Exciting things are happening in this small Wisconsin town. Take a walk down the historic square and see the colorful results of its current come-and-explore campaign.
There’s something about the small-town charm of Monroe, Wis., that has people excited to call this city home. With all of its concerts, art displays and general camaraderie, it’s no surprise that people who grew up here find themselves coming back. Amy Brandt, Monroe native, did just that in 2006, after working for 20 years in Madison as a radio music director and on-air talent. She’s now the executive director of Main Street Monroe, and works hard to make sure her hometown maintains the small-town charm she’s always cherished.
“Wisconsin’s main streets are the hearts of our towns,” says Brandt. “They’re the focal points for visitors. They’re the hub for businesses in the community. And, they’re the foundation of where our families enjoy life.”
Main Street Monroe is part of the Wisconsin Main Street Program, which works to restore the historical character of a downtown, while pursing traditional development strategies such as marketing, business recruitment and retention, real estate development, market analysis and public improvements. In Monroe, it’s also given to bouts of whimsical fun, as reflected by the colorful animals that dot Monroe Square right now.
For each of the past three summers, Main Street Monroe has followed a theme and decorated the quaint and bustling downtown square with art of all shapes and sizes. This project began three years ago with “The Zoo on the Square,” which featured original woodcarvings by local artist Zoli Akacsos. It was such a success that it was reprised last year, with a “Pirates in Monroe” theme. A specially built pirate ship took up residence on the square until it was auctioned off last fall, as a fundraiser for Main Street Monroe.
This summer, Monroe adopted a “Farmin’ on the Square” theme that will extend through 2014, the 100th anniversary of the Green County Cheese Days festival. “Farmin’ on the Square” kicked off with a petting zoo, pony rides sponsored by the local Kiwanis, a bluegrass band and a performance by square dancers on the square. It will extend through the first week in October, the start of Chilifest.
“Farming just seemed like a natural theme, given all the agriculture in Green County,” says Brandt. “Every side of the square represents a different aspect of farming. The north-side theme is barnyard, with a pig, hay bale etc.; the west side is all about dairy cows; the south-side theme is a ranch, with horses, a colt and a cowboy.”
So, how does one come up with a giant wooden sculpture of a cowboy? Brandt and her promotions comittee knew they needed to look no further than Monroe’s own chainsaw artist, Zoli Akacsos, who designed and made the 7-plus-foot cowboy who currently watches over the square, along with a giant sunflower stalk.
Akacsos has lived in Monroe since 2006. He came to the United States from Romania in 2003 to study economics. He spent some time working for a chainsaw artist and, although he had no previous experience, picked up the trade quickly. Several years and several thousand wooden bears later, Akacsos has his own business and is able to carve most anything asked of him.
“I started by just doing bears, but then I began getting orders for other things that I hadn’t ever done,” says Akacsos. “I just started trying them and they worked out. Every year, I improve and become faster.”
Akacsos uses any sort of wood that isn’t too soft, such as pine, cedar or maple. Many local tree services and power companies call him when they find downed trees, knowing he’ll make good use of the wood.
Many a heartbroken homeowner has learned to make lemonade from lemons, by hiring Akacsos to turn a beloved fallen tree into a work of art, rather than spending time and money digging up the whole stump. Akacsos carves it into anything they have in mind.
“Trees are often important to the landscaping of the yard,” he says. “If I come and carve what’s left of the trunk, there’s still a focal point, which means less turbulence to the overall landscaping. It’s probably cheaper, too.”
His sculptures can take anywhere from 20 or 30 minutes to several days, depending on the size. He recently completed a 30-foot totem pole in Lake Geneva in only two days, from start to finish, including the painting.
“I love the challenge of what I do,” says Akacsos. “People come up with the craziest ideas and I always have fun with it. And, it’s all about having fun. If I wasn’t having fun anymore, it would just be a job.”
