by Peggy Schulz
“It’s home,” Chuck Stebelton says of Riverwest, the place he’s lived longer than any other, including his childhood in western Michigan and several years in Chicago.
It’s fitting that Stebelton feels so comfortable here. Many of the positive aspects of the neighborhood – diversity, dynamism, openness, stability and even an element of surprise – also are aspects of Stebelton’s own personality.
At a recent bird walk sponsored by the Urban Ecology Center, Stebelton was asked by a fellow birder: “What’s your favorite part of birding?”
His reply? “The birds.”
When asked by this writer, what was his favorite part about the Riverwest neighborhood, Stebelton answered , “the neighbors.”
Best of Riverwest
“I really appreciate being able to walk to work,” Stebelton says, of living in the same neighborhood in which he works. “I can get around on foot, with access to the Co-op and the river,” among his favorite spots in Riverwest.
“I can go to the Co-op, there’s Harvey Taylor having breakfast,” Stebelton says. “Or I’ll run into Antler.” Stebelton notes that, in Riverwest, poetry is a significant part of community events.
“Woodland Pattern is a remarkable place, a poetry center in the neighborhood,” he says.
As a birder, Stebelton also enjoys the proximity of both the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan.
On a recent Sunday morning bird walk, in the river bed area between the Friends Meeting House and Kern Park, Stebelton identified Swainson’s Thrushes, three species of woodpecker, including the Downy Woodpecker, and even a Great Blue Heron. Then, traveling home through Kern Park on the top of the hill overlooking the river, Stebelton counted 11 wild turkeys.
“In some ways,” Stebelton says, “Riverwest feels a little like the neighborhood in Grand Rapids where I grew up.” He notes that area of Grand Rapids also had a Polish Falcons nest, as does Riverwest. But, “it didn’t have the same anchor feel” for the neighborhood, he says.
“I feel safe here,” Stebelton says. “Having lived in a city like Chicago, where the neighborhood can change so fast,” he says, “I love the stability here in Riverwest.”
Stebelton studied Elementary Education at Michigan State University. He taught children for a bit, then moved to a position teaching mentally-disabled adults in a Montessori school in Chicago. After that, he spent a year at the Treehouse Animal Foundation in Chicago, a no-kill animal shelter.
Stebelton holds certification from the state as a Wisconsin Master Naturalist. He does at least 40 hours per year of volunteer work, including leading bird walks for sites such as the Lynden Sculpture Garden, to maintain that certification.
Gathering sensations while on the move
“I think best when I’m moving,” Stebelton notes. Because this writer is a much better “plopper” than a pedestrian, Stebelton graciously agreed to an interview while he was simultaneously preparing the installation of the David McLimans exhibition at Woodland Pattern; it runs through the end of October.
“It’s a tragedy,” Stebelton says of the events leading up to this exhibit. Just before a previously-scheduled exhibition at Woodland Pattern of McLimans’ work, McLimans passed away. McLimans, a children’s book author and graphic artist, was born in Beaver Dam.
“This is an occasion to celebrate his life and work,” Stebelton says of the current display of a selection of McLimans’ intricate collages, endearing sculptures made with found materials, and sketches and illustrations.
Stebelton can be measuring the exact placement of two pieces of art on the exhibit room wall with a metal tape measure, much like a carpenter would, one minute; drilling a hole in the measured location the next; and then letting his hands drift lightly and lovingly over the works of art, highlighting the equally-exacting placement of the tiniest slivers of paper cut from a map, to form one of McLimans’ framed figures.
McLimans’ partner, Eva Hangenhofer, wrote of him after his death that: “David wished to express his concern for the world beyond his drawing table, his hope that we humans can find ways to live in balance with each other and with the natural world.”
It’s clear Stebelton put much of himself into the display of the McLimans exhibit. Perhaps the fact his own life and work is reminiscent of that of McLimans explains at least one reason why.
But it’s also true that Stebelton approaches all of his work, his hobbies and even his down time with the same attention to detail, drawing on his extensive, accurate memory and his sensual appreciation for the full breadth of experiences to be had in this world.
His work as a teacher, although relatively brief, comes through in how he shares his own knowledge, experience and creative work, but also in the way he presents the work of other poets and artists, such that the audience is held nearly spell-bound.
Stebelton is a poet, yes, to use a single-word title. But he’s also a word artist. Not just in composing poems that are read out loud, but also in publishing those poems in a bound collection. And, singly, in beautiful type fonts placed strategically on accordion-folded paper, including drawings by other artists – all in such a way that the visual effect of the poem, the printed image, is as pleasing as the aural sensation.
One such example is “Trillium,” a small, three-page, folded paper tribute to the three types of Trillium, a perennial flower, that can be found in this area of Wisconsin.
Another, “Chitters,” is a tribute to Chimney Swifts, with drawings by Sarah Luther. Stebelton created “Chitters” for the Fifth Anniversary of the Lynden Sculpture Garden in 2015. Stebelton explains that Chimney Swifts make “chitter” noises.
