By Luke Fannin

Sheltered among the bluffs alongside the Mississippi River, La Crosse, Wisconsin, has long been known for its natural beauty. Over the years, it has gained other claims to fame–one of the nation’s best Oktoberfest celebrations, a top-five Midwestern public university, a first-rate hospital, and the world’s largest six-pack, to name a few. Now, the city aims to become known as a center for cultural arts, as well, with its first annual arts festival, Artspire La Crosse.

Artspire is an all-inclusive celebration of La Crosse’s history, diversity, and cultural heritage, to be held in the downtown arts district. The festivities begin at 5:30 P.M., Friday, June 13, with  the unveiling of internationally renowned artist John Pugh’s trompe l’oeil mural on the west wall of the Pump House Regional Arts Center, 119 King Street. In addition to the mural dedication, this free two-day event features headlining performances from Madison duo Boo Bradley and multiple-Grammy-winning La Crosse native Bill Miller, as well as several other musical acts. “We have more than 60 artists and performers lined up,” says Kay Mazza, chair of Artspire’s entertainment committee. “Boo Bradley is a great band… and there will be spoken word poetry, theatre groups doing Shakespeare, a juggling troupe on Friday night… All of this is spread out over multiple stages, so there’s literally something for everyone the whole time.”

Four stages, plus Cameron Park, will feature music, dance, sketch comedy, spoken word, theatre, and other interactive performances. Visitors can also look forward to a Friday-night street dance, and, beginning at 10:00 A.M. Saturday, arts activities, cultural displays, and vending booths from local artists, artisans, and businesses. “It’s a family-friendly event, through and through,” says La Crosse Arts Board Chair Don Smith. “There’s really not a single thing planned in those two days that the whole family won’t be able to enjoy.”

Kicking off the celebration is Friday night’s mural dedication, the capstone of an effort that has been years in the making. Bringing in an artist of Pugh’s stature was no easy task, and it required the combined efforts of public servants, private citizens, and grants and funding from the city all the way up to the federal level, highlighted by a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) “Our Town” grant, making La Crosse one of just 50 communities in the U.S. to be so recognized. Included in the grant application were plans for a celebration to accompany the unveiling and dedication of the mural, and that, coupled with the City of La Crosse Arts Board’s long-standing wish to create a downtown arts festival, led to the birth of Artspire La Crosse. “It’s about placemaking,” says Smith, referring to the mission laid out in the NEA “Our Town” grant. “When communities invest in arts and culture, they tend to improve economically, as well. We’re building a more liveable, engaging, and inclusive community.”

Pugh’s mural will encapsulate all of that and more–an homage to the geography that lends the area such natural beauty, to the people who first settled here, to the indigenous people for whom it is still sacred land, and to all the people who have settled here since. In choosing an artist of Pugh’s caliber and specialty, the search committee, headed by University of Wisconsin-La Crosse associate professor of art Jennifer Terpstra, made it clear that this community’s commitment to the arts is about much more than mere beautification. “Keep in mind, this isn’t just any mural,” says Smith. “This is trompe l’oeil.”

Trompe l’oeil, French for “deceive the eye,” is an art technique used to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image. The same principles are used in what architects and set designers in film and theatre call “forced perspective.” The results of successful trompe l’oeil paintings are often startling, but the best artists achieve much more than an optical illusion in their work. “Any city can fill itself up with lots of color and pretty pictures,” says Smith. “We’re after something of much higher quality here … a work that is dynamic and engaging and encompasses all of our community’s history, culture, and diversity.”

Pugh’s portfolio of work encompasses a broad range of moods and themes. His murals, which grace dozens of private residences, public institutions, and corporate buildings, are at turns charming, imposing, peaceful, or exhilarating, but each work, in its own way, is about what’s underneath–the secret places, the layers, the undercurrents and foundations. He is a master at choosing simple details to reveal the unique story behind each work. Mai Chao Duddeck, an art teacher at La Crosse Central High School, has seized the opportunity to teach her students about this narrative power inherent in Pugh’s work. “Art is a language all people can speak,” she says. “Art brings people together, enhances our cultural appreciation and awareness of one another. La Crosse is actually a pretty diverse place, but we still have a long ways to go in terms of coming together culturally and finding that commonality.

