The land between Cazenovia and Hillsboro, in far northwestern Sauk County, is part of the driftless region of Wisconsin. Steep hills and curving valleys are dotted with dairy farms wherever they can be wedged in. Woodland is the name of the township; it forms the panhandle of Sauk County. West of LaValle, Cty. Hwy. G runs along what is known as Quaker Valley, once home to one of Wisconsin's largest Quaker communities. Now, Amish buggies travel these mostly empty lanes, any one of which could probably make the cut for Wisconsin's Rustic Roads program. On a sunny July afternoon, if you pulled over to the side of the road and stepped out of your car, you'd likely see a hawk circling, and a few butterflies might be your only other companions.
Follow highway G to Cty. Hwy. EE and then into the hamlet of Valton, though, and you'll stumble upon the Painted Forest - one of Wisconsin's most prized folk art sites. The name may lend this site the pleasant feeling of a fairy tale, although the art itself borrows from the darker side of those same odd stories of childhood.
Wisconsin has a large number of outsider or folk art sites and is fortunate to have the Kohler Foundation to help shepherd their preservation. One of the largest and best known outsider art sites is Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park up north in Phillips, Wis. Closer to Madison, there is Grandview, Nick Engelbert's farmyard in Hollandale, decorated with fanciful people and animals, and the Dickeyville Grotto, a religious take on concrete and salvaged-object construction, in Dickeyville.
The Painted Forest is less well known. Unlike these other sites, it's not outdoor sculpture but a mural, painted inside a building - a simple white meeting hall that, from the outside, looks like many other late 19th century wood constructions, although in this case, immaculately maintained.
Also unlike some of the others, the Painted Forest is very much off the beaten path. (Not that Hollandale is really on the main road, but it is between Mineral Point and New Glarus, two established tourist destinations.)
Valton (the "val" rhymes with "pal"), home to the Painted Forest, is not even a town; unincorporated, it consists of a handful of houses and a church. Pasture comes right up to the Painted Forest's building, established in the 1890s as a meeting hall for a fraternal organization known as the Modern Woodmen of America. There's not very much else in the immediate vicinity to act as a tourist pull.
The Modern Woodmen of America was both a social organization and at the leading edge of the insurance business in the late 19th century. In addition to creating opportunities for social gatherings, the MWA sold insurance policies to its members. It seems an odd combination today, as if American Family was also functioning as the YMCA. (The MWA persists today as a provider of insurance.) The lodge building in Valton, then a larger community, was almost finished when an itinerant painter named Ernest Hüpeden showed up in town.
For whatever reason, Hüpeden was hired to paint the curtain of the stage in the rear of the building, and the MWA liked what it saw. It hired Hüpeden to paint a mural, which eventually covered all four walls and the ceiling of the hall. It took him two years. To what extent the MWA leaders dictated the themes of the mural is unknown, but they apparently did want representations of typical Woodmen fraternal activities. What Hüpeden came up with is a catalogue of the many perils of life that might convince someone that buying an insurance policy is a good idea.
The overall scene is of a forest; originally the ceiling was of a sky and a sunset, though that part of the mural has been lost. Set within the forest are scenes that draw on initiation rites for the MWA and the brotherhood saving a wounded Everyman from life's dangers.
The lore has it that Hüpeden had apparently taught himself to paint while in jail in Germany on specious charges. He later emigrated to the U.S. and subsisted on painting jobs, both figurative art and just painting barns, but not much more is known about his life. Although his work at the Painted Forest, particularly his figure work, has the rough hallmarks of the naive style of outsider visionary artists like the Rev. Howard Finster, there are other examples of Hüpeden's work owned by the State Historical Society that show a more nuanced touch. Hüpeden stayed in the area and died in nearby Hillsboro in December 1911.
David Smith, an Edgewood art professor, is the director of the Painted Forest and the Edgewood College Art Studio and Study Center, built in 2004 down the block from the original MWA building. The college's mission is both to enable the public to see the mural and to promote the use of the studio for writers, visual artists and musicians as a kind of retreat center. Certainly this would be a great place to get away from it all.
Smith is the second director since the Painted Forest was donated to Edgewood by the Kohler Foundation in 2004. Edgewood staff, other volunteers from Madison and affiliates of the Kohler Foundation volunteer to keep open hours at the Painted Forest Saturday afternoons from 1 to 3 p.m. from Memorial Day to Sept. 22. At other times, school groups come to see this work and learn about the area's past.
Smith says that despite the circumscribed open hours, attendance has grown each year that Edgewood has had custody of the building. Over the past three summers, attendance has grown from 120 visitors to 200.
"There is a direction to the mural," says Smith. As the viewer follows the images from one wall to the next, it tells a story. A self-guided tour helps visitors interpret the mural's symbolism, although the volunteers are also versed in answering questions.
