Reedsburg artist Joshua Hess’s earliest memory of producing artwork was at his grandparent’s house when he was about 5 years old.
Since then, he’s always had an interest in art. In high school, art class was a break for him to escape. He even has a closet in his bedroom/studio stacked to the ceiling of past drawings and art work he’s made.
“I have a drive to make art,” Hess said. “It’s always been a thing I enjoy doing.”
Melanie Tallmadge Sainz is the founding director of the Little Eagle Arts Foundation in the Wisconsin Dells, a board member for Arts Wisconsin and a member of the Ho Chunk Nation. She said she doesn’t like the stereo typical term “starving artist” because she’s well off in her job as a teaching and visual artist.
She said she started Little Eagle Arts Foundation as a way to showcase native art within the country and another also to to provide information on the economic opportunities available through the arts.
“You can be creative in terms of how you develop your business plan,” Sainz said.
It’s not always easy for artists to sell their work and make a name for themselves.
“It can be lucrative,” Sainz said “But like any other business it takes work and time and energy and resources.”
Making a start
Hess attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to study business, but decided to drop all of his business classes to study art. After finishing his second semester he dropped out of college. He later attended Madison Area Technical College to study architecture and finished his associates degree at University of Wisconsin-Baraboo. He graduated from UW-Baraboo with a bachelor’s degree in applied arts and sciences.
He said those business classes during his early college days helped him form his own art business. He mainly produces visual art, like landscape or abstract paintings. He recently illustrated his first book with La Valle writer John Mueller, “The Gunky Cookbook.” He is collaborating with him to illustrate another book.
Peter Krsko, a visual artist from Wonewoc, went to school to study physics and science. It inspired him to start his own career as an independent artist. He makes interactive public artwork displays in communities and conducts art workshops for students.
While she has a background in science from her job in health care as a senior manager for the speech pathology department for the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative, Prairie du Sac resident Patti Fowler said she’s had to learn the art of making glass jewelry through trial and error. She started her business, Enchanted Glass, after taking a glass making class. She said there has been “awful mistakes and happy mistakes” in learning the different techniques of making glass art.
For Fowler, Enchanted Glass is a side job, but she hopes to expand and produce more glass art pieces when she reaches retirement.
It’s a different life for two other Sauk Prairie residents, married couple Rhonda and Rick Nass who own an illustration and public art business Ampersand and have done for for over 40 years. Rick’s side of the business produces product illustrations for clients to use in advertising materials while Rhonda produces commercial artwork.
Rick Nass’s clients include Duluth Trading Company, Caterpillar and NASCAR Magazine. He said his work is mainly produced digitally using Adobe Photoshop. After “fighting it for years” he started using Photoshop in 2006 when he was producing work for Duluth Trading Company. He soon started to enjoy using the tool to produce his own work. Using digital methods he said “feels and looks the same” as using traditional methods of brushes and paper, but transferred to the computer.
Rick Nass said he only represents his work at River Arts on Water gallery in Prairie du Sac because he said a lot of galleries do not regard digital work as valid art. River Arts does recognize digital artwork, he said. Rhona Nass also displays her artwork at the gallery and serves as one of its creators.
Hess has shown at art shows including the Cool Boo Arts Show in Baraboo and Reedsburg’s Frosty Fest and Reedikulus Days. He also sells his artwork through his Instagram and Facebook accounts. Despite trying to get the word out about his art, selling artwork can be tough.
Wisconsin Dells artist Hartmut Ringel produces kinetic sculptures that produce movement and holographic art. He shows artwork through galleries and other displays. Ringel said he enjoys the arts festival during the Wo-Zha-Wa Festival in the Wisconsin Dells, but he said if he wanted to display his artwork there he would need a tent to display his work outside. He’s concerned the slightest bit of wind could ruin one of his delicate pieces and he fears it would not be presented correctly versus in an indoor setting.
Ringel also has a website to showcase his work, but he hasn’t sold a piece of work through it. He said he is “consistent with his art” but not with marketing.
“I’m getting better I must say (but) that’s not my main interest. My main interest is doing art,” Ringel said.
Marketing also isn’t a strong suit of Krsko, who prefers face to face interaction with clients rather than online communication. Another challenge he’s faced is making sure he is organized and thinking “two steps ahead” of himself to make sure he has constant work.
Fowler sells her art mainly through word of mouth to friends and family. She also uses her art as a way to give back to the community, to give as donations for fundraisers and silent auctions. She also sells her art to local galleries, shows at art fairs and hosts an annual holiday at her open house. She also wears her jewelry so those walking by can notice her work. She plans to start a website for the business when she reaches retirement because currently she “doesn’t have time to keep up with it,” she said.
Making a living
One of the challenges Hess said he’s faced as an artist is affording art supplies. Despite the monetary challenges, he said he is satisfied with the art he makes and always finds a way to make it work as an artist.
“I’ll make art with ball point pens,” he said.
For Ringel, he doesn’t need a lot of money for some of his artwork and collects the items he needs bottle caps, egg shells, wood, aluminum and steel for some of his work.
Some artists also have to take other jobs to support themselves. Hess has a full time job in the produce department at Viking Village Foods while Ringel has done woodwork and carpentry work as well as driving a school bus for Wisconsin Dells.
“I have to carve time out to do other jobs to make ends meet,” Ringel said.
Fowler said glass art making is “an expensive hobby.” She has three different size kilns to heat glass and recently purchased a new grinder to “double the edges” of the jewelry. The process involves several hand tools from a glass cutter to nippers as well as a diamond saw and diamond grind. She said the cost of glass can depends on the color because it can be “harder to make.”
“Gathering all of the equipment takes some time,” Fowler said, She would invest money made from selling her artwork into her equipment.
Rhonda Nass said she student taught at the grade school and high school level. She also taught “for a couple of years” at Madison College. Currently, she teaches two day art workshops “around the country.” Rick Nass also makes some income as a musician in a band called the Dang Its.
Rick Nass said him and Rhonda make a “scratch by living.” However, they feel they are rich in terms of friendships, the security of no debt and the ability to have a flexible schedule and freedom that can come with being freelance artists. However, with the financial pressure he is always trying to figure out faster ways to produce artwork and find clients.
Despite the challenges, the couples said they wouldn’t trade their lives for anything and both don’t plan to slow down anytime soon.
“It’s basically making a decision of working for someone else and working for ourselves and with that comes responsibility and hard ship and great success,” Rick Nass said. “I just turned 69 and I’m having a great time.”
Support for the arts
Sainz said she thinks the communities of Reedsburg and Baraboo have “really made a committed effort to engage what we call creative community building.”
“You see it with the infrastructure of the city in which they are providing an opportunity for community members to come together and provide fiscal, financial support for individual support for artists projects,” Sainz said. “Also, like the city of Reedsburg with their creative endeavors, as far as those pop up galleries or businesses, that support the arts.”
As an artist, Hess sees that support within the Reedsburg community crediting Joann Mundth Douglas, founder and director of Reedsburg ArtsLink for being a “huge support” for him.
As an artist, Krsko said financially there could be more support for the arts in the state. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Wisconsin is third lowest ranked state in the country in allocating funds for state art agencies. Total legislative appropriations are 0.13 per capita funding or $783,000. Minnesota is ranked the highest at $7.00 per capita or $39,275,000.
Krsko is concerned if there isn’t support for the arts it could limit future generations to have more creative expression.
“The financial support is very much limited,” Krsko said. “There is a lot of potential to have a very creative society in Wisconsin.”