“I know my students will be able to appreciate the beauty of [Pugh’s] work and trompe l’oeil,” Duddeck continues, “but exposing them to that storytelling element is especially important. Pugh has done a lot of commissioned work, for cities, hospitals, and businesses … these works always speak to the stories behind the communities those institutions represent. I’m so grateful that John Pugh is coming here, and that the Arts Board is working so hard to bring people together. I think this mural will be a coming-together point for all walks of life in La Crosse for years to come.”

Duddeck’s efforts with her students are just a piece of the community’s extensive educational program surrounding the Pump House mural and Artspire. La Crosse Art Board member Eva Marie Restel is the Arts Board liaison for the Education Work Group attached to this project. Along with group coordinator and education consultant Wendy Mattison and arts specialist Maria Mason, Restel and the Education Work Group have led a community-wide effort to educate people on Pugh’s work and the trompe l’oeil style and history. They have even helped to develop science curricula around optics and the science of light that is so crucial to trompe l’oeil. “Trompe l’oeil is a style that nearly everyone responds to,” says Restel, “so we see this as an opportunity to engage that response and develop it into something more substantive.”

In addition to the resource materials mentioned above, the group’s efforts include organizing a three-hour workshop for area art teachers led by Pugh, which featured a history of trompe l’oeil, technical lessons and demonstration, practical application, and even critique. Additionally, on May 27, the group put on a workshop for local schools at the Pump House called “The Art of Seeing.” The first half of the workshop includes a hands-on art activity designed by Mason and features special guest Robert Mini, one of three local apprentices who have worked on the mural with Pugh in his California studio. Mini talked about his experiences working with Pugh over the past several weeks. The second half of the workshop was led by retired middle school history teacher Richard Frost, who shared a presentation on the history of the La Crosse region–the land, the people, and how they have helped shape each other over the years, followed by a discussion of Pugh’s work, and how as an artist he uses the story of a place to create a work of art. “We hope that by looking at La Crosse through John Pugh’s eyes, we will all learn more about ourselves and make new connections which will strengthen us as a community,” says Restel. For interested community members, “The Art of Seeing” will be repeated during Artspire on Saturday the 14th.

The fortuitous timing of Artspire and the mural dedication also gives community members and visitors a chance to see the La Crosse Compassion Project, on display at the Pump House. Last fall, over 6,000 K-12 students in the La Crosse school district were given 6” x 6” art panels, and were asked to draw or paint their idea of compassion and to write a brief statement of their work. The project was inspired by the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor and brain researcher Richard Davidson, whose work demonstrates that “those who practice compassion have measurably healthier brains, and generally, a happier outlook on life.” Now, all 6,000+ panels have been installed at the Pump House, and will be available to the viewing public through June 28.

It is more than fitting that these events are centered around the Pump House. Since its founding in 1977, the arts center has been a mainstay of the La Crosse arts community. Now it finds itself at the heart of a vibrant emerging arts district. “Just a few years ago there were old grain elevators where this celebration is going to happen,” says Smith, who formerly served as president of the Pump House. “Just a few years ago there was a rickety old waterfront where now we have the Weber Center [for the Performing Arts]. We’re celebrating our history and our culture, but we’re also looking ahead, to the future.”

Pump House executive director Toni Asher sees Artspire as an umbrella event, an opportunity to showcase the art center’s year-round programming. “The Pump House features performance, literary, and visual arts,” she says, “and we feel this event is a great way to demonstrate and promote our programming to a broad audience.”

Even the non-artistic business community is rallying around Artspire. “Local businesses are excited about this event,” says Mazza. “We’re really linking arms and viewing this as a community project. At the moment we have 52 area businesses lined up to participate or contribute in some way, providing food vendors, sponsor booths, and art-based activities for participants to enjoy. For any kind of event, 52 is a huge number.”

With such tremendous support already in place, Artspire organizers are eagerly anticipating an excellent turnout for the weekend. It also means they will need plenty of help, so they are actively seeking volunteer greeters, gatekeepers, parking attendants, artist’s assistants, and even zookeepers. Sign up online at

For more information about Artspire La Crosse, including a schedule of events and a complete list of entertainers, artists, and participating businesses, go to, or visit them on Facebook.