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Monday, November 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Arts Beat: Vintage posters offer window on UW-Madison history
The posters are a window into a slower, more gentle University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The posters are a window into a slower, more gentle University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A charming exhibit of the Memorial Union's historic silk-screened posters is on display this summer.

The elegant hand-made posters, dating at least as far back as 1950, were created in the Union's art lab, the Craftshop. They were saved by a former Craftshop director, the late Elliot Starks.

The posters are a window into a slower, more gentle University of Wisconsin-Madison. Believe it or not, students once flocked to activities such as fly fishing workshops, the Union Bridge Club, folk singing and fasching (not what it sounds like). All of them were promoted with posters printed one at a time.

It may be difficult for today's Photoshop/Facebook generation to understand, but once upon a time, unless you wanted to pay for expensive offset printing, you had to cut silkscreen stencils by hand, one for each color.

"Back then, these were often the equivalent to the flyers you see on kiosks today," says Robin Schmoldt, Wisconsin Union art collection manager.

Despite the posters' intended ephemerality, their appeal continues. "In the week and a half the show has been up so far, lots of people have definitely enjoyed the exhibition," she says.

There are around 60 posters in the collection; only 20 are on display. While director of the Craftshop, Starks "wisely saved them when everyone else tossed them out after events," says Schmoldt.

Little more is known, however. Starks passed away in 1999. The names of the student artists are unknown. Nor does the exhibit feature the dates of the posters' creation. "Since they were the equivalent of toss-away flyers when created, that info was just not captured with them," says Schmoldt. Still, using a little bit of Internet magic, matching days of the week mentioned on posters to days of the month, we can figure out tentative years for some of them.

A few of the poster topics and their apparent dates include:

A performance of the Greenbriar Boys, from 1950; a dance for graduate students only in 1957; auditions for Ionesco's Rhinoceros in 1959, the same year as a workshop for making mobiles. In 1963, campus poets gathered for a meeting of the Athenean Society. The fly fishing poster appears to be from 1968, as is another for a hootenanny.

Other of the posters so far remain a mystery, such as the one for "fasching" -- a German pre-Lenten carnival. If anyone knows more, you're asked to contact the Memorial Union.

"As we hear stories from alums who recognize posters from their era on campus, we'll capture that info to include in our archive record for the collection," says Schmoldt.

The posters are on display in the Memorial Union's Lakefront on Langdon Gallery. After Sept. 14, the pieces will be placed in hallways, offices and meeting rooms. Some may also be placed in the new Union South.

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