ON THE SCENE: Forget winter

I hate hot, humid days. My muscles and bones ache. I don’t function well. I am not alone; most people I know have lived here for at least a decade, some for far longer, and some recent arrivals like cool nights, warm days and near zero humidity. Weather was similar to what we had up until this week.

To get your mind off hot days, I thought I’d tell you about a party I had on a bitterly cold winter evening on Jan. 9, 1982, in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. Mount Horeb is a small farming community about 20 miles south of Madison, given its name by the Englishman George Wright, not by Norwegians as many people think. However, it has its Tyrol Basin ski area, a well-known Troll, and enough residents of Norwegian heritage to cement a Scandinavian heritage in the minds of many.

Winter in the northern plains states can be brutal. They like to say that the only thing between their community and the North Pole is some barbwire fences, and when it gets very windy, they say the barbwire must have been blown down. As a consequence, snow drifts can be something else.

I moved to Wisconsin in the summer of 1980. Before that, I led the Dutchess County Arts Council and served as the vice chair of the National Fine Arts Committee of the 1980 Winter Olympics. I had decided to go back to making my living as an artist, and my partner at the time, Toni Fountain Sikes, encouraged me to come out and live with her. As there were many great spaces for studios in Madison, a robust gallery scene in Chicago and many opportunities in Madison, her offer made sense on many levels.

In 1981, we moved into the first floor of a charming old house on First Street in Mount Horeb owned by local grocer Bill and his wife Vickey. While this was going on, a Madison-based artist introduced me to his gallery, the prestigious Zolla-Lieberman Gallery in Chicago. Co-owner Roberta Lieberman said that she would be willing to hang one of my pieces in their storage area.

That was not the invitation I had in mind, but the offer seemed way better than no or asking me to come back in six months, so I accepted her offer with pleasure. Roberta then selected a piece, and I went my merry way. In a couple of months, Roberta called me back and said someone bought it. Could I bring down another? I did.

After a few more were sold, I was invited to a group show, and as my good fortune had it, a couple of pieces from that exhibit sold as well. At the time, other doors started to open. I was invited to create the set for a modern dance performance in Madison, and I got hired to create large site-specific installations in two corporate headquarters, one for a Hilton Hotel and another for a shopping mall, both in Tennessee.

Then Roberta offered me a one-man show for December 1981. It would run right through the Christmas holidays, closing the first week of January. I had been given a prime spot. My challenge was that I didn’t have enough works of art to fill the gallery. I needed help.

I learned of a government program wherein nonprofits could receive grants to hire Laotian refugees. The nonprofit’s responsibility was to teach the Laotians about working in America, how to open a bank account, report on time, do the work assigned, get paid and manage their money, rent and whatever. So I pitched the dance company to go after the grant. The person would work for me, and I would make sets for the dance company at no charge, just the cost of materials.

It turned out my Laotian assistant, Kam, was quite handy with tools and had a couple of cousins who loved the idea of working for a crazy American artist, resulting in my having three assistants. At the time, I was creating relief sculptures made out of stripped branches joined together to create an organic fame to which I’d attach fiber panels. In short order, I had to hustle to keep ahead of them as they became quite adept at the assembly. The long and short of it is we got the work done in time and installed in the gallery.

The gallery had a big opening; lots of people came, wine drunk and great press, but not one piece sold then or throughout the exhibition. So after New Year’s, I was depressed. I had burned through my savings. I had about $38 left. My landlord, Bill, asked, “What will you do with the $38? I suggest you blow it all on a party. Let’s call it ‘Forget Winter’ and urge everyone to come with beach wear.”

On party night, a once-in-100-year blizzard blasted Mount Horeb. Temperatures plunged. Did that stop anyone from coming? No, it did not. Toni, who was friends with the governor’s press officer, arranged for snowplow-led state police escorts from Madison. Toni’s girlfriend, visiting from Alabama, was sure I’d call it off. Toni told her, “Are you kidding? He’s from Lake Placid; they live for days like this.” (Toni’s first hockey game was attending the 1980 U.S.-Soviet game. We had center ice seats in the bleachers).

It was an insane party. The last thing I remembered was lying spread-eagled flat on my back with people dancing about. In the morning, people were sleeping all over the place in all manner of dress. I was woken by the phone ringing, which, to my throbbing head, sounded like a fire alarm. It was Roberta.

“Naj, are you sitting down?”

I was.

“Someone came in and bought everything. They bought every piece and would like you to rent a truck and bring them to St. Paul (Minnesota) this week and install them in their new corporate headquarters,” said Roberta. “It’s for a bank in St. Paul. How soon can you come down and get the work? Will tomorrow be OK?”

The postscript driving a large panel truck to St. Paul wasn’t too bad, but driving an empty one back to Chicago with it being blown back and forth in all that wind-driven snow was something I hope never to repeat.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)

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