Getting HAPPY at The Pfister: A Story of Loss and Recovery

Suggestion: Turn up the volume on your device, click play, and prepare to get happy!

Photographs from Guillaume Duchenne’s 1862 book Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine

One of the many privileges of being human is that we experience emotions.  While some might argue that other creatures express emotions, too, or that it’s not much of a privilege that we have to experience the painful ones, no one can argue with the fact that we are indeed “moved out of ourselves” (Latin emovere – “move out, agitate”) by a myriad of complex feelings stemming from the four basic emotions of happiness, sadness, fear/surprise, and anger/disgust.  These emotions, each registered by different combinations of our 42 facial muscles, can cause us to love, cry, scream, or punch.  Sometimes we bottle them up or keep them hidden; sometimes we let loose and express them with reckless abandon.  And in our digital world, we don’t just register emotions with our faces: think of the billions of emoticons and gifs and memes that we use now to express our feelings.  Emotions are the stuff of our lives–and the building blocks of the stories we write about ourselves.  One such storythe directorial debut of Michael Patrick McKinley–hit the screens during the recent Milwaukee Film Festival.

While the festival is over, if you missed the Milwaukee premiere of McKinley’s delightful documentary Happy, don’t fret.  Just put on a happy face and head over to The Pfister’s Pop-Up Gallery for a glimpse into the sketchbooks of the subject of the film, Leonard Zimmerman.  Curated by Steven Uhles and hosted by Artist-in-Residence Pamela M. Anderson, “Don’t Erase Your Crooked Lines” features numerous prints from Leonard’s sketchbooks, an enormous collage of 32 photographs with Happy stickers in them, and an extended trailer of the film created just for this exhibit.  

20161004_140539Uhles describes Leonard’s art, with its whimsical robots and recognizable motifs, as “art as memoir.”  Even though this exhibit can only offer visitors a miniscule, microscopic fraction of his sketches, one can find even in it Leonard’s story of love and loss, depression and recovery–a story of falling in love and creating a life with Brian Malone, then losing him to cryptococcal meningitis.  The sketches depict Leonard’s subsequent depression and how his art became therapy, how it helped him hold on to his love for and memories of Brian and recover his capacity for boundless happiness.  Additionally, as with all good memoir, one can find in the sketches echoes of one’s own life events.  

The collage of Happy stickers–created by the Coalition of Photographic Arts–speaks to the participatory nature of Zimmerman’s art: the ubiquitous stickers of his Happy campaign, with the endearing smile and flashing bulb that people all over the world have attached to parts of their cities then shared with Leonard through social media.  While the yellow smiley that appeared in 1963 stares blankly ahead, this smiley tilts its head, its eyes have life, its bulb flashes a message of happiness.  Anyone can get free stickers by sending Leonard a self-addressed stamped envelope.  

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Gallery visitors consider the Happy collage.

One of the first things we hear about Leonard in the film comes from Alex Wier of Wier/Stewart, the branding, advertising, and graphic design company where Leonard is a designer.  Alex says, “Leonard comes from a different planet.”  Yes, Leonard’s infinite number of smiles and laughs are contagious, and yes, he can bring “childlike enthusiasm” to seemingly bland ad campaigns like ones for banks.  Yes, Leonard loved Christmas so much as a child that his tinsel and light displays rivaled, surely, Clark Griswold’s, and his parents even wondered, “Where does this child get all these things?”  But I have an inkling that Leonard is not really an alien from outer space, that his story is the story of being human on this planet.  One of wonder and delight, and one where there’s room for pain and suffering.  

We embrace our pains in different ways.  Leonard seems to have embraced it in every way possible.  In the film, we hear him embrace it with raw honesty, as when he describes for the camera the spinal fluid from Brian’s first spinal tap.  He describes how he embraced it with confusion and disorientation after Brian died, as when he would walk into the grocery store only to abandon it in tears because Brian usually did the shopping–he didn’t know what to buy.  He embraced it with self-medication, too, (“I didn’t think I would hurt”) and eventually had to move back home to Augusta after he lost his job and the house that Brian and he had bought together in Savannah.  

