St. Nazianz (1985-1986)
Made with two second hand Rolleiflexes, St. Nazianz was our earliest collaborative photography project that grappled with our own rural Wisconsin roots. The farm town’s early history, remote location, and our personal connection (Julie’s family lived nearby) intrigued us. Founded by a charismatic, ex-communicated German Priest named Father Oschwald, the town started as an utopian Catholic commune with residents contributing skills in exchange for a place to live. Residents of the village told us stories and helped us connect with the village elders who knew the earliest town history or could loan us artifacts for our exhibition. With a Project Grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board, we were able to buy rolls of 120 film and black-and-white gelatin silver paper. We printed the 16×20 exhibition prints in our basement darkroom in Milwaukee. The framed prints displayed during a town festival for one day drew a large crowd of participants and politicians. People walked through the display chatting, snacking, and wondering. The photographs showed at the University of Wisconsin – Manitowoc Gallery, Wright Street Gallery in Milwaukee and finally the Madison Art Center.
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Read The Valders Journal 7.9.1987 review by Andrew Sterwald
Read Art Muscle Jan/Feb 1988 review by Debra Brehmer
Read Milwaukee Sentinel 1.15.1988 review by Frank Lewis
Read The Milwaukee Journal 1.17.1988 review by James Auer
Read The Capital Times 5.27.1988 review by Jacob Stockinger
Essay by Mark J. Knickelbine (July 1987)
When I reflect upon the village of St. Nazianz, it comes home to me again that there was a spirit…around the place which could be felt but which cannot be easily described.
–Father Winfrid Herbst, S.D.S., 1979
Those words from the memoirs of an old St. Nazianz priest could as well be spoken by a visitor today. The followers of Father Ambrose Oschwald, the charismatic priest who came from Germany more than 130 years ago to found an experiment in Christian communalism he called St. Nazianz, believed that he was a saint, and that upon his death he would rise again. They kept watch on the father’s corpse until the Archbishop of Milwaukee ordered that his crypt be sealed; and their word is that his body did not decay, but remained incorrupt.
Little is left of the village Oschwald built. Today St. Nazianz, Wisconsin, population 738, with mini-mart, farm implement dealer, taverns, and churches, is indistinguishable in many ways from thousands of other Midwestern agricultural towns, casually forestalling oblivion while changes in society render it obsolete. Indistinguishable — except for a certain something about the people who live there, a something captured in these photographs by John Shimon and Julie Lindemann.
It is no more easily described in words today than it was when Father Herbst recorded his acquaintance with the village and its people. Perhaps that is why the photographs in this exhibition take on an urgency, as if they tell a story which can be told in no other way. A story about people who are naive and cynical and charming, of their homes, clothes and work, of their connections with the land and with time, and of the way their unique lives are expressed through the singularly affecting artifacts of their personal culture.
No one could be more qualified to evoke that ineffable spirit than Shimon and Lindemann. Both natives of rural Manitowoc County, they know the place and people with the kind of familiarity which only growing up there could impart. They began collaborating in 1981 while students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and later spent time photographing in New York and New Jersey. In 1984 they moved to Milwaukee, and have since concentrated their artistic efforts on photographing the people of Wisconsin. This exhibition of St. Nazianz pictures is their first formal showing from that body of work.
What makes these pictures so successful is a symbiosis of style and subject. Like the people of St. Nazianz themselves, the photographs are direct and self-accepting. No attempt is made to pander or indict; instead, we are presented with the subjects plainly, full-frame and unretouched. Because the artists don’t try to pre-digest these images, we are invited to participate directly in their exploration of these St. Nazianzites and their world.
Their non-didactic approach forces the viewer to examine this indelible world in minute detail, and it is not long before we begin to understand what convinced Shimon and Lindemann of the appropriateness of their subject. A fly rests on the weather-beaten top hat of the village’s resident Uncle Sam, Buddy Gerhard. Clarence Schad proudly unfurls the heart-appliqued quilt he made, between lithos of Christ and the Blessed Virgin. The Broeckert brothers share a sedate beer while the lines of the acoustic tile overhead tilt away breathlessly into the darkness. Her jewelry and glasses glittering from the shadows of her parlor, Monica Wagner appears to be the impeccable village matron. Elvis Prsley, in wig and dirty clothes, leans casually out of the frame, as if trying to slip away. As Mr. and Mrs. Lax pose cheerfully in their doorway, they seem as fragile and yet as timeless as the house itself.
We are shown these people and their town in an engrossingly deep way — what they were, what they are, what they imagine themselves to be, and dream that they might be, what will become of them, and what will not. After a visit with the St. Nazianz of these pictures, we come away with an impression of humanity, sometimes humorously quirky and droll, sometimes touching and heroic, but recognizable because, in giving us the people of St. Nazianz, the artists give us ourselves.
In the final analysis, it may be a natural non-conformity that gives these subjects the dichotomous feeling of being at once quite unusual and disarmingly familiar. Since the days of their ascetic forebears, St. Nazianz people have never been forced to put on the uniforms of mass culture. It could be their arms-length acceptance of the outside world that provides a patina of similarity which highlights something unique and fascinating about them.
In any event, despite the economic and social alterations which relentlessly threaten the future of little farming communities, a spirit lives on in St. Nazianz, incorrupt, timeless. And with the help of Shimon and Lindemann, that spirit can be shared with many others who ought to know that such a place and such people exist, and can be preserved as the heritage of the village whose essence this collection so poignantly invokes.