Connie and Tim Friesen | Wabeno, WI
I am from Wisconsin. I grew up in Menasha, a small town. I lived for seventeen years outside of San Antonio, and I lived in Florida. My parents had a cottage around Wabeno and I have liked this northern part of the state since I was a kid
Tim: Until I moved here, I pretty much only lived in big cities. I spent my childhood until I was sixteen in Berlin, Germany. Then from there, we moved to the city of Winnipeg, Canada, which has about 750,000 people. I also lived in Edmonton, Alberta, with around a million people. That is where I was living twenty-five years ago when Connie and I met online in a religion internet chatroom, called XOOM, due to our common interest in religious matters.
Connie: For over a year, I didn’t know he was male. We just were friends. We’d talk about all kinds of things.
Tim: My screen name at the time was “Gray Eyes.”
Connie: So I asked. I said, “Why are you Gray Eyes?” He said, “Oh, I have a cat with gray eyes.” I was thinking that was kind of like a female thing, you know? And it really kind of didn’t matter. It was like, “Hey, this is a person that can share common interests and talk about things,” and the gender part was not important. It was a more cerebral thing, and it wasn’t rooted in bodies. It was rooted in thought.
Tim: Our connection was rooted in ideas and arguing and debating, just exchanging ideas and challenging each other in different ways. Connie and I are both visual artists and I am also a musician—our shared love of creating art was part of our connection.
Connie: Then when I figured it out, I went, “Ha, a guy.” That changed things very quickly, you know?
It was very cool once I knew, and then we actually started talking on the phone. That helped it, partly because I actually talk faster than I type.
Tim: And then our relationship blossomed.
Connie: Art was a part of our relationship from the beginning. In 1999, I had been commissioned by the Neville Museum in Green Bay to do some murals for an upcoming show. I said, “Look, I know this composer in Canada, why don’t you commission him to do the music for it?” They said, “Connie, we gave you all the money.” I didn’t tell Tim that. I sort of paid him myself. I commissioned him. So Tim came here, and he did the music, which was phenomenal. At the opening, almost every relative of mine was there to make sure he wasn’t an ax murderer. So far, he’s proven not to be.
Tim: So I moved here, and we’ve been together ever since.
Connie: One of the things that brought us together was that we were into collaborative art. We both understood the difference it makes when people are a part of creating together. There’s a unity that comes about. We say that art “puts the UNITY into commUNITY.” And it really does. We became zealots about collaborative art, especially in small rural towns. Because young people are leaving our small towns. Living up here I have a deeper relationship with Wisconsin and feel very proud of it most of the time.
Tim: I don’t miss the big cities one bit. I’ve experienced a lot of different cultures in the different places that I lived in. What I like about living in a small rural town is the community connections—it’s like we are one big family.
Connie: I am in my 70s, and really have no interest in doing a whole lot of traveling. There are a few places I might want to go, but it seems like people travel, they come back to Wisconsin and share their travel with us. Tim’s mother and two of our sons are in Canada, and we go there quite often. Our oldest son is in California and another son and daughter live here in Wisconsin.
Tim: I came to Northern Wisconsin for Connie, of course, and it felt like I was coming home. For me, that was a sensation that I hadn’t had since I left Berlin in 1975. It was pretty powerful to feel like, “Hey, this is where I belong.”
Tim: We act kind of like tour guides and help communities work together to make visual and musical art.
Connie: We want the murals to belong to the people we are working with. We go in and brainstorm. “What is it you want to say? What is it you want people to see?” Some of this is fly-by art; people are just going to see it for just a little while. So what do you want them to go away with and what do you want them to feel?
We have done these projects all over the place, including schools and prisons. We have found that creating collaborative art knows no race, age, or ability. There is wonderful alchemy that is generated by the process of people getting together, working towards a common goal. There is a flow.
It is rewarding to experience the effect that collaborative art has on young people—to see their connections to their community strengthened. Some of the most rewarding murals we’ve done were working with kids in the juvenile prison system. We went to seven different prisons in the Ohio juvenile system. We would go to a different prison each time, and different units or cell blocks. We also did some theater and made music.
Tim: There’s a YouTube video called “Turning the Corner,” which was, I think, the first one we did in 2005 in Ohio. The kids wrote all the music and lyrics for that one.
Connie: At first, you would see some kids who weren’t going to do anything, and they weren’t going to be a part of anything. Then we would see them blossom. After we finished one, this young man was sitting back and just looking at it. I asked if he had quit, and he said, “No, I just have to look at this. Never in my whole life have I done anything so wonderful.” He could hardly take it in. He said, “My heart is full just from looking at it.”