20161004_140530“My best friend was my notebook,” Leonard says in the film.  His sketches, some of which can be seen in the Pop-Up Gallery, allowed him to express his early love, the loss of his love, and the love that remained after his loss.  What emerged were lovable robots, some distinctly Leonard and Brian, others distinctly masculine or feminine, but more often than not, his robots eschew gender or race or sexuality.  Which brings us back to memoir as art: he has interpreted his life for himself, then shared it with us so that we can interpret it and interpret ourselves into it.  As one guest at the gallery’s opening night says, “His art is refreshing.  It makes you think about your own emotions, where you go through break-ups, life, death.  This one is about holding in that bad and not wanting to release the negative energy.  And in this one he has an indifferent face–but he has a bag puppet which suggests that he still has emotions.”

When people like his sister and old art teacher got him canvas, encouraging him to take his sketches one step further, he started painting again and Leonard was born again.  His paintings became a timeline of his emotions and experiences, his process one that echoes his own life: “I always paint messy, then clean it up along the way.”  

One of the best sequences in the film, for me, is one in which we watch Leonard painting in his studio, a soft spotlight on him and his easel in the middle of the room, the background darker.  With headphones jamming–probably to Sam Smith or Telepathic Teddy Bear, both featured heavily on the film’s soundtrackand red Chuck Taylors on his feet, he swoops around his painting with gusto and giddiness, with bright, broad brushstrokes and thick black outlines.  We see his messiness and what he does to “clean it up.”  Ane we can only imagine what he’s thinking as he paints.  Probably something like the quotation from Mother Theresa that he used during a TEDX Talk in 2014: “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”

Seeing the TEDX Talk for the first time brought director Michael McKinley to tears.  He says that something stuck with him, until six months later, while he was in Las Vegas and had his “epiphany”: to make a documentary about Leonard’s story.  An audience member at the film’s showing that I attended asked Michael why directors don’t make more inspirational movies instead of ones that leave viewers feeling ambiguous about their feelings or just plain empty.  He replied, “There need to be more movies that do the opposite of movies that make you feel sad and crummy.  Now I’ve got the bug.”

20161004_140548Another audience member wanted to know when she could see the film again so she could share it with her family and friends, but Michael reminded her that releasing a film to DVD or streaming while it’s still going through the film festivals gets tricky.  It could be another year, he said, to which she replied, with an apocalyptic tone, “The world doesn’t have twelve months.”   

Well, you’re going to have to wait awhile before you can see the entire documentary, though, because Happy is indeed enjoying the film festival circuit.  It premiered at the Historic Imperial Theater in Augusta, Georgia, delighted viewers at Milwaukee’s festival, and will soon show at New York City’s Chelsea Film Festival as one of only 24 North American films selected.  It will also appear, so far, at the Savannah Film Festival later this month, and the Southern City Film Festival in Aiken, South Carolina, in November.  Its likely that Happy will make it into other festivals as well.  So you could hit the road and head east or south–or be satisfied for now with the “Don’t Erase Your Crooked Lines” teaser, which will remain popped-up in the gallery through October 23.

And in the meantime, do as Leonard does: “You can make the choice to be happy, because happiness matters.”  And visit Leonard’s website and Facebook page to follow his adventures.  And don’t forget: self-addressed stamped envelope sent to him will get you four Happy stickers all your own!

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Michael Patrick McKinley (l) and Leonard Zimmerman (r)

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HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | SEPTEMBER 2016 | Back-to-School edition | Former Artist-in-Residence Stephanie Barenz Navigates a New Old Space

While Artist-in-Residence Pamela M. Anderson was enjoying a well-deserved vacation in Colorado to see the Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibit at the Denver Art Museum last week, she left the studio in good hands: Stephanie Barenz, the Hotel’s 5th Artist-in-Residence in 2013-14.  Stephanie exhibited some of her own paintings over the weekend, just in time for Doors Open Milwaukee.  I ran into Stephanie on Friday, and she was gracious enough to offer a tour of her artistic mind, as well as some intriguing words about her own learning experiences, especially at The Pfister during her residency, but also in her travels in Milwaukee, New York City, and Hang Zhou.

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First, she reminisced:

The residency was a lot about storytelling because I was collaborating with Molly Snyder [the Narrator that year] to create a book.  So all my paintings that year–there were 30 just for the book–were bursting with activity, more colorful and illustrative than normal.  Molly would come in to talk about the painting process and she would write the story.  There was one 6′ x 8′ painting of a cart pulled by a motorcycle that was filled with my experiences–that was my self-portrait.  Our book is called “The Carriers.”  You can actually read it on my website.  All in all, it was a magical year.

