Rural Road Trip Puts Artists on the Map

October 6, 2014

Cheryl Anderson

Post-Crescent Media

When driving along U.S. 151 near Chilton, it's easy to miss the Plaid Squirrel.

You'll be forgiven if you weren't expecting to find an eclectic art gallery filled with original works by local artists smack dab in the heart of farm country.

Come to think of it, many of the artsy spots along scenic roads in Calumet County might easily be missed. But they shouldn't be.

"Nobody really thinks of Calumet County as having artwork," said Nancy Kingsley, who has owned the Plaid Squirrel with her sister, Susan Schreiber, for four years. "They all think of the farms and local cheeses and things like that. Most of the time people who drive along the lake are stopping at the supper clubs or stopping at the bars, but they don't know a lot about the places that have artists and artwork."

That was the impetus last year for the first Rural Arts Road Trip, which returns next weekend. Organizers say the self-guided road trip, set for Friday and Saturday, is the perfect way to bask in fall colors on rural roads in scenic small towns in Calumet County. Participants will get the opportunity to see artists at work in their studios, savor local foods and enjoy adventures, including shopping, hayrides and corn mazes.

The event also gives Calumet County artists an opportunity to get their works in front of a larger audience, said Hilbert oil painter Daniel Green, whose work is displayed at Main Street Artworks in Hilbert and the Plaid Squirrel. Green paints all things nostalgic dating back to the 1930s to 1950s.

"Old rusty cars or scenes of what your grandmother would have seen," he said of his work.

Last year's inaugural Rural Arts Road Trip was the brainchild of Cindy Ellenbecker, owner of Bleating Heart Haven Farm, two miles north of New Holstein. Ellenbecker hosted a similar event at her fiber farm in 2012, then last year joined forces with the Plaid Squirrel, Meuer Farm in Chilton and Abler Art Glass Gallery in Kiel to present the first Rural Arts Road Trip. The start-up budget was $800, which was funded by the businesses.

Bonnie Abler, who has owned Abler Art Glass Gallery with her husband, John, since 1976, said similar road trips have been tried in other communities.

"The difference with ours is that it is so versatile," Abler said. "It doesn't only include art. It includes handmade, hand-produced, hand-grown."

Thanks to a marketing grant of almost $17,000 from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, this year's trip will be bigger in scope, including more stops, more artists, restaurants and even lodging. Ellenbecker said part of the requirement to get the grant was marketing outside of Calumet County — they targeted Madison, Milwaukee and at visitors' centers at state lines.

It all makes her anxious in a good way.

"Anxious means that you're nervous and you're eager all at the same time because you're not sure what the outcome's going to be," Ellenbecker said.

"You don't know what to expect," Abler said. "This is the second year and we have the opportunity to get the grant another two years if we meet their criteria. So far so good. ... And then after that point it would be a three- or four-year show and you would hope it would build up enough to not have to rely on a grant."

For Ellenbecker, the Rural Arts Road Trip gives Calumet County the credit it rightly deserves.

"We're sort of a quiet little county ... so we tend to get overlooked when I think we have as much to offer as anywhere else," she said.

— Cheryl Anderson: 920-993-1000, ext. 249,; on Twitter @chermanderson

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