A Lesson in Networking

“I feel like I am stepping on to the Titanic,” said Carlos. “It’s so nice!” But rather than feeling like a fish out of water, as most first-generation college students might feel at a networking event at the Pfister Hotel, he embraced it.

Myladys Montanez, Clara Madrigal and Carlos Rodriguez are all part of the Abriendo Puertas (Opening Doors) program for Latino students in college. I met them during a Conexiones networking event for Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee (HPGM). This new program is a collaboration between HPGM and the United Community Center that helps students complete their degrees, learn how to become competitive job candidates, and embark upon successful careers.

Funded through a grant from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation, Abriendo Puertas works with 155 college students from 14 different universities in Wisconsin offering resources, workshops, and networking events with professionals so students can begin building their professional networks. “I am very proud of them,” said Arely Flores, program coordinator. “I love hearing from people that they are polite and approachable.”

Arely Flores and HPGM member Rafael Acevedo
Arely Flores and HPGM member Rafael Acevedo

Myladys, Carlos and Clara were by far the youngest people in the room, but pleasantly unfazed by it. They were soft spoken, but confident. Poised and polished for their age, but with a tinge of shyness that dissipated the more time I spent with them and the more verbal reinforcements they had from each other.

I asked them all where they went to school and what they study. They sung back in chorus without skipping a beat, as if they’ve been asked this question a million times before:

Myladys: “I go to MATC and I study business management.”

Clara: “I go to UWM and I want to be a nutritionist.”

Carlos: “I go to UWM too and I study global studies management.”

Okay, clearly this wasn’t their first rodeo, so I continued to sling questions.

What do you like about these events?

Myladys: “It’s great networking – you get to learn from a lot of different professionals and find out what they majored in and you can understand how to get to where you want to be.”

Carlos: “I am really shy so at first it was hard, but after I started coming to these sessions, I learned how to talk to other people. Being in this environment helps you to develop these skills.”

Clara: “It opened my eyes to other career possibilities.”

So how did you find out about this program?

Carlos: “Well because I am the president of the Latino Student Union at UWM,  Arely approached me and asked if he wanted to get involved.”

Clara: “I just heard about it from a friend”

Does it help that these are all Latinos here?

Myladys: “It doesn’t really matter, I believe that there are the same opportunities out there for everyone.”

Carlos: “No, I mean I just remember, don’t be scared, because everyone is here to help, just be you.

Myladys, Clara and Carlos.
Myladys, Clara and Carlos.

Baring it All

As an artist, putting your work out there can be as scary as standing on stage naked in front of a crowded auditorium. After all, as a writer, most of my work is done in private and a great deal of it formulates quietly in my own head. Luckily, there are groups in Milwaukee like the  Milwaukee Artist Resource Network (MARN) who recognize that creativity can sometimes be an isolating activity.

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I met MARN’s Operations Director Maggie Sasso at Gallery Night and convinced her that the Pfister could be a creative wellspring for writers involved with MARN. And just like that, the next monthly meeting of Writer’s Wednesday took place at the Pfister.

Writer’s Wednesday is group of people from Milwaukee’s literary community that “share their work and engage in critical discourse in a creatively nurturing environment.” Nurturing is the key word there. The delightful artist and storyteller Anja Notanja Seiger leads the group and provides thoughtful and constructive feedback, while making sure that all feel at ease and supported when sharing work.

Frog-throated and shaky-kneed, I shared an unpublished story, along with some of my favorite excerpts from Pfister stories. After each compliment, I countered with a “Yes, but do you think I need more of this…or that?”  To my relief, the other creative professionals in the room assured me I was being too critical of myself. And this is where the creative process really begins, with discourse and editing. This is what writers like me crave to be their best.

There were writers of all kind – poets, jingle writers, fiction writers and storytellers. Of the dozen partipants, more than half shared some form work, even if it was nothing but a work in progress or a recounting of dreams.