As we talked, I could look out the studio doors to see her fancifully eclectic painting featured in the hallway, a tall tribute to the porters’ luggage carts, “bursting with activity,” as Stephanie would say, and memories of her experiences at the Hotel.  Her painting-in-progress (see above) is indeed an obviously different vision, as is much of her personal work, many of which are palimpsests of pencil, pen, and paint, with layers peeking at us as through a mist or glass or haze of memory.  I noticed how silhouetted figures–both dark and light–were often superimposed upon each other or how bodies allowed us glimpses of architecture that mysteriously shone through them (or was it that the bodies were reflecting the architecture as if they were made of mirrors?).

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Stephanie’s time at The Pfister was also magical because it revealed a whole new world to her: the world of a professional artist.

It was also such an education for me because it was where I learned how to become a professional artist. When I was in school, the focus wasn’t on business, although there’s probably more of a focus now.  So when I got out, I didn’t know how to approach patrons, for instance, or how to exhibit my work, or talk to visitors.

I taught in Hang Zhou, China, for a year (that’s where I met my husband).  I had to get used to a very collective mindset and used to interacting in public spaces much more than I was used to.  Here, I get in my car and go to my little studio, but there the question was always “How are my actions affecting everyone else?”  My students would go to school, then go home to take care of their family.  Some would even be in love with someone from another province, but wouldn’t pursue it because–they valued taking care of their family more.  We don’t do that as much here.  But they ask “How are we operating together?”  From this experience I realized how important it is to have friendships, to have people to be accountable to.  I mean, as an artist–and I’m sure you understand this, too–you can be alone a lot.  I started the Pfister residency right when I got back from China, so that was perfect timing.  I had to learn how to be public with my process. People would ask lots of questions about my art–they had so many questions, and so many personal stories. The residency at The Pfister was really an “education by fire.” I mean, I probably failed a lot, but I also learned a lot.

As individuals, organizations, and publications like Doors Open Milwaukee, Dear MKE, Urban Spelunking, Humans of Milwaukee, Urban Milwaukee, and the upcoming ZIP MKE all continue the difficult task of bridging the gaps between neighborhoods and zip codes, between different sides of the river or freeway, Stephanie’s artistic philosophy could never be more timely (well, in fact, it’s timeless):

My art is about navigating new places.  When you go to a new place, it affects your perception of home.  I learned from visiting other cities and countries that everyday moments are important, so my art is about making the ordinary extraordinary, about elevating the commonplace.

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As you navigate a place, you’re bringing the past, present, and future with you.  You’re bringing all your memories, you’re very present in the moment, and you’re also using your imagination to go into the unknown.  I like to think of it as the layering of time.  Even if you’re in a familiar space, it’s good to become unfamiliar with it, to try to engage with your surroundings in a new way.  It reminds me of the Situationists, who declared that they would no longer navigate their city according to the prescribed grids.  So they would take a map of Paris and make these games: they’d put a coffee cup down on a map and walk the perimeter that the cup made; sometimes they’d make shadow puppets on a map and investigate the shaded area; they’d take color walks and sensory walks, too, being aware of these things as they walked.

I am inspired now to try out a coffee cup or shadow puppet walk on one of these beautiful days as we transition from summer to fall.  Who wants to join me?  I want to see more of my city. I want to see the extraordinary in every ordinary corridor or alley, through every window pane or fence.  And I want to meditate, with a new perspective, on the past, present, and future that I bring to each new (and old) space I am in.

I’m looking forward to the completion of the renovation of the Lobby Lounge so I can bring this new-found thinking to my experiences in the old/new space–and continue to share with you, my readers, the past, present, and future of the Humans of The Pfister.

Gallery Night: Interpreting the Textures in Our Lives

It is what it is.  Perception.

It is what it is not.  Metaphor.

My mother used to like to recount how one day in preschool, a classmate approached me and asked me, “What are you?”  Yes, “what” not “who.”  As my mother and teacher eavesdropped, I’m told that I (and this is all my mother, I’m sure) tilted my head in contemplation like some kind of mystic saint (okay, now I’m making stuff up), looked him in the eye, and exclaimed, “I’m Dominic.  Just Dominic!”  I love this story.

I was acutely aware of my identity from a young age.  I just was.  Nothing more complex than that.  I didn’t need another name, another label.  Thanks for asking.