Tim: One of the rewarding things about having those mural projects is the relationships that were built and that we still maintain.
Connie: In fact, a couple of years ago on Facebook, I got a message from somebody who said, “Hey, are you the Connie who led murals in the Ohio prison system?” I was a little bit leery to say, “Yes, I am.” He said how meaningful it was to be a part of the mural making.
Tim: None of the kids, by and large, have ever worked on a big project like that. So they’re all going to learn and to do something new. We teach everyone the same technique, so it looks like one hand did it. It’s kind of like being part of an orchestra. When you hear the final piece you are hearing the whole plus hearing your part.
Connie: For us, music and art are all part of the same thing because they nourish us and help us to be better. We have seen collaborative art strengthen a community. Art is the easiest, quickest—I mean, it doesn’t cost a whole lot. You don’t have to invest a whole lot to bring art into your community.
Tim: But we had already bought this house.
Connie: A big old house in Wabeno, which we really thought looked really interesting.
Tim: By 2008 virtually all of our mural jobs dried up, and suddenly the money was either evaporated or redirected. We had to retool, kind of like we’re doing now because of Covid. So that was kind of the genesis of the gallery itself.
Connie: We looked all over the town to try to find a gallery space because we thought we would have a gallery, and we were reluctant to do it in our house. We looked everywhere, but we could not find anything suitable. So we said, “Okay, we’ll do it in our foyer. We’ll give up a room.” Pretty soon we had basically given up the whole downstairs. Then we thought, “Okay, maybe if people are drinking coffee and sitting and having a biscotti or something, they’re looking at the art and maybe they’ll be more interested in what we accumulated. We know so many artists, and we have accumulated work from other artists who are also hanging in the gallery. Probably at any given time we have seventeen different artists who are here. We had ten years’ worth of art auctions every summer and it worked out really quite well.
People were first attracted to the Bistro by the art, music, artisan bread, and camaraderie. We have many local people that come here as our guests as well as people who live here part-time. Tourists who have found us online come to the Bistro too.
For eight years in a row, we had Rabbie Burns [national poet of Scotland] dinners where we hosted Graham Reed from the Wisconsin Museum of Art. He’s from Scotland, and he’s a Burns scholar. We would have many, many people here, and we’d make haggis. So this became a kind of art place where a lot of things were happening.
Then we got the proper license for a coffee shop. Next, we said, “Maybe we really need to have wine. It would probably help sell some art.” So we got those appropriate licenses. Then we built a really big commercial kitchen and started to make food.
Tim: We’re always just learning new stuff and trying new things. It keeps it fun and interesting. It’s also providing experiences for young people. One of the things we did when we first started here is that we would bring in young people who had no job experience, like high school kids, and we would train them.
Connie: Some of these kids, when they were in primary school, had painted murals with us.
Tim: When they were sixteen, they would say “Can we work for you?” So we did, and we’re still in touch with most of them. But like a lot of rural places, young people want to move away.
Connie: All of them have moved away.
Tim: Yeah, they all moved away. But we helped them get that initial job experience and to get the rudimentary training, like in the hospitality industry, like personal hygiene, washing hands, and how to relate to your customers. So they were able to learn all that. Some have gone off to college now. We have a good reputation in the area and they would go out and say, “Yeah, I worked at The Big Easel.” And also when we were having a sit-down meal people would get to know each other because it’s a small place.
Connie: Then they become friends.
Tim: And then friends become friends, and it just strengthens the whole community. That’s happening with music, too. Just over five years ago, we saw an ad in our local newspaper saying, “Looking for somebody to teach ukulele to somebody who is sixty years old who’s never played an instrument before.” Even though I hadn’t played ukulele before, I play piano, bass, and guitar, so it wasn’t that hard to figure it out. At sixty years old, he had never played an instrument, and he was arrhythmic, atonal—my second most challenging student. So we started the Absolute Beginner’s Ukulele Group. We’ve been doing it for five years, and we would have fifteen to twenty people that would come in every Tuesday at 3:30 and play music for a couple of hours, not just ukulele players, but some singers, some guitarists, and some banjo players.
Connie: Since COVID, we do it on Zoom and Facebook Live, and in the summer we had a few people in person underneath little socially distanced tents in the backyard. It is a way to still get together. We had a number of people who lived out here their whole life and just had no idea that the guy in the next row was a concert pianist.
