City of Four Lakes, North American Midwest

Faces of Madtown: A Portrait-Story Project

To view Portrait-Stories of "Madtown," click on the following link: FLICKR PHOTOS

I first came to what I thought of as the "Austin" or "Asheville" of the Midwest for reasons only art-related in the scarcest (tenuous bordering on fragile) sense - to immerse myself within experience I just might later get to depict, "research for art" in the broadest sense that teeters on forsaking it; indeed, I sought distance from my perceived need to produce aestheticized journaling in favor of pursuing life minus mediation - instead, ironically, I wound up laboring to promote others depicting experiences THEY found THEMSELVES within.  

Prior to thinking of Madison as a long enough sojourn to call "home," I'd tucked my own hand ground oil paints, prepared surfaces and other assorted gear-of-craft over a thousand miles away en obscuritum, fancying I'd kick the habit of an obsessive work ethic that for the previous year and a half had won me no comfort to speak of, displaying non-Portrait-Story pieces (au plein air landscapes, unconventional still lives, portraits without stories . . .) in one little town after city after near-wilderness after another.  

According to my ex-"Goddess'" admittedly dysfunctional rants, the totality of my vocation burned "too intense" and led, in part, to the collapse of my then-most precious and longest-running intimate relationship of over six years.  

Turmoiling drama beyond succinctity of recollection here, I considered forfeiture of my merging of visual representation, autobiographical vignetting, wanderlust, revolutionism and libertine transgression towards living cyclically (soil, crop, table, humanure, soil . . .) to inconceivably somehow salvage our lives together after stripping out all I'd known as the core of our bonding as lovers . . . In disentangling myself from the abyss She'd  become (the most harrowing reluctance I'd ever pulsed upon) and attempting restabilization  . . . I found many likewise new Madtowners, particularistically random to me, yet resonantly similar, arrived by bizarrely juxtaposed circumstances, open to having to remake their lives here.           

Initially my general attraction towards this "City of Four Lakes," came from hearing of its tight proximity of small organically-growing farms and self-identifying "intentional communities."    

The "madmicropolis," as a poet I befriended called the scene, honeymooned me by its well-deserved pride: of bicycle culture, farmers' markets, community gardening, several specimens of the "endangered species" of independent bookstores, worker-owned and operated businesses, privately-issued currencies, discreetly unpasteurized milk if you knew where to look . . . altogether heavily emphasizing localized, creatively greener and laborer & consumer oriented economy.  

More specifically I first came for the "Soular Ride," of the "Grassroutes Caravan" pedalling with that "mobile village of resilience" through wet prairie and dairy land to the north woods sub boreal conifers and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association Fair: having spent almost years exploring the effects of and resistance to a certain non-renewable extraction bemoth (see and wanting to again glimpse some possible ecotopic horizons beyond the currently evermore pervasive wastescapes.  

On this bicycling journey a fellow caravaner pops the question, "What does it take to start a Portrait-Story Project?" and I give simplistically stock but crisply appropriate answer, that self-determining persons with community and land-connection would have ". . . to ask for it," resonating viscerally with its stated purpose - that once such an explicitly informed request solidifies, the conversation tends towards logistics, formalization of agreement, reviews of place-centered anecdotal rough-drafts.      . . .

Pedalling back to the "Mad City" Isthmus, finding very part time "semi-volunteering" on a Community-Supported Agricultural farm, sharing stories with fast made friends. .  . . . A few offered me some of the drawing media they had lying around - and I relapsed, spending my meager earnings on expensive artist's paper and marking implements I apparently couldn't do without, like any pathetic addict, except for this "addiction" struck casual observers as extreme constructivity in eccentric poverty. In very nearly zero inertia, I spawned portfolio and accumulated arsenal as though I hadn't similarly debuted nine years earlier. Displaying my newer works on clothespins and wire from chain-link fences while sketching whatever object most recently entered my narrativity, I felt myself deepening into a "comfortably semi-homeless" niche under the summer stars of this mid-sized city, parts of which acted much like a small town, whose residents kept opening up their households and lives to me.          

"Aggressively ambivalent" as to how long I'd stay, I vaguely contemplated cross-country cycling "any direction south" once autumn nipped.  