As I grew older, I used to spend my weekend afternoons playing in the yard.  I wasn’t throwing a football to myself in touchdown simulations or practicing backflips so I could impress my friends.  Instead, I was often crouched with my Matchbox cars at the foot of the dogwood tree or in the earthquake-proof huddle of massive bamboo.  From this perspective, my cars were life-sized, the holes in the trunk caves for them to hide, the rough bark slats dangerous roads for them to traverse, the water trickling from the hose a potential cause for a spin-out.  If a one-inch black beetle or four-inch slug–both are common in Seattle–happened to scuttle or slime its way into the path of one of my cars, then a battle was sure to ensue. (Note: No beetles or slugs were harmed in the writing of this blog.)  Sometimes, in the shadow of the bamboo, I would examine the nodes that punctuated the hard stem wall–and, I kid you not, I distinctly remember one day musing to myself something like, “Those are like the positive or negative events in our life that really stand out, that mark important things and make us who we are.”  I’m pretty sure I wrote that down in one of my short-lived diaries.

I was still “just Dominic,” but, as I look back on myself, I began to develop a sense that there was meaning outside myself, outside what things “were.”  No one taught me this directly.  It felt more innate, something that revealed itself over time.  Books could have contributed (Scott O’Dell, C.S. Lewis, the Serendipity series, Old Testament woodcut coloring books).  Religion might have contributed (transubstantiation, forgiveness of sins, stained glass windows, incense smoke signals to God).  But neither books nor religion told me to focus my perspective and imagination and make tiny things large, or told me that bamboo stalks contain poetry.  No one taught me how to interpret (in Latin, “to translate”).  Meaning-making kind of just happens, I think.  

On July 22nd’s Gallery Night, then, when I dug myself (metaphor) out of my lethargy after a week of some sort of horrific stomach bug (metaphor) contracted in Canada and dragged myself (metaphor) to The Pfister again so that I could enjoy the two new Pop-Up (metaphor) Gallery exhibits and Artist-in-Residence Pamela M. Anderson’s painting to the music of Nineteen Thirteen–it wasn’t surprising to me that my interpretive antennae went into overdrive.

. . . . .

TRANSFORMATION: AN EXHIBITION

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An initial browse through the Coalition of Photographic Arts (CoPA) presentation of Transformation: An Exhibition revealed to me a stunning array of interpretations.  I went in with no preconceptions or knowledge about the exhibit other than the expectation that I would experience photographic expressions of “transformation,” which CoPA defines on their site as “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance; a metamorphosis, renewal, a revolution.”  I wasn’t aware before Gallery Night that the exhibit also had a civic component–

“Our city is working hard to reinvent itself, and as individual photographers we endeavor to move outside our comfort zones–to transform the way we interpret subjects.”

–nor was I aware of the process by which photographs were created, juried, and displayed.

It was curious to me, then, why all the placards mentioned the surfaces or substrates on which the photographs were printed: “the toothiness of the paper” (nice metaphor!), “the canvas substrate,” “the rich, elegant surface,” “the high-tech, rigid, durable feel of the material.”  Even more curious, coming from an educational background, were the descriptions of each work that struck me as quite similar to assignment or learning objectives: “This assignment will ___.”  “The student will ___.”  Each followed a similar template:

“The paper will enhance the graininess of the photo.”  

“The high-tech, rigid durable feel of the material will match the industrial subject of the photo.”  

“The cold look and feel of metallic relates to the cold feel of the image.”  

“There is a soft, dreamlike sense to the image that fits with the sophisticated look and feel of the paper.”

I learned that photographers submitted their work to CoPA, and selections were juried by the Haggerty Museum of Art, who determined how Prime Digital Media (PDM) should print each work.  Pam Ferderbar, CoPA president, explained it this way in The Shepherd Express:

“The transformation occurs when you take a digital image and apply it to a surface that has the ability to not only provide a tactile experience, but that literally conveys the emotion of the subject.”

I studied Melody Carranza’s 3 Kings, Ruth Yasko’s ethereal Mannequins, and Dennis Darmek’s watercolor-like Swimmer.  I wondered how 3 Kings would change if it were applied to something other than Sunset Metallic Photo Paper, whether some of the dreaminess of Mannequins would be lost on something other than Luster Premium Photo Paper, or if the liquid sunlight in one my favorites, Swimmer, could be achieved only on Big Jet Universal Photo Gloss Paper.  I have every confidence that the Haggerty jurors chose wisely, because these three photographs and the dozen others are revealed in dramatic and moving ways by their surfaces.