Anja was the last to share. She recited a love letter written to the Milwaukee arts groups, as part of MARN’s new campaign, I Heart Art.  Her coffee colored curls peeked out under her mustard wool cloche hat. Though minute in stature, she commanded our attention with her confident, erect posture like a solider , flowery language and clever puns, carefully woven into a story about young bride. She couldn’t help but give in to the chorus of giggles as people slowly grasped her jokes and allusions peppered throughout the letter. After a round of hearty applause, many of us were likely left thinking the same thing, “Yeah, why couldn’t I think of that!?” That’s the beauty of creativity – it’s a totally unique to each creator.


Donations and submissions are still being collected at MARN’s website for the I Heart Art campaign. If you do heart the arts in Milwaukee, be sure to show it! Sometimes a little push and reassurance is all you need.




#MKE Foodies Take Over Mason St. Grill

In case you need any more proof that digital media is changing the way we do everything, here is a story of a food group that started on Twitter. Digital followers turned real-life friends, #MKE Foodies now meets offline once a month at a restaurant in Milwaukee to dine, enjoy and discuss food. And that pound sign, that’s called a hashtag in Twitter speak, allowing people to search and follow the same topics.

They call themselves “Food lovers making a difference in Milwaukee.” Food bloggers Lori and Paul Fredrich lead the group that also raises money for local charities. It started in 2010 with 25 food bloggers and has now grown to 50-75 people per event – foodies, not just bloggers.

“This is the second time we have been to Mason St. Grill. It was so popular, registration was full after one day,” said Paul. Events are free  and open to the public, but they do require registration and collect a suggested $5 donation at each event for a selected nonprofit. Usually it’s a food-related nonprofit, but Wednesday night the cause was Optimist Theatre, who presents Shakespeare in the Park.

Lori and Paul Fredrich

There was an electric buzz in the room. Succulent seared meet, juicy red wines, warm glowing lights  – these are the sights and smells of Mason St. Grille on a winter night. The jazz music was purring like a happy cat.

Restaurants are able to craft their own specials, depending on what they want to showcase to the group. Mason St. Grill was offering free wine and draught pours, and free appetizers for #MKE Foodie members.

“We like to chose locally owned restaurants and if they use locally sourced food, that’s a plus,” Paul explains. “We typically chose American fare, though next month we are trying sushi and we hope that goes over well.” Find Paul and Lori’s recipes and musings, along with more information about #MKE Foodies at their award-winning Burp! blog.


Pfister Files: 120 Years

Over the next few months, I will be dusting off pages from the Pfister’s history books and sharing bits of the Pfister’s prolific history. This is the second post in this series.

A lot can happen in 20 years. Nipping at the heels of the 120th anniversary of the Pfister Hotel, I thought now might be an interesting time to find out what things were like around here at the 100th anniversary.

I found a six-page newspaper supplement from 1993 commemorating the centennial celebration of the Pfister Hotel, which gave me a good sense of sentiment for this momentous occasion. Jean Towell from the Milwaukee Journal said it best: “Entering the lobby of The Pfister Hotel is like stepping into another era – one that’s more gracious and civilized than the one you left. Courteous service prevails and you feel a sense of gentility that’s some how lost in the choas of everyday life outside.” Twenty years later it’s still true, but the best part is that The Pfister has that same elegance and you wear jeans and even bring your dog.

In 1993, Rosemary Steinfest was the General Manager (the only female GM in history), The English Room was the place to be for fine dining and they just wrapped up a five-year renovation to restore The Pfister’s 19th century splendor. The lobby’s original fireplace was uncovered, guest rooms in the tower were constructed, and presidential suites and 7th floor conference and banquet center were added. The Cafe at the Pfister was the final addition, along with bringing the whole building up to speed with 21st century amenities.

Recognize this guy? Yes, the lovable, loquacious concierge Peter Mortensen (and his mustache) was a fixture in lobby even twenty years ago.

Peter Mortensen, concierge and hotel historian,  in 1993. Photo by Dean E. Johnson, courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal.
Peter Mortensen Concierge and hotel historian, in 1993. Photo by Dean E. Johnson, courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal.
Peter in 2012.
Peter in 2012.












The Rooms have also changed quite a bit. Gone is the era of pastels and florals, replaced by the warm, earth tones and modern design.


