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Pergola by Eric Rattan

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Artist Statement, Eric N. Rattan

During the summer of 2010, I was asked by members of the Bethel Horizon art advisory committee to discuss the creation of an earthen art sculpture and the restoration of a root cellar. Bethel Horizons is a rural conference center, recreational facility, and ceramic art school. The 150-acre Bethel Horizon campus is located between Spring Green and Dodgeville, WI, nestled in the rolling hills of Wisconsin’s driftless area.

The earthen art sculpture was inspired by an ancient Native American deer petroglyph etched into the wall of a nearby cave. Members of the art advisory committee wanted to recreate the deer petroglyph using mounds of dirt to create a 60’ x 60’ image in relief. The idea to create an animal image by forming an earthen mound borrows from early Native American mounds in Wisconsin and elsewhere. However, there was no intention on the part of the creators of this mound to convey a religious message. Only the method for creating an animal image was borrowed or influenced by Native American mound tradition. This very large earthen art sculpture idea seemed to naturally morph into a sculpture garden. Many tons of earth were moved in order to give the land enough pitch so that the image could be easily identified. Purple sedum ground cover was chosen for the mounds surrounded by green grass for contrast. I selected Wisconsin purple quartzite for the footpath around the deer. Purple quartzite is extremely durable and visually enhances the purple sedum mounds. Four circular sculpture bases will be poured in concrete at a later date.

The sculpture garden was situated next to the “root cellar” restoration, as each provides a complementary historical reference to offer substance and connection to the past (see

The root cellar caught the eye of the art advisory committee for its obvious structural, aesthetic, and historical interest. The perfectly dry stacked barrel vaulted stone ceiling survived over 150 years of Wisconsin weather with only one stone slipping downward approximately 2 inches. The stone stairway, which was originally built exposed to the elements, frost heaved. It required steel and fiber reinforced concrete buttresses protecting the partial rebuild of the stair treads and below grade walls.

My art background was preceded by formal apprenticeships in the trades, the first one being stone masonry. It was obvious at first glance that the “root cellar” was not the creation of a determined farmer with a strong back. The underground stone structure yielded numerous hints confirming construction by the hand of a professional stonemason. The expertise necessary to create a barrel vaulted ceiling and stone stair that resisted the stresses of more than 150 Wisconsin winters was the first clue. The second clue suggesting technical skills was the small stair entrance opening at grade that becomes wider as it descends to floor level. This assigns a particular stone masons’ signature to both function and design. This structure revealed itself as overkill for service as a simple homestead root cellar. So it begged the question. Why all the effort?

Questioning the long-time residents of southwestern Wisconsin delivered the most promising explanation. This barrel vaulted below ground structure was likely one of the many “Badger Huts” in the area. The early and middle 1800s saw the immigration of European homesteaders to southwestern Wisconsin. They came mostly for mining and agriculture. Many English miners were by necessity skilled stonemasons, accustomed to supporting mining caverns with timber frame and stone vaulted ceilings. Wisconsin presented the homesteader with a very short building season, not nearly enough time to harvest logs for hand adzed conversion to dimensional lumber for barn and home construction.

These early pioneer “badgers” started out by burrowing into hillsides, thereby achieving indoor temperatures in the mid-fifties for protection from freezing outdoor temperatures. The badger huts included a ceiling vent that facilitated the use of a small woodstove to bring interior temperatures up to a comfortable level. Many of the badger huts were converted to root cellars after the homesteads were completed with barns and farmhouses. Vegetables, fruits and meats were refrigerated and ice blocks from frozen lakes were used to achieve even lower temperatures.

As mentioned, we protected the exterior exposed stair with reinforced concrete to guard it from frost heaving. In the spirit of timber framing “years gone by” I instructed my apprentices in the art of hand adzing timbers for construction of a pergola. I included a clear plastic roof to protect the rebuilt original stone stair from further damage caused by direct exposure to the extremes of Wisconsin weather. Wisteria vines will be planted around and up the pergola walls to help create a natural winter “snow fence.”

We embellished the interior single below grade room with stucco, concrete reinforced benches and a mud set steel reinforced flagstone floor. This should preserve the structure forever. As this space changed through the decades to meet the needs of homesteaders working the land, it seemed appropriate to use the space once again for human need. The new candle sconce niches serve to light the dark cavernous room, harkening back to the days and nights before electricity. The original vent now serves as a duct for fresh air and carbon monoxide removal. I designed the ceramic ware in niches to follow a rough timetable for this land, starting with castings of ancient trilobites going back thousands of years. The arrowheads represent the Paleo Indian period where man first makes his mark. Hand tools represent the pre-industrial period for this land, about the time the homestead took hold. Remnants of the industrial agricultural period as well as remnants that might have been left by settlers, are represented by the ceramics designed and installed in the niches. The root cellar is now referred to as the “sanctuary,” a cool place of respite from the hot muggy summer days. It is also a quiet comfortable place to ponder the past and enjoy the silence of the moment.

The letter tiles inlaid in the pergola beam read "HARMONY WITH GOD, OTHERS, NATURE AND SELF.” This is the overall theme of Bethel Horizons conference center and nature preserve. The sanctuary was designed to support that overall theme. Future sculptural works will also honor the harmonious themes promoted by this artistic venture.

Artist Eric Rattan

 Pergola by Eric Rattan

Hand Adzed, Timber Framed, Handmade Inlaid Tile Pergola

Three-quarter View


Pergola Front and Badger Hut Arched Entrance


Pergola Base


Pergola Side

Pergola Top

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