Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wisconsin's Toyful Side

Dollhouse cabinet from Wisconsin Toy Co.
Photo: Tracy's Toys
 Thanksgiving is over and now all focus shifts to Christmas.  Christmas means many things in Wisconsin, which we will touch upon later in later posts, but throughout the United States, Christmas means toys.  Wisconsin isn't as famous as Denmark or Japan when it comes to the production of hisoric toys, but there are a number of iconic brands with a connection to our state.

Wisconsinites have been hand-making toys at home since the earliest inhabitants.  Native peoples in Wisconsin would make dolls and mobiles for cribs and Laura Ingalls Wilder talked about making dolls, toy boats, and puppets while on the prairie.  In the early 20th century, the Wisconsin Toy Co. made German-style dollhouses that were sent to little girls all over the country.  These were usually handmade and done with the utmost attention to craftsmanship and detail.

Kirsten, the Swedish American Girl doll
Photo: American Girl
This heritage made Wisconsin a natural fit for the now household name of American Girl. Founder Pleasant Rowland visited Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia in the early 1980's and was inspired by the way they made history accessible and fun.  Wanting to bring that same spark to girls all over the country, Rowland started American Girl dolls in 1986.  At the time, Pleasant Company in Middleton produced just three dolls: Kirsten Larson, Samantha Parkington, and Molly McIntire.  The idea was to make a doll that girls could relate to while discussing social issues like slavery, poverty, and war in terms that young girls could understand.  Since then, the brand has expanded to over 20 dolls, accessories, movies, magazines, and books.  Despite boutique stores in Chicago, New York, LA, etc., American Girl is still based in Middleton, Wisconsin.  Pleasant Rowland is a noted philanthropist in Madison and continues to champion education and outreach programs through the American Girl company.

Photo: Mattel
Another doll, albeit with a different reputation than American Girl, is Barbie.  Yes, that Barbie.  No, she wasn't created in Wisconsin, but she is from here.  In a fictional sense.  Barbie was created in 1959 by a woman from Colorado named Ruth Handler.  It didn't take long for Barbie to became an international phenomenon.  It is estimated that over 1 billions Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide, and that three Barbie dolls are purchased every second.  What does this have to do with Wisconsin?  In her fictional bio, Barbie was born in the town of Willows, Wisconsin (don't bother with a pilgrimage, it doesn't exist).  I can't say I'm proud that Barbie was 'born' here, but at least Ken isn't a Sconnie!  If you want to see some more authentic Wisconsin Barbie dolls, check out this Brut Brut! post.

Photo: Duncan
But Wisconsin is not just dolls.  Wisconsin loves crafts and we've made our name in some ubiquitous toys found in almost every home.  Yo-Yos are often a generic toy, rarely tied to any brand.  But if you did have to name the producer of the classic bauble, it'd probably be Duncan.  They are so closely linked to yo-yos that their website is  Although the company is from Ohio, Duncan set up their yo-yo factory in the small town of Luck, Wisconsin.  Luck was founded by Swedish loggers, and the town attracted Duncan due to the wide-spread availability of hard Maplewood, perfect for their trademark butterfly yo-yo.  Luck quickly became known as the Yo-Yo Capital of the World, and produced 3,600 yo-yos an hour in their heyday.  That's about 7.5 millions yo-yos a year.

Another childhood favorite are Shrinky Dinks.  Almost everybody in the 1980's had Shrinky Dinks, the bake-able plastic art medium.  The idea began as a Cub Scout project in Brookfield.  It was sold to Hasbro and entered the vocabulary of teenagers across the country.  If you're looking for an especially retro brand of fun, check out their website.  Rad.

As a boy, some of my favorite toys were Micro Machines.  These miniscule cars were licensed from Clem Heeden of Sturgeon Bay.  Produced by Galoob throughout the 1980's and 1990's, they sadly ended production before the millennium.  However, they did leave us with some great YouTube classics!

