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International Wood Sculpture Festival Honors the Legacy of Harry Whitehorse

A festival in honor of Harry Whitehorse, a late Ho-Chunk sculptor from Wisconsin, brought people from all over the world to our backyard. A group of Simpson Street Free Press reporters attended the event and watched some of the world's best woodcarvers create their masterpieces in real time.

The Harry Whitehorse International Wood Sculpture Festival was a week-long event showcasing woodcarving styles from various cultures. The festival took place at San Damiano Park in Monona, from June 14-22.

A semicircle of tents greeted guests arriving at the festival. The tents, which were designed based on traditional Ho-Chunk homes that used to be on the property, housed the artists in residence. In front of their respective work stations stood each artist’s national flag.

Harry Whitehorse was a wood sculptor from Monona, and he was the inspiration for this event. Deb Whitehorse, the widow of Harry Whitehorse, told SSFP reporters in an interview that Harry Whitehorse himself was invited to take part in similar international festivals, but sent his mentee, Gene Delcourt, in his place.

“He didn’t like leaving home that much, so he said, ‘well why don't you have Gene Delcourt go, I recommend that you ask Gene Delcourt,’” said Deb Whitehorse. Delcourt attended seven such European symposiums.

Delcourt, was the founder and president of the Harry Whitehorse International Sculpture Festival, which he organized to honor his late mentor. He had the help of Deb Whitehorse, who was part of the steering committee. She worked together with Delcourt and his wife, Stacy Levine, in reaching out to artists around the world and reviewing the artist’s proposals. The team invited sculptors to submit photo proposals of their artwork to be voted on.

“We had a day where we juried the artisist – I think we had 40 different artists – and we had all the different pictures of what they made on tables…and just walked through and voted on them,” explained Whitehorse. “We all came to a consensus on who we’d like to invite, and actually we were all in sync, so it was a very pleasant experience.”

The event ultimately included artists from Czech Republic, Germany, Ghana, Peru, India, Switzerland, Poland, and the United States.

The festival was organized so that each artist had to start and finish their sculptures within the one week that the festival took place.

An artist from Ghana, Djam Vivie, participated in a similar exhibition in Green Bay to present his woodwork. He told SSFP reporters that he was inspired to pursue sculpture mostly by his family, who were wood carvers themselves. “At the age of 12, I started carving,” he said. The sculpture Vivie worked on for the festival was called Kalaou, which is a bird traditionally used for rituals or ceremonies in the Ivory Coast, where he lived for three years. Vivie said, “it’s my favorite bird.”

Gene Oldrich Pliska, an artist from the Czech Republic, answered questions from SSFP reporters, with the help of his wife and translator. He said he appreciates nature so much he tries to replicate it in his sculptures, and he wants each of his carvings to be a challenge. This was evident in the life-like mountain lion he carved during the festival.

Aside from the array of sculptors, visitors to the festival could also enjoy other tents showcasing paintings and other forms of art. There was also a food tent, and Whitehorse said artists and staff got to try “some of the foods that Harry loved, traditional Ho-Chunk food, like milkweed soup” and bison burgers. Pat Howell, secretary for the nonprofit group Friends of San Damiano, shared that Kenny Whitehorse and other family mebers prepared the meals.

It was clear, this festival not only honored Harry Whitehorse, but also the people of the Ho-Chunk Nation, who originally inhabited what is today the property of San Damiano. “The property itself has a very strong and rich indigenous history with the Ho-Chunk people,” explained Howell. “This land has been Ho-Chunk land from back to the ice age, so we’re talking 12,000 years.” Delcourt initially approached the nonprofit group called Friends of San Damiano to guage whether holding this festival on the property was possible. After a year and a half, and a lot of collborative planning, this festival was the first to honor an indigenous artist.

Members of the Ho-Chunk Nation were integral to this event, as Whitehorse and Delcourt “worked closely with relatives and the Ho-Chunk Nation tribe to organize it,” said Whitehorse. “They were part of the steering committee.”

Howell and atendees of the festival alike expressed that they “have loved the opportunity to experience and get to know some of the Ho-Chunk people and appreciate their beautiful culture in so many different ways.”

The Harry Whitehorse International Sculpture Festival offered the opportunity to enjoy the artistic process and learn about Whitehorse and the Ho-Chunk Nation, all within the tranquil environment of San Damiano Park. The sculptors’ work reflected the advice Whitehorse used to give people, as recalled by Deb Whitehorse: “A lot of us can be great artists or creators if we just have the drive. Whatever it is you like to do – create music, read, paint, draw, or excel in athletics – keep doing it and practicing at it.”

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