The Fox River’s influence on the historic Eagle Mill at Grand Kakalin in Kaukauna is undeniable. Nearly 150 years ago, its very walls were constructed using the limestone rubble produced when early settlers blasted the riverbed to open it for navigation.
“This building was literally built from the river,” says developer Randy Stadtmueller, president of Stadtmueller & Associates, a placemaking firm that has worked with community leaders since 2012 to preserve and repurpose the former flour mill, which now houses the Kaukauna Public Library and Expera Speciality Solutions.
With that connection to the natural landscape in mind, this month a community art exhibit, “Take Me to the River,” will occupy more than 11,000 square feet of the historic Eagle Mill. The month-long exhibit will fill two of the building’s vacant river-level suites with the original works of more than 20 visual, performing and literary artists.
Artist representative and exhibit coordinator Jean Detjen says the exhibit was born out of the desire for more unusual venues to see and show art in the Fox Cities.
“There’s art hidden in people’s basements, studios and garages, but there’s no better way to experience art than to see it up close with the ability to meet the artist, ask questions and really let the story behind the art come alive,” Detjen says.
Detjen received approval to use the space at Grand Kakalin free of charge from Stadtmueller, who says supporting the exhibit aligns with several of his firm’s core goals — neighborhood revitalization, adaptive reuse and riverfront development.
“The community aspect of the arts is very fundamental. It’s good to have that play out in the context of this building,” Stadtmueller says. “It’s especially true in this case when you’re bringing so many different artists together from so many communities. The arts and heritage aspects of the building are a way to give us perspective, and really, that’s what community building and placemaking is all about.”
Neenah-based painter Michelle Richeson has been showing her oil and pastel work for more than 10 years, yet this exhibit provides some new opportunities for the seasoned artist.
“Just the energy level of working with a collaborative group like this and with so many different kinds of art, I’ve never done it before,” she says.
The historic venue, which plays a large role in the character of the exhibit, is in part what drew Richeson to participate.
“When you display artwork it looks so different in every venue, so for me it’s exciting to see what it would look like in this kind of venue,” she says. “I think it’s great for people to see how art interacts with communities in this kind of space.”
The exhibit will feature several pop-up events throughout its duration, such as live storytelling and fashion shows, which will be announced on the exhibit’s Facebook event page.
A kick-off event is planned for Friday, November 4 and will include multi-sensory immersive experiences from digital projection mapping to live dance and musical performances. Writer Joanna Kosowsky Dane will be making large scale ephemeral collages and mobiles made from writings about rivers. Hillary Reynolds of folk/pop band Peridot will be performing at the closing celebration on Friday, December 2.
Detjen says her goal for the exhibit is part of a greater vision to grow the creative economy throughout the Fox Cities, with collaboration and riverfront redevelopment being key components.
“This area was settled first for its proximity to the river and was eventually taken over by industry. Now we are opening the river back up to the community,” she says. “Art has a way to bring people together and when you combine that with nature, really beautiful things happen.”