Beloit Fine Arts Incubator: Arts for a Grateful Community

Beloit welcomes its first fine arts attraction, one that hosts artists-in-residence, open studios, art exhibits and more.

(Samantha Ryan Photo)

It’s First Friday at Beloit Fine Arts Incubator. More than 100 guests stand shoulder to shoulder, viewing 100 exquisite photographs hung throughout the main-floor gallery. The buzz is intense, the excitement contagious. When the winners of the juried photo exhibit are announced, the hush is nearly total.
This is art appreciation at its most meaningful and the essence of what the incubator was created to do: to nourish and encourage fine arts, to provide a venue where professional artists and beginners can meet and network, and to enrich the greater Beloit community with exposure to every kind of quality art.
“Around 2000 or earlier, community leaders began to feel the need for a visual fine arts organization,” says Jerry Sveum, incubator board president. “We have a wonderful symphony and superb theater options in Beloit. But people in the corporate world who were working hard to recruit upper-echelon employees believed Beloit needed more, a fine arts attraction. That was the driving force behind the creation of the incubator.”
In 1999, the Beloit Economic Development Corporation purchased the incubator building, which was once the original home of the local Bell Telephone Company. More than $300,000 was raised to transform 520 E. Grand Ave. into a three-level gallery and working art studio.
“We put a new roof on and enlarged the windows to provide strong, natural light,” Sveum says. “We made nine affordable studio spaces available to renters to support the emerging arts with networking options, office equipment and conference rooms.”
It doesn’t stop there. Sveum points out that the incubator offers five electric turntables, as well as kilns and a glaze and clay preparation area in its lower-level pottery studio. Potters of all skill levels can use the equipment for a multi-time fee and work under the expert instruction of Susan Swedlund. The incubator holds open pottery studios from 6 to 8 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays. Participants can purchase eight two-hour sessions for $137 and use them with flexibility to fit their schedules.
Photographers meet regularly in their own dedicated conference area to share and critique each others’ work, learning while enjoying the camaraderie of like-minded artists. Additionally, visitors find woodworkers and ceramics artists whose studios are a starting point for learning about these demanding arts.
At the incubator’s Thursday night artist open studio, painters bring their artwork to the table, where they’re encouraged and inspired in a non-judgmental atmosphere. Artist-in-residence Dan Wuthrich shares pointers and helps artists at all levels to master their skills. The 6:30 to 9 p.m. sessions are open to all for a $5 fee.
“It’s a pleasure to see so many of them develop new skills and go on to become even more proficient in their art,” Wuthrich says. “The only thing I have done is to offer 75 years of experience and advice, as well as the lessons learned by my mistakes.”
Sitting next to Wuthrich at the open studio table, Connie Fry works on the final details of a spaniel portrait. “I’ve painted with acrylics on and off for most of my life,” Fry says. “But in the past three years, with my children grown and out on their own, I have the time now to do what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Surrounding the open studio table are artists’ studios enclosed in privacy cubicles. Spring L. Burt Steidl, who holds a master’s degree in metaphysics, dedicates her space to making complex, beautiful facemasks for clients.
“I get a photo of them and study it until a mask appears over their face,” Steidl explains. “Then I make the foundation and use shards of semi-precious gem stones to bring their mask to life with color and meaning. We all wear masks of one kind or another. I can actually see them.”
Native New Zealander Todd Anderson uses his bachelor’s degree in design to create computer-generated art for personal and business use. He owns a graphic arts business named Long White Cloud. Anderson’s studio is one of more than a half-dozen lining the incubator’s second floor.
Each month on the first Friday, the incubator introduces a new solo art exhibit, juried photograph competition or youth art exposition. The positive energy and encouragement found inside the incubator has helped to grow the number of members, volunteers and devoted artists.
“Years ago, I heard about the incubator from a co-worker,” says artist Ben Henthorn. “I wanted to volunteer in exchange for studio space but found that, when I came, there were few people around to answer my questions.”
Henthorn now volunteers 20 hours each week, and is the friendly face most people see behind the desk when they come to the gallery.
“I needed to be out in the community and the incubator was a perfect fit,” Henthorn says. “It not only gave me something to do and a good place to do it, but it also provides the kind of relaxed atmosphere that artists need, as well as friendship with people of like interests.”
Traditionally, the incubator’s monthly exhibitions take place within its walls. But this July, the incubator will take on an ambitious and fascinating special project.
“On July 3, we will launch our O.V. Shaffer Retrospective Show,” Sveum says. “Shaffer is 87 years old and has more public art on display in Wisconsin than any other artist.”
O.V. (Verne) Shaffer graduated from Beloit College, where he later taught art. For most of his career, he sculpted in Clinton, Wis., using welded steel and brass. He also has done some work in wood and concrete. His work has been commissioned throughout the United States. Shaffer has won numerous awards, including a Certificate of Recognition from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for having more public art than any other artist in Wisconsin, and for his work as an art educator.
Because Shaffer’s work mostly involves large metal sculptures, many on public display in Beloit, Janesville, Fond du Lac, Madison, Green Bay and other Wisconsin cities, the incubator will take this show on the road. A two-day road trip covering 14 cities will be supplemented with innovative, interactive description.
“Each piece we visit will be marked with a QR code,” Sveum explains. “This allows the viewer to connect to YouTube with a smartphone, where they will see and hear Shaffer talk about each piece as they view it.”
At the same time, the incubator, along with Beloit College’s Wright Art Museum, the Woman’s Club Gallery in Janesville and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh art department, will host exhibits of privately owned Shaffer pieces.
“We developed a two-day escorted coach excursion to 10 cities, including the exhibits nearby, to see more of Shaffer’s art,” Sveum explains. “O.V. Shaffer will actually be on the excursion with us.”
In addition, a “talking book” of Shaffer’s public and privately owned sculptures is being published and offers an opportunity to take the road trips virtually.
“This celebrates the life work of an amazing artist,” Sveum says.
In upcoming months, the incubator will showcase the art of Derek Hambly in May; host the Beloit WRAP show in June; take art lovers on a Wisconsin ramble to see O.V. Shaffer’s sculptures and welcome Kyle Martin and Matt Holt for dual exhibitions in August; and feature Cindy Vondran’s art in the gallery during September’s First Friday, followed by Tom Buchs’ work in October. In November, the incubator puts on its own juried art show featuring multiple media. To wrap up a full year of exceptional art, Pat Rodell and Deb Shimondle will share the gallery spotlight in December.
The Beloit Fine Arts Incubator is open Monday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. A gift shop offering unique pieces created by resident artists is another reason to visit the incubator.