Halloween is still many months away but the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts in Menomonie already is celebrating its spooky reputation with the help of two Blugolds.
A new children’s book, “Mystery at the Mabel Tainter,” written by Mary Heimstead, a 1975 UW-Eau Claire graduate, and Taylor Kysely, a UW-Eau Claire senior, is a mystery story that takes place in the historic theater.
“The book is based on a story line that’s familiar to patrons of the Mabel Tainter,” says Heimstead, an adjunct instructor of communication and journalism and business communication at UW-Eau Claire. “It’s said that Mabel, the young daughter of the lumber baron and his wife who built the center in Mabel’s honor after her death at 19, continues to ‘inhabit’ the center.
“After taking an extensive tour of the center, I developed a story about 12-year-old twins, Justin and Janey, who take a tour of the center with their parents and get ‘lost’ in the fantasy of Mabel’s existence.”
The nonprofit Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts owns and operates the historic facility formerly known as the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, a grand performing arts venue constructed in 1889 as a tribute to Mabel Tainter, a young woman who loved music and the arts.
Facts about the center’s long, and sometimes ghostly, history are weaved throughout the story of the twins' adventures, Heimstead says, noting that the book will serve as a fundraising tool for the Mabel Tainter while also helping to share its history.
Ever since joining the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts board of directors, Judy Foust has looked for unique local items to sell in the center’s gift shop. While there was a variety of merchandise, Foust says she always felt something was missing.
“As a retired reading specialist, I realized that I would love to find something that would appeal to our younger visitors, to inspire them to love the Mabel as much as I do,” says Foust, also a UW-Eau Claire alumna, earning an undergraduate degree in 1971 and a master’s degree in 1990. “The seed of creating a children's book took root.”
After inquiring about regional authors of children's books who might be interested in the project, she met Heimstead.
“Eau Claire author Mary Heimstead proved to be the answer to my prayers,” Foust says. “With her talent and her experience, she was the perfect choice to create this story. Mary connected me with the brilliant young illustrator Taylor Kysely.
“I am so proud of our finished product and the opportunity to share our beautiful building with a larger audience.”
Kysely read Heimstead’s story and knew she could help bring Justin and Janey to life through her illustrations.
“Reading Mary’s story, I immediately knew what Justin and Janey looked like and their personalities,” Kysely says.
The artist’s instincts about the characters were amazingly on target, Heimstead says.
“She captured the youngsters I wrote about perfectly,” Heimstead says. “When I saw their images on the pages, I couldn’t believe it. She had interpreted every scrap of the storyline, and gave Justin and Janey ‘faces’ and ‘identities’ that rang true.”
How she could so perfectly bring those characters to life is — dare we say — a mystery since the Fort Atkinson native is a biology education major who has not taken a formal art class since she was in middle school.
Last year, Kysely — who loves to draw and paint — was in an Honors course, ‘Connecting Children with Nature,’ that required students to work with a local organization to create an environmental education lesson or program.
She and another student wrote and illustrated a children’s book for Beaver Creek Reserve, a nature reserve near Eau Claire. Based on that book, the staff at Beaver Creek recommended her to the Mabel staff when they learned they were looking for an illustrator for their children’s book.
The Mabel Tainter project offered her the kind of creative challenge she was looking for, Kysely says.
“After the book for Beaver Creek, I wanted to do another but I wanted to tackle a more detailed illustration style,” Kysely says. “The Mabel Tainter is so ornate that it proved to be the perfect challenge.”
Kysely said she also loved the idea of a children’s book serving as a keepsake from a historical site.
“It’s such a fun idea,” Kysely says. “When I was younger, my family liked to explore the nooks and crannies of Wisconsin, and I was an avid bookworm, so I would have loved something like this.
“I hope it inspires kids’ curiosity. There are a great deal of ghost stories associated with the Mabel Tainter and it is not difficult to understand why. Just walking into the theater brings you back to the 1890s and it feels like anything could happen. I hope the readers get that feeling as well.”
Helping a much-celebrated nonprofit organization like the Mabel Tainter reach young audiences also drew her to the project, says Heimstead, who donated her time and writing talents to the book project.
“I hope it will help their imaginations soar in terms of stories and art that they, too, can create and share,” Heimstead says. “I also hope readers will see in it strong female characters, and identify with the bond between the brother and sister.”
Not being an art student, Kysely says she was a bit limited in the artistic tools available to her as she was drawing her illustrations so she did things the “old-fashioned way.”
To create her illustrations, she made 32 watercolor and acrylic paintings, and then scanned them to format.
“It was very slow going, but putting myself in the shoes of a 12-year-old and seeing the theater come to life through her eyes was a lot of fun,” Kysely says.
Kysely’s art is especially important to the book because illustrations are the central part of literature for youngsters, Heimstead says.
“This book will serve parents well as something they can read to their children,” Heimstead says. “But as kids begin to read on their own, they still can navigate this book as well.
“The illustrations will help them immensely. They are beautiful.”
A highlight of the project was reading a draft of her story to her son and grandson, and seeing her grandson’s reaction to it, Heimstead says, noting the book is written for youth ages 8 and up.
“My grandson, he’s 10, understood the plot immediately — he ‘got’ the story,” she says.
Foust says the center will host an open house from 4-7 p.m. Feb. 1 to introduce the author and illustrator to visitors. Signed, first-edition copies of “Mystery at the Mabel Tainter” will be available during that event. The books then will be sold through the gift shop and, possibly, at a few area locations.
“The finished product was far superior to what I had envisioned,” Foust says. “Mary's story was imaginative and educational. And Taylor is an amazing illustrator; she is sensitive, detail-oriented and gifted.”
So what is it like to see your illustrations bring a children’s story to life?
“It’s amazing,” Kysely says. “Illustrating a children’s book has always been a bucket list type of goal for me. Seeing the book and knowing that I did it while still in school is incredible. There was definitely a semester where I turned in homework with paint stains.”
As much as she enjoyed the book project, science education continues to be her priority, says Kysely, who hopes to teach biology and chemistry at the high school level after she graduates.
While drawing and painting will be a hobby rather a career path, she believes her passion for art will help her be a better science teacher.
“Being a scientist and an artist embodies one of my core philosophies as a teacher — that science is inherently creative,” Kysely says. “One of my professors says that ‘we teach who we are,’ so having a highly creative hobby keeps my head in the right space to model out-of-the-box thinking for my students.
“There’s a bit of a toxic idea that people are either ‘right brained’ or ‘left brained,’ creative or logical. I really want everyone to feel comfortable pursuing scientific curiosity whether or not they fit the typical mold of a scientist.”
With that in mind, she will continue to make time to be creative.
“I’d love to keep making art however I can,” Kysely says. “And if I have some free time, I may actually take an art class one of these years.”
As a UW-Eau Claire alumna and an adjunct instructor, Heimstead knows Blugolds are a talented bunch.
Even so, Kysely’s creative talents surprised her since she’s been studying the sciences and not art.
“I collaborate with students routinely,” Heimstead says. “Still it amazes me how gifted our students are and how much talent we can discover when we take the time to ask questions.”
Photo caption: Blugolds (from left) Taylor Kysely, Judy Foust and Mary Heimstead created a children's book set at the historic Mabel Tainter Theater in Menomonie.