The tree lines across any of The Four Lakes sometimes reminded me of the Shenandoah Valley or on bright days of distant pastel haze, their calm shallow waters scenting of algae nostalgized me for the bay of outer Cape Cod. On State Street I distantly thought of Guadalupe Street in Austin, or when too many "dudebros" fratted around, Bourbon Street, in a a city too famous to need naming, while the following winter brought the same cold I'd camped in Yellowstone but windier.

And I couldn't find any who would disagree that the farmlands outside the city looked like the larger "flyover country" which I had opted to pass through as slowly as I could without getting struck or broke (braking around 12 or 15 miles per hour to fry squirrel).         

And in bratwurst, micro brewed stouts and certain rural accents lingered the regions' Germanic pioneering yet . . . . . . mostly wonderful months passed, and by September 2011 I saw the city of Madison as itself more so than through the filters of elsewhere. In planting the "three sisters" (maize, beans and squash, Native North American style), and more variety of tomato than I'd previously known, eating roadkill and raw heirloom cruciferous leaves, stalks and crowns as soon as I extirpated them, bartering artwork for other vegetables and cheese curds at farm stands and constantly finding abandoned and only half-eaten prepared meals on park benches and receptacles, I lived healthily in my present about as recession-impervious as a neither welfare-recipient nor plutocrat moored in this century could become; cheerfully stalled and unworried for a future despite believing all Dominating Paradigms of Corporatist Global Economy vastly irredeemable, train wrecking, unconscionable and usually vapid. While living in this large moment, without end in sight, the sense of merely coasting occasionally or often nagged me and I wondered when my passions would again clearly apply beyond myself.

Then the aforementioned fellow bicycle villager, named Kevin Schiesser, excited me by surprise, asking precisely that question I might wait years for, forgetting it might actually come.    

He first envisioned the not-yet-named Madison-grown Portrait-Story Project as centered on the housing co-operatives, a form of self-organization in which members serve as their own landlords, acquiring skills of communal living and reducing their survival costs by co-operation - and then our focus naturally expanded city-wide to all the protagonisms distinctifying the spirit of Madison.

Schiesser, then a board member of Madison Community Co-operative, a federation of 11 housing co-ops, "sponsored a proposal," as went their process, to host this Portrait-Story Project bottomliner. Attending a series of lesser meetings, giving a pitch, then answering any clarifying questions, I eventually received invitation to a larger and longer boardmeeting, given the floor to recite The Mission Statement of The Portrait-Story Project,

Read it:    
Hear it:

as I preconditioned they must assent the document for said project to root and set in motion.

I then left the room to defer to their conclusion. According to a few board members speaking to me shortly after, they concurred with little discussion and no debate. As progressive materialists piloting a multimillion dollar organization, none faulted me for needing lodging while volunteering in a region known for its deep, long winters, or found my flexible, monastically spare terms too burdensome.

An anachronistic bastion of the early 20th century Old Left, most Madisonians I spoke with enthusiastically approved of a broad-based presentation of voice with no economic barriers to self-inclusion, and held overwhelming-ly non-theistic views of art, meaning they acknowledged it as a result of materials combined via skilled labor, what I unhesitatingly call a craft.

While thanking all who gave morale support or otherwise proves too cumbersome for here, a few stand out for mention:         

One, Frank McIntyre, (scroll down to FMT004) an art and antique restorationist, and most of all to me, an artist's artist in whom I befriended delight of unfortunate rarity: a craftsperson who extolled, intelligently critiqued and nurtured the production of beauty at length, with such ease, frequency, spontaneity and breadth, I can't recall repetition or predictability ever occurring - or for my part, a lack of interest. He could spin painterly yarns around almost any artist or school formative to our styles, weaving in highly competent sequiturs of humorous irreverence, while never resorting to the anti-intellectual cope-out or fashionable incoherence of watered-down avant-gardists today who flippantly innuendo that all artefact etched, printed, cast, molded or adhered before the current nanosecond's ephemerality constitutes self-debasing tyranny.       