Guest room at the Pfister Hotel, circa 1990








Twenty years passed and though the styles may change, the same century-old traditions prevail. Congratulations to all who have taken part in preserving this great legacy for Milwaukee.

Getting at the Heart of It

It can strike at any time, take a victim of any age, and is the number one killer of women. Heart disease is a cause that clearly deserves everyone’s attention.

Last week was the 35th annual Heart Ball and a majority of the time it’s been at the Pfister Hotel. With over 350 guests in attendance, the American Heart Association raised  $145,885 in support of the event. This will go towards the more than $14 Million invested in 137 different projects in Wisconsin over the past 5 years.

Jay Matz, Communications Director, introduced me to 13-year-old Amber Jahr, the featured speaker of the evening. She collapsed in gym class three years ago of a heart attack – that’s right, a heart attack at age 10.

Amber had the flu, which went to her heart, causing it to inflame, setting off the attack. They used CPR and an AED (Automatic External Difibulator) at the school to revive her. She now has an ICD defibrillator implanted in her heart in case it ever happens again.

“I don’t really remember all of it, but I know my friends and family were really scared,” Amber recalls. “Once in a while I get teary eyed about it, but I am used to talking about it now.”

She was calm and poised, like an innocent victim telling her story to the jury. She’s obviously told her story more than once before and from that has gained a wisdom and maturity well beyond her age.

Amber had to take it easy for a while, but is a fully active “normal” 13-year-old teen. She lives with her family in Omro, near Oshkosh, and came into town for the evening to stay at the Pfister Hotel. Amber’s parents and sister were at the event to support here and help spread the word that no one is immune to matters of the heart.

The Jahr Family. Amber is third from the left.
The Jahr Family. Amber is third from the left.


Love is in the Air

Although it’s still one week from Valentine’s Day, there is love in air at the Pfister Hotel tonight. Romantic love, Milwaukee love, Latin music love.

“Guajira,” scrape, boom, swoosh, “Guajira,” scrape, boom, swoosh…It’s the type of sound that crawls under your skin and tickles until you dance. Two people are wildly gyrating in front of the window at Blu about four counts faster than the music. It looks like an African tribal dance of sorts.  They are the only people dancing in the room, but they couldn’t care less. It’s hard not to notice her, wearing a red shirt and her braid whipping slices through the heavy conversation in the air. He’s wearing a sweater vest and thick-rimmed glasses. His movements are stiff and jerky, but his chin stays up as he concentrates on repeating the same footsteps.

A woman courteously invites me to share her corner of the room as we remain innocent bystanders to their unabashed spectacle and soak in the energy radiating from the room. We agree that it’s a crime if you’re a local and you don’t know about this great place. We both also agree that De la Buena is a fantastic band, even paired down to a quartet. She introduced herself as Bonnie Schafer. Her husband John returned to their table and they nibbled on a brightly-colored assortment of cheese cubes as we continued to gush about all the different things we love about Milwaukee – live music, Blu and views of the lake top the list. As more and more guests trickle in from the Heart Ball (more on that later this week) I decided to relinquish my coveted spot near the band and head downstairs.

At the lobby bar, I found Ted and Victoria unwinding in the company of two Kettle One martinis, straight up. A single olive floated in their glasses like a buoy.

They excitedly greeted Ellie, the cocktail waitress, a familiar face. “How long have you been working here?” asked Victoria. “32 years,” proudly replied Ellie. “That’s about as long as I’ve been coming here,” admitted Ted.

Cecil Negro Jr. of De la Buena
Cecil Negro Jr. of De la Buena

Ted went to Marquette University from 1964-1969. He visited the Pfister Hotel for the first time when his parents were dropping him off at school and it quickly became a family favorite. “They continued to stay here every time they came to Milwaukee to visit me,” he said. Now living in Chicago, Ted and his wife Victoria make it a Valentine’s Day tradition to stay at Pfister Hotel. “I know it’s a little early, but we wanted to come in for the Marquette basketball game today,” says Victoria. “We like to make it back a few times a year for the summer festivals or to cheer on Marquette.”

