Eau Claire: From Lumber Town to Arts Mecca
The Artful Attitude of Eau Claire, Wisconsin
By Donnie Sexton
I was admiring a colorful sculpture entitled “Viewfinder” in downtown Eau Claire with new friends Kenzi Havlicek and Demi Cimiaskaite when I overheard Demi say, “That slaps.”
Huh? I gave her a puzzled look and asked, “What the heck does that mean?”
These young, energetic millennials laughed and replied, “You know like something is amazing or wonderful.” I thought to myself – who makes up these slang words, and how do they become commonplace?
That’s a story for another day, but I did find the word “slaps” fit perfectly with all I was seeing in this art-centric city.
From Lumber to Tires in Eau Claire
Eau Claire, French for “clear water,” hugs the banks of the Chippewa and Eau Claire Rivers, which converge in the heart of this Wisconsin city. The area sprang to life with the lumber industry in the mid-1850s, when roughly 100 settlers moved in to work in sawmills. By 1890, over 75 sawmills and factories earned the town a nickname of “sawdust city.”
Like all communities, industries come and go. When lumber was no longer a thing, Eau Claire became the home of the Uniroyal tire factory. By the 1950s, Uniroyal was the fifth largest tire plant in the US.
Employees were known as “rubber heads.” When Michelin bought the factory in 1992, it shut down the Eau Claire operation. The sprawling brick complex, today is known as Banbury Place, and it’s been repurposed into storage units, artist’s studios, and apartments.
Eau Claire’s Sculpture Tour
Today, Eau Claire has become a hotbed for both visual and performing arts. The city’s shining star is its Sculpture Tour, the 2nd largest of its kind in the US, with a goal to become #1 in 2022.
11th Year of Eau Clair’s Sculpture Tour
The Sculpture Tour, now in its 11th year, is free and available to the public 24/7 because it takes place on the city streets.
It starts with an open call for submissions, then entries are selected by a committee of 14 locals. The group looks for pieces that are safe, durable with both weather and enthusiastic fans.
According to Julie Pangallo, Executive Director of the Tour, “The goal is diversity in style, size, materials, and artistic vision. For instance, everybody loves animals, but we don’t want the whole tour to be animals.”
This year has 55 works of art on display, including Spinner Dolphin, Rising Rainbow, Migration, and Buffalo Soldier. The titles of each piece may hint at the subject, but to truly appreciate these creations, they need to be viewed in person. The sculptures remain on tour for 11 months, and most are offered for sale.
The Stories Behind Eau Clair’s Art
Each piece has a story behind it and the artist. The youngest sculptor for 2021 is 14-year old Abram Dachel with his creation “Joyride,”a tractor made of bits and pieces of metal.
When asked where he gets his materials, he shrugs and says some of it comes from dumpsters.
He learned to weld from his Dad, who has also participated in the past. “Easy Rider” was sculpted by Vic Rouleau, who started making art from old barbed wire.
When the wire became too hard on his hands, he switched to metal as his medium. “I love making stuff out of junk,” he declares.
The public gets involved with the sculptures by voting for People’s Choice. Ballots are found on the last page of the Sculpture Tour brochure, easy to pick up around town, or votes can be cast at www.sculpturetour.org.
The winning piece is then purchased by the Sculpture Tour organization and donated to the city of Eau Claire to be on permanent display.
The newest addition to the Sculpture Tour is Colorblock, a project featuring original mural art by local and regional artists.
The murals are changed out annually, keeping interest in the art scene fresh and alluring for locals and visitors. As I wandered the streets, it was evident that Eau Claire’s free public art enhanced this city’s vitality.
Sandwiched between the sculptures and murals in downtown Eau Claire is a plethora of one-off boutiques, eateries, ice cream and coffee shops, vintage and antique stores – all very walkable.
New construction is underway, including a new library and buildings designed for retail space on the first floor and apartments on higher floors.
The city is also home to The University of Wisconsin. Walking and biking trails are in abundance for the outdoor enthusiast, as are water sports on the local rivers.
Artisan Forge Studios
In keeping with the creativity trend in this city of 68,000, Artisan Forge Studios sprang to life as an artist’s guild, now boasting over 30 vendors on site.
Beyond the typical painter and potter, you have Bennett Guitar studio, repairing and crafting guitars. Anchoring one end of the building is Sweet Driver Chocolates & Café, where owner Rebecca Flynn creates her signature chocolate works of art.
A Place to Wander
Artisan Forge Studios is a place to wander, chat up the artists, indulge in lunch, finish with chocolates, and perhaps take home original art.
Sandwiched between the sculptures and murals in downtown Eau Claire is a plethora of one-off boutiques, eateries, ice cream and coffee shops, vintage and antique stores – all very walkable. For the outdoor enthusiast, walking and biking trails are in abundance, as are water sports on the local rivers.
Entrepreneur Nick Meyer
I had a chance to catch up with Nick Meyer, a local entrepreneur, and owner of Volume One, a magazine, event and video production company, and a retail store. He recalls those days when Eau Claire was stagnant and many locals, including himself, dreamed of leaving the city for greener pastures.
Nick decided to stay put and sink his energy, money, and talent into creating a thriving business. Other locals followed suit. He hit the nail on the head when he said, “There is a dumpster fire of positivity in town.”
Part of Volume One’s operation is The Local Store, stuffed with over 7000 products from art, apparel, books, Wisconsin food and drinks, and home goods. I purchased a container of Applewood Smoked Horseradish since Eau Claire is known as the horseradish capital of the world. Across the street from the store is the trendy Oxbow Hotel, where I stayed.
At one time, the hotel was a rundown property, where you could rent rooms by the hour. It received a major overhaul, thanks in part to Nick. Today, its’ a stylish boutique hotel (celebrating its 5th anniversary), with a farm-to-table restaurant and a bar/jazz venue called The Lakely.
Eau Claire Community Pulling Together
Our group headed to SHIFT Cyclery & Coffee Bar for breakfast, where we indulged in a local favorite – house-made Liege Waffles, served in a paper sleeve.
This breakfast treat has a sweetness to the dough, so no need for butter or syrup. Aaron Salmon, the part-owner of this business and another mover and shaker in town, stopped by our table to visit.
He described the community spirit. “There are so many of us pulling in the right direction. We see what needs to be done. It’s about highlighting what we have.”
Entrepreneurs have raised the bar in Eau Claire, making this city a destination worth spending several days exploring.
If I ever wanted to leave Montana, I would seriously consider a move to Eau Claire. In a word, it “slaps.”
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