In milieu past, the most radical avant-gardist sentiments available carried the sting of daring and truth in the face of staleness and bankruptcy, literally "before the guard". Often adherents of such cutting edges had to suspend some criterions to pursue others. Yet in too many scenes since, whenever avant-gardist tendencies became more anti-creative than creative, ranging from gimmickries to self-indulgent self-deprecation to audience-mockery, they tended to outrun their novelty, tripping from envelope-pushing to faceplantting, mistaking rejection of discipline for subversion of politic. While art aficionados often refer to rapidly dissipated Art World pinnacles, the "follow-through" from a seriously producing artist's point of view comes from those avant-gardists and non-avant-gardists bringing new methods rather than those condemning most. And please allow me clarity here: the intelligibility of artmaking has scarce to do with how one gained social capital from her connections in presentation, relative to whether their pieces "work." And may the viewers keep determining this "working" for themselves after all original players have died. With the perennially re-explored "test of time" the threshold for bullshit drops, while simultaneously artists of old get "rediscovered," and the long dead, with no economically-definable relations or needy pretensions claimably involved, rejoin "the conversation." The entirety of extant art keeps bearing more complexity than each analysis offered, its aquaintability now pushing past market, cultural and civilizational scales and arguably into evolutionary time. Us artists interested in art reciprocate a "language" requiring less translation than words.         

I've conversed more luxuriously with the less well-known, more integrative and essentially pre-avant-gardist American Impressionism (continuing in The Cape School of Art from which I partly descend) than with the more rejective French Impressionism, Pointillism, Fauvism and Dada, famed past their contemporaneity. My conversation with the living and once-living flings ever vaster, more intimately with lithic-age cave-painting, sculpture and pottery than with mid-antiquities' logograms, more lavishly with Hellenistic encaustic murals than with Byzantine mosaics, more warmly with the baroque, Romantic, Barbizon, Hudson River and Ashcan schools than with the Gothic,  neoclassical, Cubist, Surrealist and Minimalist.         

One well-wined evening, in his cluttered "studiolo," expectable from an artist with "many batches on the burner," as McIntyre and I had one of those conversations, very much like taking long turns listening to each other, I actually fell on my knees thanking him for "understanding" that technical knowledge and refinement of practice amplify or found, not diminish, concept and expressive potency. When looking at the depths of archive by which artists make themselves functionally immortal, McIntyre saw wells of idea and menus of applicability, perhaps even debates unresolved, not an allegedly monotonous, cold mud heap which one could only depart by obligatory floundering. In his own pieces he neither sought to imitate the past nor confuse ignorance with originality. He gave me stunned pause: a squirrel hair brush so as not to merely "shovel" on the paint, glass beads in impasto to accentuate raking light, swishing titanium white dust by finger directly into the "plastic snot" of acrylic gel . . . and gifted me supplies familiar and unfamiliar, introducing me to a gum Arabic nugget, a bottle of casein and a vial of his very own walnut oil ink, widening and shifting my aesthetic trajectory.

One time, standing in Mother Fool's Cafe, a well-known neighborhood hub for the Near East Side, with Madison's Portrait-Stories on the walls, he critiqued one in particular for having too flat or bulldozed an opacity on the bridge of a nose due to an oil bar's thick mark. Hastily I agreed, but then pointed out that I had only given that paint stick such prominence once in the whole series, using more media altogether than I choose to name here (to spare the reader and lure the archivist I took notes on the backs of the originals). Unabated, he rightfully criticized some overly reflective mostly petroleum-base-bound metallic flecks disconcertingly shining through the more "dry gloss" finish of a pigment-heavy tempera & flaxseed oil layer. Again, I agreed, pledging to apply emulsions in smoother sequence, holding such scrutiny as a privilege, indefinitely preferable to those denying discernment between effort and non-effort in the semi-assembled detritus and vomit them nondescriptively and nonviscerally pass as "art."      

I met very few other artists who harness the texture, verisimilitude and workability of their media by grinding their pigment in their mediums of choice. To date, McIntyre remains the only other artist I know going the next step beyond mainstream category: digging ore or clay from ground to pulverize into pigment, for color of subtlety unpurchaseable.        

