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“Winter Is Alive” in a new documentary encapsulating the spirited insight of the Madison artist community

At Garver Feed Mill, artist Ray Carruthers hangs an assortment of blue garments on clotheslines in frigid conditions for the exhibit “Fashion Is Forever.” In the foreground, a mound of differently colored balled-up clothing sprawls out in a mound of snow.

Aaron Granat and Gracie Wallner’s short film on the 2021 winter carnival, produced by the Madison Arts Commission and Edna Wiechers Arts In Wisconsin Award, premieres at Garver Feed Mill on May 12 after dark.

A new 19-minute documentary on the 2021 community-wide art project, Winter Is Alive, is slated to premiere after the Friends Of Madison Arts Commission’s Silver Lining Awards at Garver Feed Mill (3241 Garver Green) on Thursday, May 12, at 9:30 p.m., on the wall of the venue’s outside patio.

The illuminating work is the culmination of a collaborative push by a local community of artists and the film’s co-directors, Aaron Granat and Gracie Wallner. They channel a cross-disciplinary spirit into a film that packs as many Madison voices as visual innovations, even beginning with a glistening, superimposed montage of artists like Ray Carruthers, Eric Anang, and Jenie Gao in their element, braving the elements to create a series of outdoor installations during the winter of 2021. 

Granat and Wallner’s mutual admiration and working relationship dates back several years, stemming from the UW-Madison Division Of The Arts. This socially and environmentally conscious project that Granat initially proposed to the Madison Arts Commission in the same vein as another documentary short on 2019’s Phoenix From The Ashes (a project that transformed fallen ash trees into artworks) became yet another link in their creative forge. “I quickly discovered it was much, much bigger in scale than any other exhibition I’ve covered. I knew that I would need help from someone that I trusted, both in a practical sense, but also from a creative standpoint—someone whose aesthetic perspective I can trust. And that’s Gracie,” Granat says.

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Since Winter Is Alive’s commencement on February 12 and eventual wrap on March 7, 2021, on the frozen lakes and across the isthmus, founder and organizer Tamsie Ringler emphasized the idea of “awakening audiences to global warming,” as she does in the film’s opening statement. In becoming more acquainted with artists’ works themselves, Granat further reveals in a recent interview with Tone Madison that the artists envisioned the carnival as “taking the first step in creating a conversation that will hopefully yield strategies we can apply. In the actual art, a lot of it testifies to the trauma that’s occurring.” In a subsequent on-camera interview clip, Ringler talks about how even thinking about oil and mining industries is profoundly devastating. It’s the kind of striking sorrow that TetraPAKMAN’s “Espejito, Espejito, AKA Charco De Petróleo” taps into on Lake Monona, adds Jenie Gao, about the oil industry’s abusive assimilation into our culture.

Drone shots of TetraPAKMAN's work over a frozen, snow-covered Lake Monona. "Espejito, Espejito, AKA Charco De Petróleo" was made with black synthetic fabrics to simulate an oil spill.
Drone shots of TetraPAKMAN’s work over a frozen, snow-covered Lake Monona. “Espejito, Espejito, AKA Charco De Petróleo” was made with black synthetic fabrics to simulate an oil spill.

Perhaps Ringler’s statement is meant to drive us all to a sensorial awakening. We’re to engage with the concept tangibly in non-institutionalized spaces, as JVN Project development director Dawry Ruiz further touches upon in the documentary, rather than in abstract discussion repeated in lecture halls. The sheer density of footage Granat and Wallner incorporate into the film reflects the urgency of the planet’s plight, too. Barely a second of the tightly edited film passes without another voice jumping in to complement the last. Every artist speaks about and acts in response to a specific impact of global warming and the real possibility of losing the crucial ecological functions Wisconsin winters serve. And while it’s just as daunting as a viewer to carry the cumulative weight of the work, the film’s bringing them all together unveils Winter Is Alive’s sheer scope, helping audiences identify what they already know (or have already experienced) and what they’ve yet to learn.

Carruthers’ “Fashion Is Forever” installation at Garver Feed Mill is particularly showstopping, a comment on fast-fashion, the world’s third leading cause of pollution. In the doc, Carruthers hangs a landscape of wet and frozen garments on clotheslines that become a color wheel of blue textile waves, arced and suspended in midair. Granat and Wallner alternate between slow- and fast-motion to equally convey the steps of the artistic process and the physical toll of making and presenting the clothing landscape in frigid conditions. These moments in themselves poignantly reflect on the exhibit’s title, the lasting effects of the industry’s own production methods, and artificially manufactured and disposable trends.

Many of the artists also engage with winter more philosophically in their memories as a means to establish an emotional connection to the crisis. In the doc’s concluding moments, artist Lelia Byron mentions how they created a new winter memory last year while installing “Plastic Waters” out of plastic bags and other waste. As several others expound the details of their own experiences in the doc, one after another, these concise remembrances are transformed into valuable tools of artistic self-reflection to enact change.

That mentality is shared by Tone Madison contributor Will Cioci, who developed a lasting connection to encountering the work exhibited. As Cioci wrote in April, he developed a fondness for Actual Size Artworks’ “Sad Yeti,” which prompted him to reflect on the spring season and the concept of rebirth. In an interview for this article, Wallner also recalled their joy in suddenly happening upon Derick Wycherly’s “Renewal Without End” bandaging the trees by the UW-Madison Arboretum, which further speaks to Winer Is Alive’s breadth beyond their work on the documentary itself. 

Knowing the reality of the climate shift, and the carbon dioxide readings in the atmosphere exceeding 420 ppm now (beyond the tipping point), more than anything, connecting people to the warm embraces of those cold recollections is ultimately just as proactive as publicly sharing information about climate action and organizing. As it existed for 24 days and now lives on as Granat and Wallner’s film, Winter Is Alive offers other ways to cope with climate catastrophe that are more spiritual than purely analytical.

Although Winter Is Alive is a commissioned and ultimately edifying work, both Granat and Wallner were a bit humbled and inspired by the project’s unraveling interconnectivity, poetically pondering moments of creative breakthrough as well as trauma. Wallner says, “The project is artists and activists and scientists all coming together to make change. It’s easy to be pessimistic about it on a broad scale. But when you think of it as reaching out and helping someone in the moment, [when] everyone is doing that, that’s where we can make the change.”

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