré's poster campaign. Doré is responsible for many commonly seen stencils around town, like Walker School Plan, which portrays a stick figure with a dollar sign on her head pushing two children in front of a bus labeled "Charter."
"Some would say that politics doesn't belong in art at all," says Doré. "I think it's vital. Murals, posters, stickers, even graffiti give artists a venue that can speak directly to the citizen on the street. It doesn't require huge amounts of cash. It levels the playing field."
You can still see jury-selected photos of the rallies by a variety of photographers at "Signs of Protest," a photographic exhibition at the Center for Photography at Madison (303 S. Paterson), on display through Aug. 27. If you've kept an eye out, you may have noticed protest-related works by artists like Jeff Stern, whose show at the downtown Ancora just concluded. Artists Dan Ott, Bernie Tennis and Laura Meddaugh displayed protest-inspired pieces at July's Art Fair Off the Square.
Creative types responding to the protests aren't limited to artists and writers. Musicians also are processing the events.
Funk, rock and blues band Bonobo Secret Handshake made a music video for their "Scott Walker Blues." Singer-songwriter Ida Jo sings a stirring spiritual about the movement, "No (We Won't Take It)," on her forthcoming album, Singer in the Band. Power-pop quartet the German Art Students were inspired by the protests to write "The Power and the Trust," and even New York-based musician Elliot Astur felt moved to pen a song on Wisconsin's behalf.
The German Art Students' "The Power and the Trust" is available for free streaming on their website, GermanArtStudents.com. You might well hear Ida Jo sing "No (We Won't Take It)" when she releases her CD at the High Noon Saloon on Aug. 26.
"When the state budget was unveiled in February, I was crushed," says the German Art Students' Annelies Howell.
"Each of our families is affected directly in a negative way," says bandmate Randy Ballwahn. "We usually aren't overtly political in our lyrics, but this issue was just too big and too close to us not to address."
Because so much art related to the protests is ephemeral, like posters, it falls to people like Casey Schmitt to document it.
Schmitt, a graduate student in UW's communication arts department, is chairing a panel called "Badgers vs. Weasels, and Snowmen for Democracy: Folklore and Conflict in the 2011 Wisconsin State Budget Protest" at the American Folklore Society Annual Meeting this fall.
"A lot of us are really interested in the signs," says Schmitt. "I think that's got a lot of people excited from a lot of different disciplines."
Schmitt points to signs like the much-photographed AT-AT walker, from Star Wars, adorned with the words "Stop the Imperial Walker." Other pop-culture references spotted in protest signs include The Big Lebowski, Harry Potter, Kill Bill and popular Internet memes.
"It's kind of like a shared knowledge," Schmitt says. "Sometimes all you need is an image or a couple of words and people know what you're talking about. We're interested in how that builds group solidarity."
This is, says Schmitt, "a really special moment in history - local history and potentially national history."
"The main reason I want to display my art is to create a forum of discussion and to show that people are inspired by others' action," says photographer Baillies of the show he is organizing with Grabhorn and Bednarski. "It helps people remember. Too often we forget our history. To give remembrance and to have that discussion is invaluable."
"This is my piece of art that says publicly, 'I oppose you, Scott Walker,'" says Doug Reed of his play. "I'm doing this, visual artists are doing this, musicians are doing this. I think it's the role of somebody else to look at it community-wide."
"Something special is happening in people's collective political consciousness," says Schmitt. "It's probably been the most interesting time of my life."
See for yourself
The Lamentable Tragedie of Scott Walker
Broom Street Theater, through Sept. 4
Signs of Protest
Center for Photography at Madison, through Aug. 27
Ida Jo & the Show (CD release)
High Noon Saloon, Friday, Aug. 26, 6 pm
Craig Grabhorn, Nina Bednarski, Eric Baillies: Forward Reaction, Truth Hits the Streets
Common Wealth Gallery, Dec. 9-20