Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Portraits honor laborers on Madison’s East Side September 22, 2020

Portraits grace window spaces of Madison-Kipp Corporation, founded in 1898, and located in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. The company produces precision machined aluminum die castings and subassemblies for the transportation, lawn and garden, and industrial markets, according to its website.


WHEN I VIEWED PORTRAITS set into former window spaces in an aged industrial brick building on Madison’s East Side, I saw strength.


This portrait exudes strength.


Strength in the bulk of bodies. Strength in the machines depicted. Strength in the hands and arms and faces of those who labored inside. Strength of work ethic and determination and skill.


Portraits of industrial workers stretch along the building.


Pride surged, not because of a personal connection to those employed by Madison-Kipp Corporation, but because of the blue collar connection. Too often, society dismisses as secondary those who put hands to machines, hands to tools, hands to steering wheels…


That each mural focuses on one worker highlights their individual value to the company.


But I recognize their value, for my father and his father before him and the generation prior worked the land. Farming. To feed their families. To feed others. Dirt and grease and backbreaking hard work defined their days. So I honor these men in the history of my life, including my husband, Randy, an automotive machinist for 40-plus years. A customer recently called him “an institution.” That seems fitting given his career longevity and the rarity of his skill set. I have no idea what Randy’s customers will do when he retires because no apprentice waits in the wings.


It takes the hands and skills of many to run a company and produce product.


Even with a renewed interest in the need for hands-on skilled workers, I don’t expect young people to necessarily embrace these jobs. The four-year college degree mindset has been too long embedded in our psyche. Yet, the need for mechanics, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, factory workers, etc., will only grow as Baby Boomers retire.


I appreciate that women are among those featured in this public art.


I am grateful for those who work with their hands. They keep our vehicles running, our houses repaired, our grocery store shelves stocked, our factories running…


Strong, determined, skilled…


When I studied the portraits on the Kipp building along the Capital City State Trail, I noticed, too, the drab shades of brown, grey, blue, green, no single person standing out in flashy colors. Too often those employed by manufacturers, warehouses and more go unnoticed, blending into the landscape of our lives.


Credit goes to these groups.


So to see this art, this very public art, recognize the often unrecognized pleases me. I value these men and women and the work they do. And now this art which honors them.


© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


11 Responses to “Portraits honor laborers on Madison’s East Side”

  1. I really hope that the people of your town appreciate the subjects you document. Not just the photographs, but the things themselves. These are beautiful. They remind me of WPA murals. Things like this in NY, depending upon the neighborhood, tend to get overlooked. I live in Hamilton Heights. This area is chock full of revolutionary war era history, black history, NY history. The northernmost defensive positions against the English were on these heights. Directly across the Hudson River in New Jersey, at the end of a parking lot, nestled in the woods, is a small one story, two room house. I chanced upon it by accident. This was Cornwallis’ headquarters. There are plaques everywhere. I live in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. I know a very small percentage of my neighbors have ever paid attention to them. Shame. To know and understand where we are today, as a country, is to know history.

  2. Ruth Says:

    What a wonderful project honoring workers. Thanks for sharing the art, Audrey.

  3. Those are very cool! Deserving of an exclamation mark. I love murals and art like this is simply amazing. Honoring those who work the hardest and get the least recognition most times. Thanks for sharing.

  4. valeriebollinger Says:

    What a great art exhibit honoring hard work and hard workers. I like murals.

  5. What an honorable way to document the hard work of so many who have moved society forward with sweat and hard working hands.

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