I urged them to head upstairs and hear De La Buena. Victoria’s ears perked up like a bunny when I said Latin music. “Will there be dancing? she asked “I do ballroom and Salsa dance.”

“You will not be the only ones dancing,” I promised. “And if you know ballroom, you’re two steps ahead of the rest.”


Pints, Pointes and Pfister Narrator

There are certain perks to being the Pfister Narrator and having the opportunity to interview Milwaukee Ballet Company dancers is one of them. Last week, I attended a rehearsal at the Milwaukee Ballet to learn about the upcoming Genesis performance and international choreography competition. This competition only comes around every other year and brings some of the best talent from around the world right here to Milwaukee.

Because the Third Coast Digest shares the same commitment to the arts in Milwaukee as the Pfister Hotel, we partnered up to bring you a preview of the three dances that will premiere at Genesis on February 7-10. The winning choreographer will return to create a second dance for the Milwaukee Ballet’s 2014 series at the Pabst. Because of my affiliation with RadioMilwaukee, I will also be DJing the Pints before Points party this Thursday at 6 p.m. at the InterContinental (the modern step-sister to the Pfister) before the opening night of Genesis. See what the dancers have to say in the video below and hope to see you there!

The Crystal Narrator

Do you ever wonder if walls could really talk? Or if paintings, sculptures and chandeliers could too? These are the questions I ponder, as the Pfister Hotel’s narrator charged with excavating the memories and experiences of guests past and present that are steeping in every wall, carpet and object in this place. I want to write about them and Stephanie Barenz wants to paint them.

Already elbow-deep in pictures, paints and pencils, I sat down to chat with Stephanie in Timothy Westbrook’s studio as she was creating a painting of the Pfister Hotel’s lobby chandelier. I inquire why, of all the gorgeous relics, she chose the chandelier in the lobby. “It was a natural choice – it’s gorgeous and eye-catching, and it has the best vantage point. It’s the omniscient narrator, it sees and knows all of the happenings in the hotel.”

Stephanie Barenz
Stephanie Barenz

Stephanie is vying for the coveted title of the Pfister Artist in Residence to replace Timothy  in April. She stood out not only for her outstanding credentials, but also because of her proposal to incorporate the Pfister Narrator’s stories into her paintings.

Travel is a big part of her life and work as she explores how art changes perception of a place. She speaks of travel, not just the international type, but any path from point A to point B. She paints about place – series like Middle West, City Middle and Middle Kingdom (i.e. China) all showcase places she’s lived. You’ll see images of houses, suitcases, bicycles and cars – all objects representing travel and place.

Stephanie knows a thing or two about travel. She grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, moved to Wisconsin when she was 15, attended college in Minnesota, graduate school in Missouri, and lived stints in Italy and China.

“Culture shock hit me hard in China and it wasn’t graceful, but I grew so much and the Chinese people taught me so much about having a playful, whimsical nature that I’ve carried over to my work. They have an amazing outlook on life after going through all they did as a country.”

Stephanie admits that there were times when she took herself more seriously and then retracted: “Well I am very serious, so artwork is a way for me to get away from that.” She credits illustrators like Shel Silverstein for influencing her work.

“Matisse said something like ‘I want my art to feel like an armchair to a businessman at the end of the day,’ and that really stuck with me,” she reveals. Her muted color pallets are harmonious and quiet, subduing the flurry of activity often portrayed in her work.

Stephanie hopes to create a series of 20 to 30 paintings entitled “The Carriers” inspired from Pfister hotel guests and the stories that both she and the narrator uncover. She sees the objects in the hotel as carriers of the stories “silent witnesses to it all.”

Stephanie is creating detail and embedding images of the characters I've written about in her chandelier.
Stephanie is creating detail and embedding images of the characters I’ve written about in her chandelier.

We started to gab like two giddy schoolgirls dishing about their first crush. The prospect of collaboration excites me, though Stephanie’s potential tenure and mine would only overlap by one month. We envision a two-way process where the paintings inspire the characters and the characters inspire the painting. Stephanie also hopes to create a book with her paintings, with text written by the Narrator.

