‘Staring at the Sky’: Q&A with author Douglas Rosenberg

By Kari Dickinson

In 2015, when Douglas Rosenberg became chair of UW–Madison’s Art Department, he wanted to ensure that he continued to make time to be creative and mindful, even as he took on a demanding job. So he started a weekly writing practice, giving himself a prompt and taking time every week to capture his thoughts. 


The resulting collection, including five years of weekly essays, is now compiled in a new book called, “Staring at the Sky: Essays on Art and Culture.” 

The book includes Rosenberg’s reflections on everything from works of art, to readings, to the ever-changing sky outside his rural Wisconsin home.

Rosenberg, the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in Art, is an interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, and author who works at the intersection of performance and media. His work including screendance, video, film, and performance has been exhibited internationally for over 30 years. 

Recently Rosenberg sat down with the School of Education’s communications team to share more about “Staring at the Sky.” Here is an edited transcript: 

Why did you start writing these essays? In 2015, I became the chair of the Art Department. And those jobs, as you know, are pretty time consuming. I wanted to make sure that I made myself accountable to some creative time, that I didn’t give up my creative space for the rigors of the job. So I gave myself a prompt or a task to spend some time with every week, writing an essay that captured what I’d been thinking about.

The Art Department has this newsletter that goes out on Mondays, and I would start each of those newsletters with this bit of writing. I started getting emails from people who would write me little notes. And it led me to believe that people were reading some of these things and that maybe I should be a bit more attentive. 

So I gave myself this task to do this for a year. And at the end of the year, I thought I should probably do this for another year. And I kept extending my own prompt to myself, and I did that for the five years that I was chair. 

Tell me about the essays. What are they about? The essays are literally about what was coming into my peripheral or direct vision during the week that had passed. So every Sunday I would sit down. Throughout the week, I made notes about things that I wanted to write about. And it might have been a show — a student exhibition, something that I had seen on a trip to New York — or it might have been something I was reading, something from one of my lectures in class. In each essay, there was some kernel of something that I wanted to tease out into a longer thought.

Can you speak about the value of this writing, or writing in general as a practice? So I was trained as a visual artist, and mostly we think about art in this department as a visual, objectified practice. And when I got my job here, something like 27 years ago, I didn’t know anything about a big university like this. I was lucky to be mentored by some really intelligent and really amazing people here, both in the Dance Department and in the Art Department. And all of them either were writers along with their larger research agendas, or they completely lived in a writer’s world. 

And so that led me to model what I saw them doing. They would write and go to conferences, and out of that writing they would develop courses and write chapters and books. And I thought that seemed really logical as a way to be part of a larger conversation.

Cover of "Staring at the Sky"Who is this book for? Who would you like to read it? That’s an interesting thing to think about. This book, I think, is written for people who are artists, who are interested in art, who have any kind of transcendent experience with art. And art is meant to be a very inclusive term — I don’t make a distinction between ‘high art,’ ‘low art,’ the ‘craft world’ vs. the ‘art world.’ It really is meant to be a poetic interpretation of what I happened to be thinking about in those weeks that I was writing.

All of the essays were written in this time period in which the country was going through a lot. So in 2015 when I started, Obama was still president. Then Trump won the election. And we went through the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter. We went through another election, another president, COVID, a lot of things. So every essay is written in a timeframe where something is happening. And in the essays, I connect previous historical moments with the moment when I’m writing.

Why should people read this book? I wish people would read this book. I don’t know if they should read it, but I wish they would read it because of what the book is called, “Staring at the Sky: Essays on Art and Culture.” 

I explain where the title, “Staring at the Sky,” comes from in the introduction: I moved to Wisconsin from California. When I moved here, I was struck by the skies. I found myself in the summers, when I was gardening or something, literally staring up at the sky because the sky here in Wisconsin is so unlike the sky in California.

California’s sky is blue in a way that most skies aren’t, especially if you’re anywhere near the water. And it doesn’t change much. And here, driving in today to meet you I looked up at the sky as I drove in from way out in the country, and it was extraordinary… in a totally different extraordinary way than yesterday. So staring at the sky I actually talk about a lot in the book, which has led to staring at other things, too. It’s just a way into being — of being attentive and being available to things.

So the answer to your question on why people should read this book: I would hope that people read this book to do what I’m describing, which is to set aside all of the screens around us and all of the things that take our attention away and just spend a moment reading something that hopefully will be engaging.

Do you have a favorite essay, or one you’d like to talk about? No, I have little stickies that I have put in places, but it’s really hard for me. Some people have told me what their favorite one is, but the book goes through this kind of chronological order, this timeframe from when I started in 2015 as chair to when that ended. 

My last communication as chair was to the graduating class of 2020, who missed a lot. The very last essay in the book is a letter that I wrote to that class that I read in their Zoom graduation. And that one is a pretty emotional piece of writing for me because so much happened. I just really remember those students, our graduate students particularly, how much they had to give up and had to ‘pivot’ and whatever the terms were that we used to get through that situation. 

But there’s a lot of them I love. The ones that I especially love are the ones that connect with some sort of spiritual or transcendent moment of spiritual engagement or transcendence in looking at a work of art.

Order information:

To order “Staring at the Sky: Essays on Art and Culture,” send an email to the publisher for a discounted price of $22 plus shipping. You can also order online via Biblio.

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