It's a Material World

Anthony Gavin / Flickr

Contributor Gianofer Fields, host of Lake Effect's Radio Chipstone series, has begun a kind of series within a series she’s calling Curator’s Choice. She asks a curator at a museum or historical society to pick a favorite object from the collection and tell us a little story about it. This week we meet Joe Kaplan, Curator for the Division of Museums and Historic Sites at the Wisconsin Historical Society. His favorite thing is an object that promotes what many consider to be a vice….gambling.

"Where's 'one-armed bandit' phrase come from? Comes from the draw, arm, pull, on the side of the most common gaming machine - the slot machine. It takes your money, it robs you and you don't realize it's robbing you," says Kaplan.

© Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

Every culture has rituals around death and mourning. During the Victorian Era it was something called Hair Wreaths. Women would collect the hair of loved ones in a little jar and turn them into mementos.

However, as women's worlds expanded it became a more specialized skill. Where the hair came from became less important, but somehow the wreaths still were considered objects that represented deceased family memories.

In our latest installment of Radio Chipstone, contributor Gianofer Fields continues her Curator’s Corner series with Virginia Terry Boyd - Professor Emerita in School of Human Ecology at UW Madison.

"If you sort of think about the idea of a mother who keeps a lock of her child's hair when they're born, that it is a part of them that she wants to keep as the beginning of life....that has a deep connection with her. And it also started in the tradition of men going to war and their beloved would give a lock of hair to take as a physical presence that would go with this person who was leaving. That then also led to when a person died, you kept a piece of hair that was a physical presence that became a part of you," says Boyd.

Minnesota Historical Society /

Wisconsin was just 17 years old when the Civil War began. In 1861, every available man fit to serve was called to fight. Each man was issued two pairs of pants, two shirts, two pairs of underwear, and socks – all woolen. Each was given a tent, a blanket, and a bag for carrying enough food to last three days. And of course, each man had a rifle and ammunition.

All of this had to be carried on their backs, unless they were officers. So none of these men would have willingly carried anything else, unless it reminded them of home:

Dimmerswitch / Flickr

Physical maps are disappearing in the 21st century - replaced by GPS screens in cars, and Google maps on our computer screens and smart phones.

But a hundred years ago, paper maps were important for a number of reasons - including some you might not imagine.

On this installment of Chipstone Radio, contributor Gianofer Fields sat down with Lee Grady, the senior reference archivist at the Wisconsin Historical Society.  They looked at maps made by Sanborn Map Company - a company that still exists today.

Williamson Gateway Sculpture /

Milwaukee drivers are very familiar with highway headaches due to what seems to be constant construction projects in the city year-round. Madison residents can relate. Back in the spring of 2011 construction began on Williamson Street. Located on the East Side of Madison in the Marquette - Atwood Neighborhood, and known as Willy Street, it is a place where small businesses rule and works of art dot the landscape.

The Marquette – Atwood Neighborhood Association saw the demolition of the street as an opportunity to create something beautiful out of the rubble. They gave local artists permission to raise funds to build works of art for the community. What began as a huge pain in the neck for commuters was actually the beginning of a transformation that went beyond the road.

Radio Chipstone curator Gianofer Fields went to Madison to speak with metal artist Arika Koivunen and black smith Aaron Howard about their contribution to Willy Street - a giant metal tree made of recycled materials.

"All of a sudden here we are with murals, with poetry in the street, with historical markers on the horizon, with a gateway it's not just about this piece, it's really about an enlivening of Willy Street," says Koivunen.

Fields spoke with metal artist Arika Koivunen and black smith Aaron Howard in July of 2014, the tree was completed in August of the same year. For more information on the Willy Street project, visit the Willy Street blog, and visit the Williamson Gateway Sculpture facebook page for more photos and information about the tree's story from beginning to end.

abimercado / Flickr

Many people can recall a childhood memory of going outside to take advantage of a sunny, breezy day that was simply perfect to go fly a kite. Kite-flying seems like a quaint past-time, but these air acrobats have done some serious work in their day.  Supposedly, founding father Ben Franklin flew a kite and discovered electricity. Later, in the 18th and 19th Centuries the U.S. Weather Service used kites to raise instruments for atmospheric experiments. 

What does a kite have to do with The Niagara Falls? Well, it was a kite that carried the lead wire across the 800-foot chasm that allowed us to build the world's first railroad suspension bridge. And get this - in 1822 a schoolmaster named George Peacock used a pair of kites to pull a carriage at speeds up to twenty miles per hour. Go Fly a Kite…indeed.

Contributor Gianofer Fields explores the lofty history of kites with the help of Cait Dallas, Lead Interpreter at Old World Wisconsin’s German Farm site. While we often think of kites as playthings, Fields discovers through history that they were not always about fun and games.

Textile artist Laura Anderson Barbata's work is a cross between traditional textile artistry and activism. And according to Liese Pfeifer, Academic Curator at the Design Gallery for the School of Human Ecology Barbata, works with local artists to create wearable textiles which are often used in live performances.

Gianofer Fields

We often talk about objects from our past with a fondness, but what happens when the memories are negative?

Either you discard the thing or you build new memories – even if the object in question is a can of good old-fashioned...Spam?

Dominic Alves / Flickr

Crosses, Stars of David, the Egyptian ankh, Chinese characters - they're all symbols that are commonly worn by people who subscribe to their meanings.

In this edition of It’s a Material World, contributor Gianofer Fields explores what symbols as objects mean to the wearer. Madison's Catherine Dorl says there's one symbol she clings to - both literally and metaphorically: The Peace Symbol.

Independent filmmaker Guy Maddin says he had made a number of films long before the short lived Canadian Documentary Channel contacted him about a commissioned work.

The head of the network gave Maddin a challenging task - document his hometown Winnipeg, Manitoba and...make it interesting.

Material Culture contributor Gianofer Fields spoke with Maddin while he was in Madison for a presentation of the film, and inquired about how he recreated this place on film: