Hidden Thunder: Rock Art of the Upper Midwest

By Geri Schrab & Robert "Ernie" Boszhardt

Hardcover: $29.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-767-9

160 pages, 126 color photos and illus., 1 map 8 x 9 e-book edition available

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Chosen as "1st Book of Christmas" 2016!
(see video here)

A watercolor artist and an archaeologist team up to interpret the hidden history and heritage painted in American Indian rock art found in the Upper Midwest in "Hidden Thunder: Rock Art of the Upper Midwest." With an eye toward preservation, Geri Schrab and Robert "Ernie" Boszhardt take you along as they research, document and interpret the petroglyphs and pictographs made in past millennia.

Offering the dual perspectives of scientist and artist, Boszhardt shares the facts that archaeologists have been able to establish about these important artifacts of our early history, while Schrab offers the artist's experience, describing her emotional and creative response upon encountering and painting these sites. In addition to publicly accessible sites such as Wisconsin's Roche-A-Cri State Park and Minnesota's Jeffers Petroglyphs, their book covers the artistic treasures found at several remote and inaccessible rock art sites in the Upper Midwest--revealing the ancient stories through words, full-color photographs, and Schrab's watercolor renditions.

Viewpoints by members of the Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, and other Native nations offer additional insight on the historic and cultural significance of these sites. Together these myriad voices reveal layers of meaning and cultural context that emphasize why these fragile resources--often marred by human graffiti and mishandling or damage from the elements--need to be preserved.

Geri Schrab is an award-winning watercolor artist whose sole artistic focus is American Indian rock art sites. She has twenty years of experience visiting and painting rock art sites across North America and Australia, with an emphasis on Wisconsin and the greater Lake Superior region.

Robert "Ernie" Boszhardt is a professional archaeologist with more than forty years of experience, the vast majority in Wisconsin. He worked for the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse for nearly thirty years and is now an independent archaeologist and an honorary fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A Q&A with Geri Schrab

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write/collaborate on “Hidden Thunder?” 

We discuss this question in depth in both the Introduction and the last section of the book entitled “How This Book Came About.” For myself, two decades of exhibiting and discussing my artwork around Wisconsin has made me aware that there is a great need for educational materials regarding this very important piece of Wisconsin history. I believe that greater awareness of this pre-contact history and the indigenous people will be beneficial to cross-cultural understanding today.

Was there one pictograph in particular that speaks to you and/or captures rock art in the Upper Midwest? Yes. The image reflected in my painting “Inside the Cave,” has spoken very strongly to me throughout my art career. There are several components of that image from Tainter Cave that touch me deeply.  I love the visual impact of two figures facing each other, suggesting some level of communication. There are also matters of gender, respect and the cycle of life and death that this image raises for me which I’ve addressed through my voice in Chapter 10. 

What do you want your readers to understand about rock art from reading this book? First and foremost, I want readers to understand what rock art is, that petroglyphs are carvings or etchings in rock, and pictographs are paintings on rock; that petroglyphs were created hundreds to thousands of years ago and that rock art is a universal expression that was created by ancient people around the world. Here in North America, that would be the ancestors of the modern American Indian people.   Secondly, I want people to understand that these ancient images, and the land they are on, are absolutely sacred to many people, just as sacred as any icon of religious expression such as a Church, Temple, Bible, etc.

What do you find most fascinating about the rock art you profile? Rock art is a very diaphanous subject, tough to pin down and clearly define.  This is one of the reasons I understand some archaeologists avoid it, but the quality that most draws me in. Rock art has the ability to touch us on many levels, from the intellectual to cultural, historical, spiritual. It is the exploration of the complexity and depth of these levels I strive to express through my art. 

How can this book serve as a guide to Wisconsin history, Native American History? It serves as a reminder that history relevant to our modern lives did not start in the 1700s or 1800s or with the arrival of European people. Before my personal discovery of rock art at the age of 35, I knew very little about Native American history or culture as it was not a subject much addressed in public schools at the time I attended. Rock art has been my doorway of inspiration for an ongoing process of learning about Native American history and culture though reading, museums, various media, personal discussions and visits to public sites such as Roche-A-Cri State Park. Here in Wisconsin we are also most fortunate to have a related pre-contact human expression in the remaining effigy mounds, another doorway for understanding the Native people, their history and relationship to the land.

What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned from writing this book? One of the most interesting things to me was reading the Native Voices from our American Indian contributors. I very much enjoy the variety of viewpoints and ways they are expressed. I feel this is one of the most valuable components of this book, and I thank those contributors from the bottom of my heart.

How was writing this book a personal experience? My art is created from a deep heart space. Feelings and ideas relayed through paint on paper leaves room for interpretation, and therefore a level of emotional protection.  Writing about my experience of the sites and creative process removes a layer of protection; thereby exposing that vulnerability that creative people experience.  However, as I look around and see painful division and dysfunction in our society, finding this art gives comfort, joy and opens doorways for understanding, I want to share that. Rock art has also profoundly informed my understanding of our relationship with the Earth. If opening my heart and expressing that love in words will help protect Her, I’m all in. 

How did you come to paint rock art? The short version is that while traveling through Wyoming in 1993 my husband and I saw our first rock art site at Legend Rock near Thermopolis. Fascinated, we photographed the many panels. Something drew me back to the photographs of that petroglyph site for the next year. Although not an artist at the time, I asked the question, “I wonder if you could paint something like that?” My first rock art painting entitled “Bridging Time,” was created in 1994. The much longer version of that story is on my website at gerischrab.com.

What value does art, and an artist’s viewpoint, add to the understanding of rock art? The value is two-fold. First, a single image can rivet immediate attention. Once we have attention, the groundwork is laid for teaching. Second, art takes rock art out of the realm of the intellect and places it into the realm of the heart. From many discussions with my American Indian friends and relatives, rock art is a heart-felt subject. Approaching it from this perspective gives us common ground and may open pathways for cross-cultural understanding. One example of that is the recent exhibits, entitled “Sisters In Spirit, Native American Stories in Rock Art and Beads,” with master Iroquois raised beadworker Karen Ann Hoffman where she and I shared our love of the Old Ones and their stories through our art.