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Elmer at 80: Hand Petersen the welding torch — there’s more art to create
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Elmer at 80: Hand Petersen the welding torch — there’s more art to create

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GALESVILLE - Elmer Petersen is not one to let a good opportunity pass him by.

The Coulee Region man about sculpture decided his 80th birthday should be celebrated by bringing together anyone who has ever collaborated with him on an idea or project connected to sculpture.

That's a lot of people, Elmer says, and he doesn't know how many picnic tables he should be borrowing from the city of Galesville as he sets up today for his open house from 3 to 8:30 p.m. in his yard at 16965 French Road in Galesville.

"Could you say it's an open house?" he asks, but then thinks about it. "But what if too many people come?"

Then they can stand. Or maybe they should just call Elmer to let him know they're coming. The minute you call (608) 582-4008, he will ask if you are coming. Then he ticks off your name as just one more project completed on his busy to-do list.

He may be 80, but he hasn't lost a step along the way.

"I don't feel like I'm 80. I really feel the same thing I've always felt. I've got jobs to do. I've got things to do."

And most of those things revolve around sculpture, which is why he's fashioned his birthday party into a sculpture projects reunion.

"I don't like to have people forget that I work on sculpture," Petersen said.

Not much chance of that. As one of the premiere sculptors in the Coulee Region, Elmer Petersen has left his mark across La Crosse and beyond, with sculptures at medical centers, at universities, in parks, and, of course, The La Crosse Players on the plaza in front of the Radisson Hotel and the Eagle in Riverside Park.

Now, as he turns 80, still full of energy and sculpting fervor, he answers a few questions about the art that his fueled his life.

How long have you been an artist?

Ever since I was a kid I've thought of myself as being an artist. My older brother drew cartoons for the school, and I drew Dick Tracy facing left and Dopey facing forward, so I kind of felt like I was an artist. When I got to college they didn't have an art major, so I took the art minor. I got drafted right in the middle of my schooling. So then on the GI bill I went to the University of Wisconsin and did graduate work and picked up a lot of art courses.

Was it always sculpture?

It was never sculpture until I took a sculpture class at University of Wisconsin. And I didn't do so well. Take it again, (the instructor) said. And I got introduced to the welding torch. From then on I was a sculptor and an artist. Just imagine if you're going to try to be distinctive or special in painting. Everybody paints. That's the way it is. Sculpture is more

relaxing - there's more labor to it and that's probably good for me. I don't have to be so extremely tuned in. The ideas can come to me.

What's your favorite piece of sculpture?

I've got a number of favorites, but the La Crosse Players is really the one that I am very happy with it. I not only like it, but artists like it and nonartists like it. And the Eagle in Riverside Park, I'm amazed now I ever did it. When I think about it right now, I don't know if I'd want to get charged with something that big. But I didn't think about the next day of work. I just went ahead and did it.

What's the state of art today in the Coulee Region?

I think it seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. The heron project, I'd hate to compete with a lot of the people who made those herons. They are really, really nice. And Mike Martino is making sculpture, so sculpture is growing. There are a lot of people around who can make good art. I think things are doing well. I think it has to do with the Pump House. They are really a good bunch down there.

You were instrumental in getting public sculpture scattered throughout downtown. Are you happy with how that turned out?

I thought it would be nice if this town had some sculpture. There wasn't any sculpture downtown at all. Now, there's sculpture all over. Not enough yet - you have to kind of look for it. But it's still a lot better.

What haven't you sculpted that you want to sculpt?

I'd like to have somebody say we want a good sculpture for a purpose and then I have to solve the problem. The La Crosse Players - they said we'd like a sculpture, and I came up with it. I'd like to do Black Elk, an Indian mystic in Nebraska, that might be a possibility. They want it, but they don't have the money. And Louis L'Amour - I would like to get started on that in Jamestown, N.D. I think it would be pretty good, I could make my own interpretation.

What's the most frustrating part of being an artist?

Right now, the most frustrating thing is trying to figure out what to do. I've got some ideas of making sculptures that might make me a living but I've got to have something to make me a living while I'm doing that.

What's the best part of being an artist?

I think that life has been wonderfully interesting. Another thing is that you don't feel like you've ever finished. There's something out there to keep working toward. That makes a good life because you're not bored. You have that energy all the time.

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