Tim: I think about the person who initiated the Absolute Beginner’s Ukulele Group. Through his perseverance and our musical community support, he has become a confident ukulele player and singer with over 200 songs in his repertoire.
Tim: We’ve been writing songs and putting them on our YouTube channel. One was really early on in the pandemic called “Watching Bananas Ripen.” It goes kind of like this, “Don’t tell me we’ve got nothing to do, we’re watching bananas ripen.” So that was just kind of fun.
Connie: That actually was initiated after I bought some bananas and they were green, and they seemed to stay green forever. So I said, “Tim, this is something to write about. You know we have nothing else to do.”
Tim: The other one was “Drift Along,” and it’s about how we’re all kind of drifting along. We have a six-piece jazz band that would get together once a week and play together. But this summer, we had only one gig. All that dried up as well. So that is happening on Zoom now.
Connie: We do a cooking show now every Tuesday at nine in the morning. It initially was just a way to keep in touch with our friends and guests who come here, and it’s spoofy. After a week we said, “We have to cook. But how are we going to cook if we have no place to feed people?” We started serving food out in the driveway. We have no sit-down service, only ‘Heat and eat’ pick up and delivery.
This is where we get to see our people. Most of our people arrive on Saturdays to pick up their food in the driveway and they visit for five minutes or so. Everybody’s in a mask. Usually, we’re feeding a whole lot more than we could ever feed inside. Our bistro capacity was thirty people, but we can serve up to sixty from the driveway.
Tim: We use locally sourced ingredients whenever possible. We’ve used a LOT of Wisconsin Maple Syrup. Some of our most popular menus entail smoking and barbecuing meat. People tend to like the French and Italian menus, and our personal favorites are Mediterranean and East Indian. We relish bringing something novel and exciting that piques our interest, as well as our guests’. This week, it’s all classic American barbecue. We have St. Louis ribs, we have smoked sausage, we have beef tenderloin, and beef short ribs, smashed potatoes.
Connie: Corn on the cob.
Tim: And lemon bars for dessert. That’s it.
Connie: So we are still serving food. We don’t have much else going on because of the pandemic, all of our scheduled concerts were canceled.
Tim: Forest County is one of the poorer counties in the state, and so there seems to be a lot of joblessness here. We used to have a few people working for us, pre-Covid. We occasionally still have one person that comes and helps us, and we have a few catering jobs, but we don’t need the help anymore either.
Connie: There’s the casino that is four miles away, but they laid a lot of people off because of the pandemic. And there is some logging and a school. That’s it. Also because we’re in the middle of the national forest, we don’t have a good tax base.
Tim: Well, we have five taverns in town that are scraping by, but then they’re not doing so good either.
Connie: People are friendly and nice. There’s a number of churches. Probably, there are as many churches as taverns, so a good balance there.
Connie: It seems like what’s important is having the ability to keep on keeping on. I would say for everything to go back to normal, but I don’t think it is. I don’t know what normal is. I think normal is what you do. Whatever you do at any given time, that is your normal, I suppose.
Tim: We’ve been managing to keep things floating here since March, and now with the weather turning to the winter months…
Connie: It might be a different challenge.
Tim: Yeah, there’s a whole lot of uncertainty. But one way or another, we’re going to keep on keeping on.
Tim: We are glad we can keep doing what we do, even if it looks different. Everything we have done and continue to do is to find things that unite us and bring people together. The arts enrich our communities and they enrich our lives. And I think it’s the joy and the passion that we have for the things that we’re doing that invariably other people pick up on and want to be part of.
Connie: It’s infectious, yeah.
Tim: So no matter what it is, whether it’s cooking or painting or making music, that there’s just so much joy in it. Connie and I spend virtually every moment of every day together all the time.
Connie: More than most couples would want to.
Tim: Yeah, not everyone would want to do that, but this really works good for us. I think that we have a real joy in each other’s company. Our initial conversations when we met on XOOM, the religion internet chatroom, were effortless and seamless. That has carried forward through the years, through our mural projects, our bistro, our community work. We work together seamlessly, then and now.
Connie and Tim Friesen | Wabeno, WI
This story was produced by Catherine Capellaro and the photos were taken by Catherine McKenzie.
Connie and Tim are part of a long tradition of muralists that use their art to amplify community voices and transform public spaces. Wisconsin Humanities has funded several community mural projects around the state. You can read more about them here and here.