Posted 6 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020

UW-La Crosse senior Elyse Weber enjoyed painting in the outdoors earlier in October in rural La Crosse County when the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration opened the gate to 200 acres in Saint Joseph. The visit, along with others from UWL faculty and students, initiated future classes on the land, opening a new collaboration between the university and FSPA.

Students head to rural La Crosse County for COVID safe haven

UW-La Crosse senior Elyse Weber knew the fall semester impacted by COVID-19 would be different. But the exercise science major and art minor didn’t expect it would include an opportunity to paint outdoors amid radiant autumn colors of rural La Crosse County.

While the pandemic closed the door on most in-person educational opportunities, the La Crosse’s Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration opened the door to 200 picturesque acres in Saint Joseph. The locale, just east of La Crosse gave UWL students an elaborate outdoor classroom of agricultural land, forest and prairie restoration.

“It was just so nice to get a break from all the virtual meetings and be able to enjoy the outdoors,” explains Weber, a Tuscan, Arizona, native. “Drawing from life is also super beneficial to improve your skills. There were countless areas to set up and observe.”

Along with fine-tuning her artistic skills, Weber gained an appreciation for the Coulee Region — among not only the land, but those who care for it.

“They keep the land so well kept,” she notes. “The weather was absolutely beautiful, and the trees were in the perfect condition to draw.”

Weber says the change of scenery gave her a new appreciation for her roots as well.

“I have realized over the past couple years that I always took Arizona's landscape for granted,” she says.

“I now appreciate all sorts of landscapes.”

UW-La Crosse Art Professor Jennifer Williams sought an inspiring and safe place for students in her painting classes. She found it in rural La Crosse at the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration property in Saint Joseph. The university and FSPA are working on partnerships for faculty and students to visit the area for classes throughout the year.

Art Professor Jennifer Williams sought an inspiring and safe place for Weber and others in her painting classes, allowing them to make art "en plein air," French for “in the open air.”  She’s thankful to FSPA for their spirit of collaboration and partnership.

“The site allowed for students to make a personal connection with the land, mindful of its significance to the FSPA community for generations,” explains Williams. “While our work would have taken us outdoors to work en plein air anyway this fall, pandemic or not, being able to connect with a place that others consider sacred brings a special connection to our work, an honoring.”

Williams hopes to bring her students back to site throughout the upcoming academic year, knowing that with Wisconsin’s winters it may be just a short visit.

“Artists benefit from making repeated visits to a place as inspiration for nature-related creative work,” she notes. “A brisk hike can include pauses for photography or quick sketches that inform studio work.”

FSPA Integral Ecology Director Beth Piggush says FSPA is opening the grounds to UWL and the city’s other higher ed institutions, Viterbo University and Western Technical College. She says they hope to introduce faculty and students to the land, along with planting the “seed” for additional research and educational opportunities.

“The visits this fall offered an opportunity to show the potential of the FSPA land on St. Joseph Ridge as a site for collaboration,” Piggush explains. “I was energized following each visit with UWL faculty because they understood our sustainability work to date and shared ideas about potential work together that might benefit the land and their students.”

A UWL art painting class student takes in the beautiful settings of rural Saint Joseph for her assignment.

UWL Community Engagement Coordinator Lisa Klein says one of her favorite parts of the new relationship is that both the FSPA and UWL are entering into the partnership without any particular goal in mind.

“FSPA has beautiful, private land that they would like to make available for future educational opportunities and research, and UWL has experts in many different disciplines who can create meaningful learning experiences for students, as well as develop their own scholarship,” she explains. “This is a unique opportunity for two community organizations to co-create future projects and imagine possibilities together.”

Klein says along with the Art Department, FSPA has welcomed faculty from the Biology, Earth Science & Geography, and Recreation Management & Therapeutic Recreation departments. She and Piggush were first introduced by Alysa Remsburg, an instructor in the UWL Environmental Studies Department who had already cultivated a relationship with FSPA.

Klein says the partnerships are what the Increasing Community Engagement pillar of the university’s strategic plan is all about. She is excited about the tremendous opportunities these relationships mean for UWL faculty and students, as well as the sisters and community.

“They have opened the door for discussion and exploration of how we can work together to maintain the integrity of the land while offering an opportunity for learning, study and research for our students and faculty,” Klein explains. “We are working together to imagine how we can learn from — and give back to — this beautiful property."