A piece of CALS history served as the lead for the cover story in last week’s Isthmus newspaper, which looked at the decline in respect for public employees. Freelance writer Mark Eisen begins the story by talking about a portrait a of former CALS Dean, the late Chris Christensen, that hangs in the Chazen museum. The painting, by John Steuart Curry, the university’s first artist-in-residence, shows the college’s third Dean striding with determination through a field of grain with several other men in tow.
“Christensen’s face radiates determination and purpose. Clearly, he was a man on a mission, bringing university research and government help to Wisconsin farmers battered by the Great Depression,” Eisen writes.
“And what great help it was. The ag school scored one breakthrough after another to enhance dairy and other farming — everything from vitamin D activation, to bull semen preservation, to fostering farmer-controlled cooperatives.”
Eisen goes on to contrast those heady days, when university professors and other public servants were respected for their ideas and efforts to improve the state, to the present, when “government itself has been defined as the problem, and public employees find themselves portrayed as villains…”
Eisen had called the CALS communication office a few weeks ago to get the backstory on the portrait and some bio on Christensen and Curry. He’d hoped learn who the others in portrait were and learn why there were all in that particular field. But a little research turned up the fact that those guys were composites, products of Curry’s imagination. Christensen walked through his share of Wisconsin farm fields, but in this case he posed, with his hat on and striding stance, in Curry’s studio.