Richard Boudreau hadn’t heard of Alonzo Hauser until a couple of years ago, but the La Crosse-born sculptor inspired him to discover dozens of artists and entertainers with ties to the city.
He spent the past six months compiling biographies of writers, directors, actors, musicians whose connections to La Crosse may have faded over time.
A retired English professor, Boudreau, 79, said his inspiration for the biographies came a couple of years ago when he saw flamenco guitarist Michael Hauser perform at the Pump House.
During his performance, Hauser read excerpts of letters from his father, sculptor Alonzo Hauser.
Boudreau went home and looked up the elder Hauser, who spent most of his career in the Twin Cities but was born and raised in La Crosse.
That got Boudreau thinking. He knew about the writers — in addition to Garland, both Howard Mumford Jones and John Toland each won a Pulitzer prize — and the movie directors, like Joseph Losey and Nicholas Ray.
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But he’d not heard of others, like Hungarian-born painter Sandor Landeau, who worked from a studio at Fourth and Main in the late 19th century, or Sterling Ford, the silent film actor from the Keystone Cops who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“I thought La Crosse is unusual with the number of nationally known figures,” Boudreau said.
Using the Internet and the public library archives, Boudreau began compiling short biographies of all the notable national artists and entertainers he could think of with connections to La Crosse.
“It had to be a tie to La Crosse that meant something,” he said.
There are a few well-known ones, including Garland and Grammy-winner Bill Miller, which he’s still working on.
Many were born or raised here, though a few — such as sculptor Elmer Petersen — came from elsewhere and chose to stay.
In almost all cases, though, they didn’t achieve fame or acclaim until leaving La Crosse.
“Invariably people have to leave — I think because it’s very difficult to have an audience here that’s necessarily as informed as it takes for them to survive,” said John Ready, who grew up in La Crescent but moved to New York to study sculpture. “You get a chance to see who you are within the context of the larger world. You realize in New York that there are lots of you coming from small towns throughout America, the world.”
Ready, who is gallery director at UW-L, said leaving home also makes it easier to return.
“You know you’re not an anomaly,” he said.
Boudreau, who grew up in Worthington, Minn., taught high school and pursued a career as a school administrator before leaving his job as principal in Hillsboro in 1968 to teach at UW-L.
There, he took an interest in the work of Hamlin Garland, the Pulitzer-prize winning writer from West Salem.
He later developed a survey course on Wisconsin writers, which he taught along with American and American Indian literature.
Boudreau hasn’t discovered a common theme or reason for why La Crosse incubated so many artists, although he notes the good schools and colleges might have contributed something.
“I always think in any given community you have the same sort of aggregate talent — it’s just a matter of how it breaks through,” Ready said.
Or maybe it there was a creative zeitgeist afoot in the early 20th century.
“I do firmly believe that every now and then something conspires — periods where creativity blooms and art blooms,” said Anne Drecktrah, a West Salem native who spent 24 years in television before returning to La Crosse in 2003. “There are cycles that you go through.”
Drecktrah, who now teaches at Viterbo and directs local theatrical productions, said she enjoyed such a period several years ago when she had an especially good crop of students and put on as many shows as she could.
Despite having left for the big city, Drecktrah said there’s still an abundance of artistic opportunities in La Crosse.
“People who don’t live here always say is there anything to do in a small town?” she said. “I could go to a different event every night in La Crosse if I wanted to.”
Pump House director Toni Asher hopes to keep it that way. Next week the art center will host a talk on creative place-making by Ann Markusen, director of the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
The idea, Asher said, is to focus on ways to build infrastructure that attracts creative people.
“There’s something about an energy in an area — something that seems to draw them,” Asher said. “Maybe we’ve always been one and we just didn’t know.”