Find Stephanie and her work at Plaid Tuba (207 E. Buffalo Street, 6th Floor). And, be sure to vote here for your favorite 2013 Artist in Residence (whether it’s Stephanie or one of the five other amazingly talented artists) by February 14.

For the next three months, you can still find me pondering what lies beneath these walls.

Jay and John

There are two types of people in this world: those who hate being in the spotlight and those who love it. I am usually able to tell the difference within about two minutes of telling people that I am the hotel’s staffer dedicated to writing about guests.

Jay and John
Jay and John

“Oh I have a great story and I photograph well,” bragged John. Bingo! Here we have the classic extrovert who loves the spotlight. He was hanging out at the bar before heading out to a sushi dinner, resigning to his lack of self control and killing his appetite on snack mix.

His colleague Jay arrived just in time to catch his bold statement and we all began cracking up, knowing he was kidding.

Jay and John were both laid-back Chicago guys, in town for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards Annual Convention at the Delta Center. “So are you principals?” I inquired, not taking either for the authoritative type.

“Nope, we sell bleachers to schools,” replied Jay. Something I would have never guessed. “We’ve been coming to this thing for 20 years and we always stay at the  Pfister, it’s our favorite spot in Milwaukee.”  After a long day in a convention center with people hocking textbooks and rulers to basketballs and lockers, its no wonder they like to unwind in the lobby lounge.

We talked about music, Milwaukee, suburban versus city life, and pretty much everything else except for bleachers. Both Jay and John are two pretty hip bleacher salesmen, and it turns out, they do photograph well.



Winter Fashion, Westbrook Style

Since starting his residency, Timothy Westbrook has had Milwaukee talking. At 23, he’s the youngest of the Pfister’s artists in residence, the first artist from out of state (Timothy hails from Wanakena, New York), and the first fiber artist (all other artists were painters).

On Friday, January 18th, he had jaws dropping.

He presented his final fashion event to coincide with Milwaukee’s winter Gallery Night and it was spectacular, to say the least. Timothy showed 17 looks (Yes, that’s right, in only eight months he’s woven the fabric by hand and constructed 17 looks). The models were striking in both appearance and attitude. The bold makeup and hair styles were courtesy of students from the Academy of Waukesha, a Paul Mitchell partner school. All of the looks were for sale as well – wearable art pieces ranging from $500- $23,000.

copyright Zachary Seib
copyright Zachary Seib

A squabble of photographers, like geese, stood attentively with  lenses up, ready to shoot the runway that split the Imperial ballroom in two camps of fans from every walk of life. Timothy’s clothing was constructed from re-purposed materials like vintage curtains,  plastic grocery bags, upholstery swatches, bedsheets, green Pfister umbrellas, and his signature, cassette tape film.

Because he was feeling a little homesick and didn’t want his emotions to get the best of him,  he cleverly recorded his opening remarks on one of his beloved cassette tapes. It was an incredibly telling moment, especially for those who have yet the pleasure to make his acquaintance. He’s quirky and incredibly kind. He’s professional with very clear vision and high standards, making it an honor to work alongside him at the Pfister.

I am no fashion critic, but I know what I like when it comes to aesthetics and Timothy, along with stylist Alexis Rose Criscimagna, achieved a beautiful balance of Avant-Garde and Victorian. Imagine a punk reconstruction of  Susan B. Anthony. But rather than critique his work, I want to tell you about Timothy Westbrook the person.

Brimming with character, with a penchant for fantasy, Timothy reveals that all he ever wanted to do was tell fairy tales. And through his work, he is doing just that. He loves unicorns, gesticulates wildly when he gets excited and makes everybody feel welcome, all the time. Timothy even  displays other artists’ work in his gallery.

Timothy will be in residence through March. Don’t miss out on meeting him before he becomes super famous. I for one, feel so happy that he’s woven his way into the fabric of the Milwaukee community. Timothy will reveal his legacy piece for the Pfister Hotel on March 29,  at an event open to the public. Check back for more details and become a fan of Timothy’s  Facebook page for more event coverage.


Photos courtesy of Zachery Seib Photography.