Woodlanders Gathering in artsy Mineral Point

All sorts of natural materials are used in artistic ways during Mineral Point’s annual Woodlanders Gathering.

The day before I meet Ann Gronbeck-Peterson, she spends a part of the day converting an old railroad spike into a knife. Why? Because she can, it’s fun and all that pounding at an anvil can be pretty therapeutic.

The finished product? It’s pretty artistic, in a rustic way.

Ann is a former nurse who four years ago opened Gallery La Crosse, 320 Main St., La Crosse (gallerylacrosse.com, 608-782-4278). She is among the dozens of teens to older adults who attend the annual Woodlanders Gathering at Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts, Mineral Point.

Novices to pros make their way to this artsy southwest Wisconsin community of 2,500 to get in touch with themselves, each other and the Earth while learning or refining artistic skills.

They create yard art, rustic furniture, jewelry and scarves from twigs to stones to metals to fabric. Natural dyes, roaring fires, hammers and nails transform the ordinary to the unique. Myriad materials are involved, and they also result in leather journals, bluebird houses, fancy walking sticks, coat trees, garden sculptures or whimsical art with no utilitarian purpose.

Nature walks, circle meditations, casual lectures and group activities forge more personal connections and round out the weekend.

“A Woodlanders Gathering is not quite a workshop, not quite a conference … but a three- or four-day mix of information, tools, demos, hands-on workshops and visiting,” explains woodlanders.com, an online network for people intrigued by the concept. The Mineral Point event is July 12-15, and a similar gathering occurs Aug. 23-26 in Warwick, N.Y.

For some people, these summer pilgrimages began more than 20 years ago, but the notion is much, much older. The Native American equivalent is called “wildcrafting,” Daniel Wildcat of Haskell Indian Nations University, Kansas, explained during this month’s annual Native American Tourism of Wisconsin conference.

In Mineral Point, mothers attend with their teen children. Girlfriends arrive in groups. Some students enroll solo.

“I came by myself 10 years ago,” says Paula O’Kray, a graphic designer in Stevens Point. “I felt so welcome here. There are no ‘no’s’ or ‘can’ts’ – it’s recharge time.”

Jamie Rogness of Emmons, Minn., in 2011 drove five hours to get here and it was a birthday treat. She brought son Carter, 15, who taught others how to make a display stand with twigs and other natural materials.

John Schakel of Spring Green, a retired teacher and self-taught artist, helps others create end tables out of bent willow twigs and branches. “In two days, they learn what it took me four years to figure out,” he jokes.

Hang out in his class long enough, and you’ll hear an orchestra of tools, a mix of hammering, sawing and the smooth slide of metal measuring tape.

The work and creativity occur in a setting that has long showcased nature’s bounty. The 2.5-acre campus of simple, historic cabins and beautiful gardens was a modest lead mining neighborhood in the 1800s. Madison florist Al Felly bought the property around 1970 and filled it with gardens and art studios.

The nonprofit Shake Rag art center was founded in 2004 by local artists, led by Sandra Scott, Judy Sutcliffe and Jim Kackley. Now at least 200 programs for adults happen each year, plus art classes for children and outdoor theatrical productions at Alley Stage.

When Sandy refers to this as being “a magical place,” she is referring to the location as well as the event. One of her favorite parts of the Woodlanders Gathering is silent “trade blanket” time, when participants bring whatever they are willing to let go of, then take something brought by another.

It’s an exercise in giving, receiving and reinforcing the notion of what contains value in this world.

For more about classes at Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts, 18 Shake Rag St., Mineral Point: shakeragalley.com, 608-987-3292.

Woodlanders Gathering participation can be by the class ($5 and up, depending up materials), by the day ($95, including lunch, snacks, group activities) or multiple days ($185 for two).

Upcoming Alley Stage shows include Point Five, acoustic rock, July 14; “Into the Woods” by Stephen Sondheim, July 19-21; Cupola, mixed-genre music, Aug. 3; “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” by Steve Martin, Aug. 9-11 and 16-18; and Harmonious Wail, gypsy swing music, Aug. 25.

Here are two more ideas for adults who seek outlets to create and exercise their imagination in a relaxed, group setting. Prices depend upon the type of class and its duration.

Rhinelander School of the Arts, Rhinelander – Dozens of one- to five-day class focus on writing, music, photography, fitness and many other types of enrichment from July 22-27 at James Williams Middle School. For more about this University of Wisconsin-Madison offering: continuingstudies.wisc.edu/lsa/soa, 608-890-1424.

Sievers School of Fiber Arts, Washington Island – Quilting to basket weaving are among the three- to seven-day classes for beginners to advanced students. Dorm-like housing provided. For more: sieversschool.com, 920-847-2264.