Stebelton shared both his fascination with all things avian, and his thorough research and knowledge thereof, by describing how Chimney Swifts literally roost on the walls of chimneys and similarly-shaped places. They don’t build nests in trees, as do the majority of their bird buddies.
“The book might be finding other forms,” Stebelton says, including audio books, “but these” – as he opened his arms to include just a sampling of the works available at Woodland Pattern – “these printed books just aren’t going to go away.”
Did you know?
Stebelton’s knowledge of poets and artists and their works is so thorough as to be nearly encyclopedic. He has an obvious fondness for the life and work of Lorine Niedecker, a Wisconsin poet. In fact, he first came to Woodland Pattern in 2003 for the 100th anniversary event of her birth.
Stebelton also is fascinated by local history. In April of this year, an LED sign at Woodland Pattern allowed for short contributions by interested neighbors. Paul Druecke was the Guest curator for this installation. The 40 resulting comments were published in a small brochure entitled “LocuStLed.”
No. 38 was a contribution made by Stebelton, himself: “1208 E. Locust housed both W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. Auden was fascinated, and asked for a guided tour. Thomas peed in the rose bushes.”
The house at 1208 E. Locust St. is a beautiful home, set back from the street, almost lost in the surrounding trees, built in 1851.
Truly, a man for all senses
For the reading Stebelton did this past August for the Friends of Juneau Park, at the foot of the statue of Solomon Juneau, he had been fortunate to have found Juneau’s original benediction. Stebelton did the reading in the park, overlooking Lake Michigan, accessible to the sights, sounds and smells of all that such a green area on a Great Lake can provide.
That single event sums up, in a way, the range of sensory experiences that have delighted Stebelton throughout his life, and which he has drawn on, not just for his professional work, but also for those activities he treasures, including birding, writing, reading and publishing poetry, and walking in areas of his neighborhood, on sidewalks and scenic river trails.
The time spent with Stebelton for this interview was enjoyable in so many ways, as he shared his appreciation for a wide range of sensory experiences, featuring everything except for taste and smell.
Oh, wait! Those were there, too, when Stebelton brought out two small packs of tasty snacks for us to enjoy. And, after he apologized for the remaining, perhaps slightly noxious, odor of the paint he had just an hour or so before applied to the walls of the exhibit room.
But nothing could detract from the delightful experience of engaging with Chuck Stebelton and all of his senses.
RAA Artist ProfileJohnathan Laws – Something Greater
by Elizabeth Vogt
photo by John Ruebartsch
When I first saw him, Johnathan Laws was hauling instruments into the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts. This included a cajón, a beautiful Afro-Peruvian box-like wooden instrument. Johnathan, hosting the evening, also arrived with insightful patience and an open mind. A Tuesday night open jam
session—who knows if anyone will show up?
They did show up. Gradually and almost magically, as if drawn to a magnet, came a diverse and motivated collection of piano, guitar, sax, and percussion players. Laws welcomed and featured each as they arrived. Unscripted music began to unfurl from the stage, and the energy emanating seemed to outpace the sound. A tangible excitement took over as they improvised in musical conversation. The audience was included. At one point, Johnathan’s wife Valencia sang floating harmonies holding son Eli, who kept the irresistible beat with a rattle. Beautiful. An inner voice said, “This is the way we all want the world to be—open, powerful, respectful, celebrating good things.” Somehow, not just on Tuesdays, Laws knows how to make this happen.
He uses the word opportunity a lot, something Johnathan Laws know how to conjure, cultivate, and share. He recognizes the manifestation of the future in the present, and encourages musicians to “practice for where they want to be, not where they are now.” There is pleasure in reaching, sweetness in potential being realized, and always—an unpredictable edge. “Just come out,” he says simply, “Come out, have fun.”
Does this seem reminiscent of church? For Johnathan, surely. Focused, improvisational, and collaborative creation was fundamental in the small church community he was raised in. His uncle was founder and pastor. The congregation, realizing that traditional large-scale choral pieces would not do well in a small group, made their own songs. They combined old and new, adapting to the voices and instruments they had. Joyful sounds. This spirit of ingenuity has also spread to home, as Valencia and Johnathan continually make up little songs with their son Eli.
In his twenties, when he started drumming at the church, the pastor gave him keys so that Johnathan could practice. Sometimes from dawn until dusk, he played and listened to other drummers. The student was ready, and the teacher appeared—within him. He began playing at a variety of places, for a while with two bands and for four churches.
“Music,” says Johnathan, “connects us with something greater. It forges an innate connection between humanity and nature.” As music is nonverbal, it helps us understand other signals. It’s also a liberating form of communication, not requiring specific intent. “It says: ‘I’m here, this is who I am; this is what I do.”
A thinker and imaginer, Laws also writes, carefully crafting his messages. Meanings are wrapped in emotions, he emphasizes; conveying raw emotions such as anger may not communicate what is at the core. Unwrap; receive. Life means continually receiving, learning, and—if opportunities are nurtured—moving to something greater. In Johnathan’s words, “We are being found.”
Visit Johnathan’s Facebook page or the website for his band, Decoteau Black (decoteaublack.bandcamp.com).