Without claiming so, or necessarily trying to, as he heaped adjectives and verbs upon molecular chains upon grains of wood, "warp and weft" or panes of glass and on and on, he nudged me into deeper appreciation, that material artists in our most mature  realizations begin to approach a "science" in the sense that we research and "tinker" (artists often say "experiment") to manipulate the behavior of evermore known  substances interacting towards intended, controlled and observable results, albeit toward irrepeating and subjective finalities.   

And Tiana Blackburn, the only one besides this co-bottomliner who has volunteered in some capacity for all 3 fully aboveground Portrait-Story Projects thus far, specifically in designing and redesigning these websites since 2006. For many patient hours as the need arose over the years, she enabled a broader public to view The Portrait-Stories as free online reference without advertisement. As the originals hung enmasse for "real time wetware viewing in infinite DPI" (reality, in other words) they showed in tandem with many "hit and run viewers'" (pedestrians in hurry’s') later ease in uploading, scrolling etc.           

And to another website designer, Davi Post of DaviWorks, who volunteered to launch (the now-historic/no longer current), - essentially the first time an active Portrait-Story Project had a corner of cyberspace exclusively for so-explicitly inviting content-generation.

The "Faces of Madtown," portraited or not, would often smile and thank me for handing them the, inked or markered, canvas strip or cut matboard "outreach card" with a web address scripted or printed upon it, as thematic reinforcement for considering appointment. With one near-exception, (who saw the originals in my absence) all over thousand Portrait-Story participants thus far (up to 2012), first encountered a bottomliner or co-bottomliner in person, then decided to draft prose (with one exception who wrote poetry) and model either from that interaction alone, or that interaction plus what they saw online or heard from friends or housemates.           

Some objected that Madison lacked any crisis which they presumed must contextualize Portrait-Story Projects. This commonly stemmed from banally connotating The Post-Katrina Portrait-Stories as coming from a landscape of grievance alone, failing to notice the often-politicized efforts by which a region re-exists,  

Read: and

or, from mislead assumption of The Voices for Appalachia Portrait-Stories as coming from a landscape of exclusively ignorant poverty and industrial parochialism, as if none there lived in natural beauty at renewable rate or contributed to world culture or made stands pertaining to that issue of carbon dioxide emissions, which leaves no one an outsider:

While I certainly recognize the "upshot" or "use" of tragedy or atrocity in galvanizing or catalyzing entire demographs to bring neglected concerns to sharper relief: as historical windows through which heroic thousands can leap, synergizing their efforts, as so many who otherwise would not have bonded towards a stronger, more embedded grassroots . . . I hold that suffering does not perquisite validity, mastery of one's path with respect to the mastery of others' does.           

In the Antebellum American South, the self-emancipators of the "Underground Railroad" and their abolitionist supporters would have attracted me, not the slaves afraid to abscond from their whippers, nor the institutionally racist and reluctantly conceding so-called "Great Emancipator".

Of course, despite how one may implore of art, or more broadly, expression, as integral to the human condition, strictly speaking, no one needs The Portrait-Story Project per se, which can neither give one voice nor make one voiceless; it only offers yet another format amongst countless more in which a manifestation of one's "voice" could surface, a complement to and vessel for whatever capacity for firsthand account scribing, one chooses to usefully share.

Our focus here lands on how one places their experiences of poignancy as selective emphasis fitting on a single nondigital handheld surface, not how one waxes grandiloquently or soapboxes with themselves possibly subtracted from, or only implicitly within, the equation.      

In other words, a Portrait-Story Project concerns perspective, not opinion, accounts of mobilized selves, not polls of expectation; attempts, not witness alone and certainly not petitions.          

In a text-dominant milieu, (this article likely amongst the millions of specimens of which the reader could likely recall) The Portrait-Story Project attracts or discourages, even disgusts as an unapologetic anachronism: any able to self-include could perpetuate its body by authenticating prose of their handwriting, an inherently archival form of self-indication maximizing the appearance and proof of individuation.      