If you'd like to continue Wisconsin's toy making heritage, there are a number of toy makers in the state.  John Michael Linck makes traditional wooden toys here in Madison and there's always those Shrinky Dinks from North Lake!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Georgia O'Keeffe

Wisconsin has had a fair share of famous natives.  Frank Lloyd Wright has been the subject of a few posts on MTC, but there are so many other great Wisconsinites.  For example, the great Georgia O'Keeffe.

O'Keeffe was born in 1887 on her family's dairy farm outside of Sun Prairie.  The second of seven children, O'Keeffe showed an early aptitude for creativity.  By age 10, O'Keeffe and her younger sister were taking lessons from a local watercolorist.  She began boarding school in Madison, but the family relocated to Williamsburg, Virgina.  O'Keeffe, however, stayed in Madison to finish her studies and joined the family out east after high school, albeit not for long.  She returned to the Midwest to study at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New York to study at the Art Students League.  It was there that she won the still-life prize for her work Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot.

Photo: Wiki Media Commons
Despite the praises lauded on her, O'Keeffe left the world of fine art and moved back to Chicago to work as a commercial artist.  Languishing in her creative abyss, it wasn't until she met Arthur Wesley Dow in 1912 that she found inspiration again.  Through the guidance of Dow, O'Keeffe learned how to use painting as expression of an artist rather than the old methods pressed upon her at the art schools.  During this time she took a job at West Texas A&M University and fell in love with the American Southwest.

She first gained national attention when some of her charcoal drawings were shown by the photographer Arthur Stieglitz at his 291 gallery in New York in 1917.  They began writing each other and by 1918, O'Keeffe was back in New York focusing on her art full-time.  The two fell in love quickly, and starting living together.  This caused a bit of a stir as Stieglitz, 23 years her senior, was also still technically married. When his divorce was finalized in 1924, the pair quietly married.

Photo: Avery Margaret Designs
Photo: Scribble of Red
O'Keeffe became a favorite subject in Stieglitz's photography.  Many of her portraits were nude, and by the time her retired in 1937, O'Keeffe had been photographed over 350 times by her husband.  Surrounded by creativity, and spending summers in their idyllic upstate home, O'Keeffe began her iconic large-format nature paintings.  Petunia No. 2 became her first flower painting in 1924 -- a subject that came to define her as an artist.  However, when her Black Iris III was first showed, her critics claimed her work was too sexual.  She began to paint more literally to avoid the unwanted perceived undertones of her work and briefly focused on landscapes.

Photo: Wiki Paintings
Desperate to stretch her creative legs, she stopped summering at the New York house with the Stieglitz family in order to travel to Santa Fe.  There she went on long backpacking excursions with her friend Rebecca Strand.  They ended up renting a house in Taos and not long after, O'Keeffe decided to move there permanently.  She bought Ghost Ranch which became an artists haven, hosting the likes of Allen Ginsberg, and Ansel Adams.  By now her paintings were fetching the highest prices that any living artist has claimed and were being shown throughout the country in places like MoMA, Chicago Art Institute, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Her painting Summer Days made her internationally renowned and remains one of her most recognizable works.

In 1946, her husband died suddenly, forcing her to move to New York to settle the estate.  After traveling to clear her head, she painted her iconic Sky Above Clouds IV, inspired by the view while flying over clouds.  She continued to receive praise from her work and was elected to the  American Academy of Arts in 1962 and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966.

Photo: Art Institute of Chicago
By 1972, O'Keeffe had lost most of her eyesight due to ocular degeneration and hired a young potter named Juan Hamilton to help around her estate.  She abandoned painting, but continued to do charcoal drawings and began working with ceramics under the guidance of Hamilton.

O'Keeffe died in 1986 at the age of 98.

She had decided to leave her entire estate to Hamilton, which was fiercely contested by her survivors.  Ultimately her estate went to the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation (and when that closed in 2006, it went to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum).  In honor of her Wisconsin roots, Marquette Junior High in Madison was renamed Georgia O'Keeffe Middle School in 1993.  Her work still inspires artists and non-artists alike all over the world and she remains one of the most recognizable names in American art.