Art from the heart of the Driftless at Watrous

The Driftless region in southwestern Wisconsin, with its towering bluffs and deeply carved river valleys, exerts an influence over its residents. The region comprises more than 16,000 square miles of land that avoided being scoured flat by the last glacier to pass through the state half a million years ago.

Now, The James Watrous Gallery is showcasing the work of two of the region’s resident artists in exhibits that may help outsiders better understand the Driftless influence.

The gallery, part of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters and located in Madison’s Overture Center, is offering side-by-side exhibitions by John Craig and Valerie Mangion that open July 15.

Craig’s “Equivalences” and “Lost Treasures from the Heart of the Driftless” and Mangion’s “Night Vision” take very different approaches to exploring and interpreting the region’s influences.

John Craig

Pittsburgh native Craig spent 40 years as an illustrator and graphic designer and he’s perhaps best known for his collage illustrations for the 1995 Smashing Pumpkins album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Since retiring, his work has focused less on pleasing clients and more on satisfying his inner muse.

Craig’s experiences in collage art and the trove of paper images he’s collected led to the creation of “Equivalences,” an exhibit that focuses on vintage postcards he paired to create unique narratives.

“In one way, I see these prints as a study in perception, using pairs of found images that relate to each other, either in some graphic form, such as reversed perspectives and positive-versus-negative influences, or just as a kind of visual illusion/allusion, or a deja-vu experience,” Craig says. “I have many more cards awaiting their visual companions.”

Craig’s postcard theme continues in “Lost Treasures from the Heart of the Driftless.” The artist employed imagery from historical photographic cards that he began collecting when he moved to the region in 1973. He created prints from the postcard photos and added text underneath each to further explain and enhance the experience the viewer is supposed to gain from the print.

“Many local artists in the Driftless area capture their surroundings in paintings and photographs or work with materials found in their natural environment,” Craig says. “This gave me the urge to participate too, so I decided to relate some of the things that have been lost in the heart of the Driftless — and I tried a little writing for the first time, too.”

Craig remains modest about the text that accompanies his images, seeming more comfortable to let the prints speak for themselves.

“I’m not a writer, so I can’t call them poems,” he says. “Nor do I know what to call the captions.”

Valerie Mangion

Mangion is a magic realist originally from Illinois who specializes in animal imagery.

Her “Night Vision” is a series of paintings based on animal pictures captured on small trail cameras placed on a family farm — an approach designed to capture animals’ images without the influence of human exposure.

“The animals are not frozen in fear, as they often are when photographed by people during the day,” Mangion says. “They are relaxed, they have interesting postures and they are able to be photographed just being themselves.”

Infrared technology helps to create the reflective “night eyes” we often see when spotting animals at night. The effect is captured in each of Mangion’s “Night Vision” canvases.

The subject matter speaks to her abiding love for animals.

“The aesthetic value of any painting can be separated from the subject matter, and depends on the artist’s mastery of all the so-called ‘plastic elements’ of art, such as the design, color, texture, pattern, value, movement and other aspects,” Mangion says. “Animals themselves are inherently interesting, and my ‘Night Vision’ series is likely to appeal to a very diverse audience because of its subject matter.”

As to the appeal of the Driftless region, Mangion cites the landscape, the abundant wildlife and the quality of life.

Changes occur, she says, but the region still brings her joy.

Craig agrees. “We have lived in the heart of the Driftless for 40-plus years, after buying a piece of land the same day we looked at it. It was the best thing we ever did,” he says. “Other than that, describing what is special (about the region) would take an essay.”

On exhibit

Work by James Craig and Valerie Mangion is on display July 15–Aug. 28 at The James Watrous Gallery in Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. The artists will discuss their works at 2 p.m. July 23 at the gallery. The reception and the exhibit are free and open to the public.

PHOTO BELOW: John Craig From the “Lost Treasures of the Driftless” series.
From the “Lost Treasures of the Driftless” series.