Guthrie has assembled quite a career in art

Former Carroll prof donating art to Waukesha library

Sept. 11, 2012

His inspirations might have come early in his life - from a neighbor's junk pile or his family's interest in the arts.

From those early seeds a career in art has blossomed - a career that has spanned decades and included a long stint as a Carroll University art teacher and the recent creation of Gibson GuitarTown guitar.

On Sept. 22, Willis Guthrie, professor emeritus at Carroll, will be honored at the Waukesha Public Library's unveiling of his artwork entitled "Hidden Witch." Guthrie has generously donated this assemblage to the library's community art collection.

Guthrie, known to all as Wis, was raised in rural Legrand, Iowa, one of nine children of two Quaker ministers. He grew up in a family of tinkerers. Wis remembers finding what he needed to make a pony cart in a neighbor's pile of junk that he and his brothers called the "grove." His family didn't have much, and for extra money his dad took the kids on the road. Some of his siblings sang or played instruments and Wis did dramatic readings. He remembers a cheerful household that was always singing.

After high school, when the family moved to Herbert Hoover's hometown of West Branch, Iowa, he followed his brothers and went to college in Iowa City, just 10 minutes away. .

When he didn't have any particular goal by his second year, a friend suggested he take an art course. Wis remembers one day in a life drawing class, when he saw the teacher approaching. He tried to erase his charcoal drawing of the figure, thinking it wasn't that good. He rubbed the charcoal so much it built up a patina that was actually quite nice. The art professor was so impressed he asked Wis what art school he had attended.

Wis decided to major in what he was passing at the time - art. His junior year he took all art courses, including a class from Grant Wood, the famous regionalist painter of the iconic "American Gothic." By the time he was a senior, the university said he couldn't take any more art and he had to choose a minor. He chose theater, no doubt influenced by his childhood dramatic readings. He recalls that he had the lead in a play called "Three Men on a Horse." Dress rehearsal was scheduled for Dec. 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. The decision was made to go on with the show. Wis was to appear in his undershorts in one scene and he found some red, white and blue striped boxers. He said his appearance stopped the play for a celebration of patriotism.

Wis decided to get a master's degree in art and Wood was his adviser. Wood told Wis to send some of his paintings to the state fair. He did, and won first prize for a landscape and second prize for still life, a painting which to this day hangs in his apartment. Sadly, Grant Wood died a couple weeks before Wis graduated, but he had made sure that the college would allow Wis to complete his degree.

The U.S. at this time was at war and Wis did alternate service as a conscientious objector. In September 1942, he married the love of his life, Ina. They had three children, Jim, Jerry, and Lee.

At the end of the war, he had no money and he and Ina went back to West Branch and signed up with a job placement service. Carroll College (now Carroll University) in Waukesha was looking for an art professor. Guthrie was interviewed and in 1946, hestarted teaching at Carroll.

When he, Ina and their first son arrived in Waukesha, housing was difficult to find due to the number of returning GIs. The college suggested Maniac Manor, the 18-room Victorian house that still stands on the corner of College and Hartwell. It was a former mental hospital that still had straight jackets in the closet. It hadn't been inhabited for five years. "The grass met the tree leaves," said Wis. To afford the rent and heating bill, (which was the cost of a train-car-and-a-half of coal!) he and Ina rented rooms to 15 students at a time.

In summer, when he wasn't teaching, he worked as a mason and became a member of the Bricklayers Masons Plasterers International Union. He went to all the meetings and was appointed secretary. He did masonry on the new courthouse in Waukesha, Pet Milk, and lots of schools including Carroll and South Campus. He worked for 20 years and even got apension.

After living for three years in Maniac Manor, he and another Carroll professor helped each other build their homes on Milky Way Drive in Waukesha. He added a garage and studio and continued painting, entering his paintings in the Wisconsin State Fair. He won the popularity awards every year he entered. His paintings of Model T Fords were published in Ford Company publications.

Wis's foray into assemblage art began when he built his son, Lee, a banjo case. When he was done, the jig he had made was so interesting, he added scraps left from making the banjo to the jig and turned it into a fish. He soon realized his passion was assemblage, the art of combining seemingly disparate items into something new. He loved going to rummage sales, junkyards, and resale stores. He'd bring home items to add to his pile of objects (his own "grove") and then, with his eye for design, find just the right shape, color or texture in a piece of rummage that was perfect for a sculpture he was composing.

Wis taught art courses at Carroll from 1946 through 1983 and was the only art teacher for 15 years. Eventually, the program expanded and he was able to hire some colleagues. Wis said he really enjoyed teaching art history at Carroll. He loved to dramatize the paintings and sculptures. As a former student, I can attest to his teaching skill. He was so entertaining when he showed us art of the world.

Wis continues creating to this day, altering pictures in books using the collage technique. Wis was also a creator, along with Team Guthrie, (his son Jim and grandson Ryan) of the Red Hot Red, 10-foot tall guitar for the 2012 Waukesha Gibson Guitartown celebration.

Wis has also become a great resource for historians who are researching or trying to verify paintings as Grant Wood's. He discovered that Wood also did assemblages that he called "Lilies of the Alley." He was invited this past year to the University of Iowa to be interviewed about Grant Wood. He happened to be in Wood's former home when a tornado came through and had a tour of the home's basement.

Wis's influence on his students was brought home when a jogger stopped while he, his son Jim and I were admiring the Red Hot Red guitar on Gaspar Street. The jogger said, "Aren't you Wis Guthrie? You don't know me but I took your art history class when I was at Carroll. I didn't go into art, but you changed the way I see things. I have a daughter who is now in the art field. Thanks for your class."


Who: Wis Guthrie

What: Unveiling of "Hidden Witch" an assemblage Guthrie is donating to the Waukesha Public Library

When: 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 22

Where: Waukesha Public Library, 321 Wisconsin Ave., Waukesha

What's More: The event also celebrates the commissioned work of Stephanie Copoulos-Selle called "Time Wall" and a painting by Barbara Reinhart called "Do You Realize?"


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