Oconto philanthropists practice art of creating the future
David L. Damkoehler was a businessman and philanthropist. Together, he and his wife, Edna, founded Damkoehler Chemical and Paper, Inc. in their hometown of Oconto. When David L. died in March of 1983, he was singled out in a local editorial: “No single person has made a greater contribution to Oconto’s main street.”
Today, one of his children, David, is likewise making a contribution to Northeastern Wisconsin, but by pursuing his own passion: teaching and creating art.
“We would have liked for our children to be interested in the business,” says Edna. “When we saw Davey’s interest in art, I first thought, ‘Oh no, starving artist.’ We never imagined that he’d go into the teaching end of it, or that he’d enjoy it so much.”
Different generations, different paths, but a shared passion…for the merits of higher education.
Toni Damkoehler, Edna Damkoehler, David Damkoehler, with students Leah Lindsley and Erica Millspaugh, alum Paul Dax ’02 and Veronica Corpus-Dax.
Photo: Flanking Edna Damkoehler (seated) are daughter-in-law Toni and son David with (standing) students Leah Lindsley and Erica Millspaugh, alum Paul Dax ’02 and Veronica Corpus-Dax.
“Our family has always been generous in contributing to higher education, and we’ve always been closely connected to this University,” says Prof. Damkoehler, today an award-winning faculty member and nationally prominent artist in metals and jewelry. His wife, Toni, a 1992 graduate, also is a faculty member at UW-Green Bay.
Longtime supporters of their regional public university, the senior Damkoehlers kept their generosity quiet.
“We never specified the department where our gifts should be used, because my husband didn’t want it to appear that we were buying our son’s success,” Edna explained. “He always gave anonymously, and I was so proud of that. It was only after my husband died that we decided to establish the art endowment.”
The David L. Damkoehler Endowed Scholarship is available to promising local students who major in art.
Says Edna, “Davey has told me, ‘I don’t know how lucky someone can be making a living at something they love so much.’ And the truth is, he’s the only one of our four children to say that. The basis of our gift is to help people make a living at whatever they enjoy doing.
“Just last year I received a most gratifying letter from someone who qualified for the scholarship for two years, and because of it, was able to continue her education. That makes it all worthwhile.”
Paul Dax, a designer with the Imaginasium communications and design firm in Green Bay, fell into the “not eligible for much financial aid” category as a student.
“Initially, I had to work close to full time in order to pay for school, carrying a full course load,” he recalls. “That’s nothing out of the ordinary for students, but it’s a challenge nonetheless.”
Damkoehler Scholarship awards helped him reduce his outside hours on the job — “I don’t believe I could have spent near the amount of time in the studios had I not received these scholarships” — and also gave him confidence and a sense of duty to work even harder and strive for a higher level.
Today, active on a range of projects from print to Web, the 2002 UW-Green Bay graduate has had his hand in projects that have won “gold” at Fox River Ad Club Addy Awards. An invitation package produced for the Shopko Charity Golf Classic won regional honors.
“With school, as with most things, you get out of it what you put into it,” he says. “Thanks to Mrs. Damkoehler, and the Damkoehler family, I was able to put a great deal more into it.”
UW-Green Bay senior art major Erica Millspaugh has been able to place an exclamation point on her fervor for freedom of expression much because of the financial support and validation from the Damkoehler family.
“It feels incredible that someone I didn’t even know was willing to invest in my potential, says Millspaugh, a repeat recipient of the David L. Damkoehler Endowed Scholarship. “The Damkoehlers want to make a substantial difference in the lives of students. They have more than achieved this goal with their contributions to me.
“The scholarships provide great financial relief, encouragement and validation to keep doing what I’m doing. And each time I received the scholarship I walked away just itching to make art, re-inspired for the whole year, and knowing that all the sleepless nights I’ve spent working in the darkroom were valuable.”
Millspaugh, her work, her voice, and her leadership, are well-known at UW-Green Bay. As an officer with the student organization Art Agency, she has helped with the Empty Bowls chili sale (proceeds to the needy), the annual Art Sale, and many visiting artist lectures on campus. Her work has been exhibited both on campus (the University Union coffeehouse, Lawton Gallery, 407 Gallery) and in the community (at Infusion agency, the Kohler Arts Center, and the Hardy Arts Center in Door County, etc.). She has also shown in national student exhibitions. She has helped to curate art shows both on and off campus, providing exhibition opportunities for others and bridging the gap between the Green Bay community and campus artists.
She received much local attention — and even some state and national visibility — as a spokesperson for students during fall 2005’s contentious “Axis of Evil” art exhibit at the Lawton Gallery.
The touring exhibit assembled by the provocative Chicago stamp artist Michael Hernandez de Luna included one image, “Patriot Act,” depicting a gun to the head of George W. Bush. The piece had attracted polite but curious Secret Service scrutiny during its only previous showing on a college campus.
At UW-Green Bay, Chancellor Bruce Shepard said that, despite his personal commitment to artistic and academic freedom, the University could not allow the image to be exhibited.
“Whether it be in a political science class or in the Lawton Gallery, challenging and questioning a president’s decisions, character, or integrity fall in the realm of fair expression,” Shepard wrote in an all-campus e-mail at the time. But, in a society all too violence prone, he continued, using these or other venues to appear to advocate or suggest violence “is not something UWGB may do.”
The exhibit proceeded but without the image in question. At the gallery opening, Millspaugh led dozens of students (wearing t-shirts bearing the “Patriot Act” image) in protest of what they viewed as censorship.
“I am very adamant about freedom of expression, but not all people feel artist expression is valuable,” Millspaugh says now. “Most of the people who censor art are not educated to do so. Professor Carol Emmons is famous for saying, ‘If a person who is not a scientist walks into a chemistry lab they don’t expect to understand what’s going on, but if a person who is not an artist walks into a gallery they expect to immediately understand.’
Millspaugh says with the governments cutting back on funding for the arts, artists now must turn to private sources, like the Damkoehlers, for support.
“This phenomenon is interesting to me because perhaps if there was more public funding for the arts, the public would understand works of art better and be aware of censorship,” she comments.
A student of museum and gallery practices, and arts management, Millspaugh says her favorite form is installation art. She is a particular fan of Ann Hamilton, and hopes to own her own gallery one day, perhaps in Minneapolis, if she doesn’t pursue that career in education (see quote below).
As many students do, she credits her scholarships with “buying time” that otherwise would have gone to additional part-time jobs to defray tuition costs. In her case, schoolwork and studio time have allowed her art to blossom. Next year, the Damkoehler award will help cover an intensive, studio-art trip to Italy, presenting an opportunity of a lifetime, and capping an already impressive college career.