In and outside The Portrait-Story Project, the image versus word dichotomy provides an underlying creative tension in my portfolio. I assert that the endangered craft of writing (as opposed to merely literature which one could type, or, these days, dictate to voice-recognizing software) goes along the tendency of an artisanal morality or elevation: a deeper humanization readable in the tactility of manually applied media (which becomes art once produced more by intention and execution of conceptually accessible nuance of quality than methodical utility).

In "The Faces of Madtown" a small phoenix spurred from a gargantuan pile of smoldering ash and when the flame elapsed, I moved on, too stubborn for any to convince me I wouldn't ignite bigger, hotter, louder phoenixes elsewhere, leaving this modest collection of 74 Portrait-Stories (the previous 2 projects had over 600 and 400 pages) plus an "introductory painting" (reproductions of which served as an outreach poster) at the Madison Community Co-operative Office at 1202 Williamson Street, where, as the co-signed Memorandum of Understanding which I drafted states, it should exhibit de facto for the foreseeable future, available as well for local lending to any space where the public may see it at no charge.

Thus, the series exhibited in my absence from right after June 26 to just before September 2nd, 2012, at the Playhouse Gallery of The Overture Center for the Arts in Madison's downtown:

For this, I have largely to thank Beth Racette, Program Manager of said organization, who noticed these Portrait-Stories, as they lay in disarmingly simple fashion, face-up on a lawn beside a farmer's market. Recognizing a developed aesthetic with an organized intent in an ex-galleria setting she graciously offered that the series should also go en-galleria.     

In the wire bound paper pad, in which one could comment via ballpoint on this Overture exhibit, one spectator criticized some Portrait-Stories for not having narration sounding enough like empowerment, and to respond briefly - I agree. This "agreement" most saliently means for me the suggestion of a societies-wide problem . . . after reading volumes and hearing streams of reason why submission and complacency occurs - the question still stands and I still passion to know: what kind of uncowed agency poises to impact despite or because of the challenges to it. Tell me dear writers, to whom it may apply, how you shove against antagonizing inertia towards radical and uncompromised conclusion. Tell me this, at least as much as you elaborate on all the extenuations as to why selfdom and solvency faceplants, derails and fizzles. Analysis of oppression or frustration with shiftlessness only holds valid to me as starting point or reference informing subsequent protagonism. The over-abundance of those without even the "asset" of hard-won lessons, lacking motivation or sober gumption, bores me quickly - I operate from the premise of potential already underway, not pity, compromise-fetish, hope-idolatry or an enemies' claim of my purpose.

While The Portrait-Story Project has become a substantial part of my vocation, the perceived success of that vocation cannot have contingency on The Portrait-Story Project continuing because this would mean calling others responsible for my fulfillment. Due to its obviously co-generative nature, I've rarely, if ever, called The Portrait-Story Project "my" project. (To glance distantly at a passing fragment of the lifelong unceasing project I call "mine": )          

Fondly I've called The Portrait-Story Project "an inversion of missionary work", meaning, I come, initially an outsider, to contribute to the further self-actualization of those attaching or attached their territories of food sovereignty or intercommunalism or solidarity or post-colonial anarchism or you-tell-me. The interlockingly similar meanings of calls for "self-determination", "autonomism", "self-actualization", "liberation" et cetera, when carefully, logically thought through, exclude swapping oppressions by prostrating or applauding afore a "lesser of evils/sell-outs," more likely agitating a very nearly universal tendency, which, if soundly appealing to resist ideological sabotage, may strengthen to outlast outright crushing by the reverse tendency of authority to brutally consolidate itself.      

Wherever a peoples' resonant variant or intuitively comprehensive overlap with my own values and practice has already independently risen in their own vernacular and idiosyncrasy and thus requests my specialization, then we'll look for a way together to reify that vision.      

As it stands now on this date of typing 12/22/2012, (handwritten drafts begun late 2011) I do not believe (and I know the difference between belief and knowledge) that we will ever know another Portrait-Story Project and the world has the burden of convincing me otherwise, of thousands for and of their own human geography expressing their tactical menus or strategies within their embodiment of self-realizing struggle, blowing on the aforementioned embers and co-generating that kind of flare on a mass scale.         

I would exuberantly stand corrected, committing years to such a turn of events,    

Consider ya'll's bluff called,  

-Francesco Lovascio di Santis