The mural is rooted in late 19th century society's views of, and fears of, accident and death, says Smith: "Death was a lot more present in people's lives, and Hüpeden's mural played off that feeling that death is just around the corner." In that sense, the mural's depictions of life's dangers and potential for violence is an advertisement for the insurance industry. The mural was intended to get MWA initiates thinking about how "you might leave your wife and children behind."
Initiation meetings were "good camaraderie," reflects Smith, but also a bit of an underwriting exercise. "They were testing physical and mental strength."
Smith thinks it's remarkable that the mural has survived, considering its age and that the building went through many uses after the Valton chapter of the Modern Woodmen disbanded in 1915. "I think Valton residents must have known it was pretty special," Smith says. "No one said 'let's paint over this.'" He's talked to some longtime residents who remember parts of the mural being covered up with cloth when various events were held in the building, like weddings, over the years.
Some of the scarier images in the mural involve demonic-looking, mask-wearing figures burning a man at the stake. That was really "ramping up the emotions," says Smith, emphasizing the "precarious perils of the world" but also human-on-human violence.
There is ongoing research into the life of Hüpeden, and further discovery and acquisition of his surviving work. Recently, the Kohler Foundation saved a mural painted by Hüpeden in the former Last Chance bar in LaValle when it closed.
Paul Baker Prindle, director of the DeRicci Gallery at Edgewood, is in charge of the first survey exhibition of Hüpeden's work, "Ernest Hüpeden: Beyond the Forest." It will be the inaugural show this fall in the new Edgewood College Gallery in the Visual and Theatre Arts Center. Prindle has recently located two new Hüpeden paintings in rural Wisconsin through "word of mouth and sleuthing," he says, and is gathering works for the show from private owners from Indiana to La Crosse. "It's been an exciting process to travel out to the area around Valton and hear farmers and other townfolk talk about how they came to own Hüpeden paintings," says Prindle.
Prindle has also learned that the story about Hüpeden having been in jail on unjust charges for seven years before coming to America is most likely not true. Through a ship's manifest, he discovered Hüpeden was only 20 when he came to this country, and it "seems unlikely that he committed a crime at 12 or 13, was jailed immediately, and then boarded a ship to America upon release," Prindle says. "It's exciting to clear up this part of his history, but disappointing - because now it feels like we know even less."
Coming and going
In contrast to the sometimes grim scenes of the Painted Forest mural, the area around Valton has true bucolic appeal. The scenery is lovely, and there has been a growing population of Amish since the 1990s. Buggies on the road are common.
There's plenty to see in the area, although super-touristy gift shops and restaurants are in short supply. Even so, if you're looking to break up the drive and make a day of it, there are more than a few highlights to hit on the way, depending on which route you take. And appropriately, there are many ways to wend your way to the Painted Forest.
Taking Hwy. 14 to Spring Green and then heading north on Hwy. 23 means being able to take advantage of that area's restaurants and shops, like Arcadia Books at 102 E. Jefferson St. and the Timber Growers sustainable wood gift shop at 124 W. Jefferson St. The food's good at the Spring Green General Store at 137 S. Albany St. Heading north on 23, stop at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, E5904 Mill Rd.; you might see cheese being made.
Continue west on Hwy. 33 until Hwy. G goes to the right (taking G to the left for two miles will bring you to the mothership of the Carr Valley Cheese empire, where there's usually a bargain basket of sale cheeses to discover). From G, take the junction with Hwy. EE to the left to get to Valton.
Travelers wishing to continue to the northwest could combine a visit to the Painted Forest with stops in Hillsboro, where Holvy's Cafe, 824 Water Ave., serves diner classics, a good Reuben, and pies. Further west, there's camping at Wildcat Mountain State Park.
Another option would be to head back to Madison from Valton on Hwy. 80 south. A short detour to the east on Hwy. I to Hwy. II will take you to Trillium Springs Farm Store, where the owners raise alpacas and sell alpaca yarn, other alpaca wearables, local art and local homemade jams and preserves (call first, 608-647-9836). In Rockbridge, Pier Natural Bridge County Park offers the chance to hike to the top of the natural bridge alongside the Pine River.
Stop in Richland Center at Ocooch Mountain Books and Libations, 145 W. Court St., for local literary titles and microbrews.
Or, head back to Madison via Reedsburg and Rock Springs (where the namesake spring on the side of the road on Hwy. 136 draws people with lots of empty jugs to get free spring water) to Baraboo. Right on the square is the Little Village Cafe, the same eatery that used to be on King Street in Madison. The same owners are in charge of a similar menu in a quirky space that was once a soda fountain.
The Painted Forest
E846 Painted Forest Dr., Valton
Saturdays 1-3 p.m., Memorial Day - Sept. 22
Directions from Reedsburg: Take Hwy. 33 north to LaValle. In LaValle, take Hwy. 58 west about five miles past Ironton, turn right on Cty. Rd. G. Go for about six miles to Cty. Rd. EE. Turn left on EE and continue one mile to Valton.
For more info on the Painted Forest, see here.
For a video podcast produced by the Wisconsin Art Environment Consortium about the mural, see here.