Artist answers the call of the wild
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Diligence is the mother of good luck.”
That sentiment aptly applies to University of Wisconsin-Rock County professor and Fort Atkinson sculptor Mark Dziewior.
But fate also may have played a part in his latest work, which when finished will be a 37-inch-tall sculpture of a Vietnam War era combat dog. It is the signature piece of a new K-9 memorial that will be unveiled during a June 25 ceremony in Fort Atkinson.
It simply was a matter of being in the right places at the right times for Dziewior.
“Two years ago ... a member of the McCoy Veterans Park friends group walked by my booth at Art Fair Off the Square in Madison,” Dziewior said. “He first saw the animals and then realized I was from Fort Atkinson. He explained that Fort Atkinson was going to have a war dog memorial and wondered if I would be interested in meeting with Mabel Schumacher and committee members. I was more than excited.”
And as good fortune would have it, a certain name was mentioned during that first meeting about a year ago.
“I had wanted my sculpture to represent the Vietnam era, but it wasn't until after that first meeting that I learned the backstory,” Dziewior said. “Somebody mentioned a local veteran named Terry Beckwith, who had been a dog handler. But while talking to my wife (Kris Baird) and calling my brother-in-law (Tom Fixmer), we figured out that it was Terry Beck, not Beckwith. He had been Tom's best friend. As juniors, they had skipped school to join the Marines. But they needed their parents' permission because they were under age. Terry was allowed to sign up, but Tom wasn't.”
Beck and his German shepherd scout dog, Seato, were killed in action in December 1967, barely three months after arriving in Vietnam.
Dziewior brings out that service and sacrifice in his new creation. However, the bronze work might not have happened had the Mauston native not evolved as an artist and started concentrating on sculpture during graduate school in 2005.
“I chose to work with bronze because it is a long-lasting medium and a way of leaving my mark on society and communities,” said Dziewior, who said drawing, painting and sculpting are inherently intertwined. “I had a sculpture professor at UW-Milwaukee named Chuck Kraus, who now is a very dear friend, accept me into his foundry class even though I was considered a painting major at the time. I found that I could convey much more in 3D than I could ever do in 2D.
“I'm a tactile person; most of us are. Infants discover their world with tactile experiences. But it is the tactile experience that can inform the 2D work as well. I compare clay to oil paint because it's a very malleable media … you can move clay similarly to moving oil paint on a canvas.”
Dziewior does all of the metal work -- welding, grinding and painting in his basement studio -- but a foundry in Colorado does the casting for him, the latter step taking about two months.
Regardless of which medium he may be enjoying at any particular time, his late parents and brother Bob -- who is 14 years older and was his art teacher while in high school -- nurtured Dziewior's creative endeavors. And his love of nature provided the palette.
“I've been creating artwork since I can first remember,” Dziewior said. “My parents, especially my mom, saw my interest and fostered it. She would tell the story of me using watercolors in my high chair. I also was very fortunate to have an older brother who gave me my first art lessons.
“The books my mom and I read were mainly about animals, and having been raised in central Wisconsin among the woods and bluffs, I was afforded ample opportunities to explore, observe and interact with wildlife,” Dziewior added. ”Some of my favorite childhood memories involved animals of one kind or another. The fawn I bottle-fed at a wildlife rescue, the rabbits I raised and even the cougar cub I was allowed to hold purring against my chest were spiritual encounters that touched and inspired me.”
However, most of his works don't end up being what he usually envisions. And he takes those lessons into his classroom on Tuesdays and Thursdays at UW-Rock County.
“I'm a firm believer that 2D and 3D works go hand in hand,” he said. “I tell my students all the time that 2D always informs the 3D and vice versa. Being open to change the artwork is a large challenge for me and I share that with my students. Being open to change makes the artwork that much better as opposed to saying it's good enough.
“'Do your best, don't settle for good enough' is a quote I tell my students,” Dziewior added. “Be willing to sacrifice a portion of the work that you may think is the best thing you've ever done only to realize that it isn't working with the whole artwork. Most artists I know always are changing the work throughout the process to make it that much better. Another mantra I tell my students is, 'Artwork cannot be beautiful from conception to completion.' I constantly have to tell myself those mantras as well.”
Dziewior said that teaching has allowed him to have the best of both worlds career-wise.
“I am grateful to the school because I teach two days a week, which allows me the other days to work in the studio,” he said of a place called 7 Mile Creek. “By staying active in the classroom, I can bring the students real world experience as a working artist. They in turn energize and inspire me to do my best.
“Creating art can be a solitary experience. There are times where I intuitively create something, but in order to teach it I have to slow down and really think about how I created the work to explain it. I love to share my skills to future artists and art lovers.”
He also shares the results of his labor. Dziewior's work is displayed in the Broadmoor Galleries in Colorado Springs, and he participates in about six shows during the year, spanning from Wisconsin to Colorado, the bulk of them in the summer.
His future projects include life-size versions of a great blue heron and a peacock standing on a pillar with the tail draping down.
“My small bronzes are very popular, so I'm coming out with another rabbit to add to the collection,” he said. “Generally I create six to eight pieces a year. The inspiration is pretty much the same whether I'm sculpting, drawing or painting. I've never worked or played in just one medium. I've always considered myself an artist rather than a painter, drawer or sculptor.”
And he is concentrating those energies on his war dog memorial, of which he already has orders for seven more replicas.
“I was fortunate enough to have access to an actual German shepherd that I could photograph, run my hand over and pet to get a feel for the anatomy,” Dziewior said. “That is so important when trying to accurately depict a certain animal, specifically the German shepherd. One of the challenges at the beginning was working with the committee to come up with a pleasing composition that would encompass all of the details they wanted. It was at that point that I started working on a small model. Working with non-artists, you have to be literal with your visuals. This helped solidify my vision.”
And input from those who were there -- Vietnam veterans -- has proved to be invaluable.
“I was contacted by a veteran who was a dog handler in Vietnam,” Dziewior said. “He said that the harness I was using was not the correct one and that he would send me photos of what he used. This was so helpful, and I am in the process of altering the harness to resemble a more accurate depiction of the one that would have been used during that time period.”
According to the website www.vetfriends.com, Wisconsin suffered 11,600 Vietnam War casualties. And the site www.uswardogs.org says that only 204 of an estimated 4,900 dogs used in the conflict from 1964 to 1975 returned home.
So, whether it's luck, fate or a combination, Dziewior is happy to contribute to something special and share in the war dog memorial and celebration.
“It turned into something that I believe was meant to be.”