Colorful tall ship sails the rolling green sea of a Wisconsin prairie

She's visible from several miles out, this modern-day prairie schooner. Her red, yellow, and blue sails fill billow between the blue bowl of the October sky and the -undulating prairie.

The Prairie Schooner is the work of artist Naj Wikoff and the people of Mount Horeb. Mr. Wikoff, a native of Lake Placid, N.Y., explains why he designed the ship: ''It's the land. When I first saw the land out here I was impressed by the lack of trees, the infinitely rolling fields. When I learned that it had always been this way, that this was part of the great prairie, I could easily see how it had been described as a sea of grass. The Conestoga wagon was called the prairie schooner, and I could visualize the white canvas tops visible above the rolling sea of grass. It was such a beautiful image.

''Most of my art derives from folk art. I've always been attracted to the grace and sensitivity of 'Americana' art forms. The clipper ships, I've always felt, were a unique American art form. I wanted my ship to capture the essence of the excitement of the Tall Ships.

''Because I am a colorist I wanted to work in color to unite the sweep of green, rolling land with the blue of the sky. The sails are patterns of color so it's also color in space.''

Best of all, though, according to Wikoff, is the way the townspeople of Mount Horeb became involved in the project. ''I could not have done it without them.''

''We had what amounted to a huge quilting bee with 12 or 15 women working afternoons and evenings sewing the sails together.'' The local power company donated the eight 90-foot-high poles for the ship's masts, local manufacturing firms donated some of the hardware, and additional lumber came from the local lumber yard.

The townspeople approached Wikoff when the ship was under sail and asked if he had any material left over. He gave it to them and they made banners of streamers of red, yellow, dark, and blue to light the way for the tourists to the ship.

Wikoff again: ''It became a huge event, a celebration. All sorts of community groups got involved - the fire department, the Jaycees, just about everybody. There's a wonderful sense of participation. . . . These people have a great sensitivity to the beauty of this land, which I think they sometimes have trouble expressing. The ship has given them all a chance to express how they feel.''

Richard Losenegger, the dairy farmer in whose alfalfa field the ship stands, confirmed this. ''I thought it was a pretty piece of land. The idea sounded all right to me. There's a real commotion, though, that I never dreamed of; I never thought there'd be this kind of reaction.''

The reaction Mr. Losenegger is talking about has spread word of the Prairie Schooner far and wide. Lowell Beat, owner of the local hardware store that supplied all the nuts and bolts for the schooner's rigging, reports that at a recent convention in Atlanta, he was asked about the ship by dealers from Michigan and Illinois.

Wikoff, who studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York and the Sir John Cass Institute in London, will have an exhibition of the drawings and the model for the ship at the Lieberman Gallery in Chicago.

There has been some grumbling about the expense of such a project in these tough economic times. About a third of the $35,000 project has been paid by contributions of time and materials on the part of the townspeople. The remaining has been made in cash including a $10,000 grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board.

Hardware store owner Beat expressed the majority opinion, however, when he said that he felt the publicity was benefiting the whole community.

Wikoff says the strongest complaint he's heard is that people want to know why the ship can't be left standing. He explains that he doesn't want the sails ripped to tatters by Wisconsin's savage winters, and Losenegger needs his alfalfa field next spring.

So, the Prairie Schooner will sail serenely on into November, a part of Mount Horeb's landscape until the first winter winds dictate her dismantling.

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