One of the fun remnants of the pirate theme on the square bears Akacsos’s handprint. It’s a whimsical and happy-looking mermaid sitting on a park bench in front of Pancho & Lefty’s Outlaw Grill. “The business didn’t want to part with it, so they bought her and she lives there permanently now,” he says with a shrug.
But Akacsos isn’t the only artist in town. Along with his wooden sculptures, 12 fiberglass animals decorate the square, each designed and painted by a different local artist. Several of the artists work out of a studio and gallery on the square called The Green Gallery. One of the owners, Suzanne Miller, originally moved to Monroe on a temporary basis, to be closer to family. It wasn’t long before she and her husband decided that Monroe offered everything they were looking for. Thirteen years later, they’re here to stay.
“Monroe is a great place to raise a family,” she says. “It’s quiet, but there’s always something fun going on somewhere. The arts community in Monroe is really beginning to blossom and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”
The gallery is shared by five artists and the studio space is used by Miller and artist Nikki Cooper, who call themselves The Green Chicks. This moniker stuck because all of their artwork in some way involves materials that are recycled or “upcycled.”
Miller and Cooper create animals using recycled plastic bottles, fabrics and paper maché. They usually paint these sculptures with acrylic paint, the same paint used to decorate their fiberglass cow displayed on the square.
“Recycling is now an integral part of the world we live in,” says Miller. “It’s very satisfying to take items that people typically throw away and create something whimsical and wonderful that they can enjoy for years to come. We recycle everything from plastic bottles, cans and newspaper to jewelry, fabric and furniture.”
The two women spent 84 hours working together to create Moo-rilyn Monroe, the Swiss cow located on the northeast corner of the square. The lovely brown cow wears a red vest trimmed with Swiss lace and edelweiss flowers. The artists even incorporated buttons advertising the milk and cheese industry, as well as buttons from past Monroe Cheese Days celebrations. The rest of Moo-rilyn’s body is decorated with postcards featuring Monroe city sights and some interesting “cow humor.”
“The yearly themes and artwork on the square are a huge attraction, not only for visitors, but also for those who live here,” says Miller. “It’s a great draw for all ages and the diversity of styles really gets people talking about art.”
Taking community involvement one step further, “Farmin’ on the Square” includes a community garden this year. Playing off the square’s east-side theme of “farm to table,” raised bed gardens were built in the spring and have been carefully nurtured all summer long, by various community groups. Main Street Monroe leased the gravel lot garden site from its owner, Cannova’s Pizza, Freeport, Ill., and dubbed it “Cannova’s Garden of Eaten’.” The garden was designed and planted by Southern Wisconsin Master Gardeners and incorporates flowers and vegetables of many kinds, in groupings such as herbs, root vegetables and pizza garden. Another section grows soybeans, alfalfa, corn and oats.
There’s also a “3 Sisters” garden area, based on an old Iroquois legend. According to the legend, corn, beans and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive together. The corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb and the vines act as a stabilizer for the corn stalks, making them less vulnerable to the wind. The shallow-rooted squash vines act as a mulch, preventing the growth of weeds and maintaining the soil’s moisture.
The garden has been a great way to involve more people in “Farmin’ on the Square,” says Brandt. Youths were involved on Youth Service Day to build and paint various planters; 4-H groups help to water and weed the garden; and produce from the garden is donated to local food pantries.
“Last week, we took eight pounds of fresh beets and cauliflower to the pantry,” says Brandt.
The garden also has a stage area, which has become a popular place for people to hold small events like storytime for children, brown-bag lunch meetings and free cooking demonstrations, reinforcing the joy of community that thrives on this square.
When fall draws to a close, it’ll be sad to see the colorful animals corralled into winter storage, over in the garden. Fortunately, their friendly faces will again greet visitors outside downtown Monroe’s shops and restaurants, next spring, and they’ll bring friends: One hundred milk cans, painted by local artists, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Cheese Days.