I started thinking about how our daily lives are affected by the “surfaces” and “textures” in them: the ones we apply ourselves, the ones that others bring, the ones that pre-exist as part of our daily landscape.  

If your day is textured from the outset by insomnia and an annoyingly blaring alarm, then God help the poor co-workers who will experience your rough demeanor the rest of the day.  If your day, however, is textured with sunrise yoga and perfectly brewed coffee, then those same co-workers might be smiled upon by your yogic brightness.  It matters, doesn’t it, whether others intentionally or unintentionally texture your day with nettling emails or mean gossip rather than meaningful conversation and positive reinforcement.  It matters whether the sky is sunny or rainy, whether the news is uplifting or depressing, whether the pavement is rough or smooth.  Most of all, I think, everything depends on what surface or substrate we choose to apply ourselves to each day–no matter what the world has determined for us.  

YOSEMITE & THE TETONS

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I made my way to the back of the gallery, where a companion exhibit, Yosemite and the Tetons, features the photography of CoPA founding member Tom Ferderbar.  A celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, these photographs capture the majesty of two of our national treasures, both on a small scale (as in the rock at Mirror Lake or a black barn in a field at the base of the Tetons) and a large scale (as in Bridalveil Fall or Tetons #5).  I got a chance to talk to Mr. Ferderbar, who studied under Ansel Adams in his Yosemite National Park workshop.  He began by describing the difference between amateur photographs (like the ones I took on my recent visit to Yosemite) and professional ones:

I’ve been to so many other national parks, but the photos I took there were just snapshots.  To shoot a particular mountain or scene, you have to think about the purpose of shooting it and go without your family, camera out the window.  You have to go by yourself or with an assistant.  

Getting more specific, Ferderbar pointed out two of the photographs hanging in the exhibit, Teton Moonset #1 (July 2012) and Teton Moonset Black and White (July 2012):  

Thanks to the Internet, I could find out exactly when the moon would still be up even after the sun had already risen.  By the time I took the photo, unfortunately, smoke had moved in from a forest fire.  I had taken into account the topographic quadrangles, gotten to my spot an hour before, watched the moon moving down, sometimes having to move 100 yards or so to get the right angle.  By the time I took the photo, unfortunately, smoke had moved in from a forest fire–you can see the glow in the clouds.  The sun wasn’t right. 

He rendered the photo in color and black and white, saying he prefers the black and white because it obscures the glow from the clouds that he hadn’t been going for, but also because it creates a wholly new texture and mood.  The white of the snow pops out differently, the moon creates a sense of mystery as it punctuates an otherwise dark landscape.  As Ferderbar described this process, which I hope I’m rendering correctly, I couldn’t help but think about how he was describing the effect that atmospheric textures–and the time of day and I imagine even the temperature, as well as the forest fire, whether natural or man-made–had on this piece.

When I asked him what his favorite non-planned photographs were, he pulled up his website on his phone to show me a few from his Miscellaneous collection.

  • He likes the striking colors and textures in Record Shop, San Francisco CA (1968), the criss-cross of red and green framing the windows, the rusted cream fire hydrant in the foreground, the confetti-like litter.
  • A photo of his uncle is titled Soldier on WWII Furlough and it seems like a pretty straightforward portrait, but he appreciates the peculiar heft and angle of the cropped car on the left, his almost silhouetted uncle, standing stiffly with his right foot resting on the door ledge, a dog, left foot in motion, trotting toward him in the snow, with a weathered barn in the background against a white winter sky.  
  • He took Dusk, Melcher Hotel, Milwaukee WI (1958) with a 35mm wide angle lens.  Because the photo is way underexposed and the picture so tiny, it looks like blue film grain.  It appears almost pointillistic to me.  Ferderbar likes that there is a human component to the otherwise static photo: two guys sitting on the brightly lit steps to the hotel, which is where the Performing Arts Center is now.
  • Finally, when he showed me Plane and Birds, Milwaukeee WI Airport (1975), I told him how much it reminded me of the photo stills that make up the 1962 French classic La Jetée and he mused about how he knew the guy that was in charge of Midwest Airlines at the time and he let him sit at the end of the runway in order to get his shot of a plane landing, a flock of birds peppering the sky in front of it just as he took it.

Just like the photos in Transformation are transformed by the surfaces and textures to which they’ve been applied, Ferderbar’s photos express to me a similar metaphor: Sometimes we can plan for hours, days, even months for the perfect shot or experience, and sometimes we are pleased with the product, sometimes surprised by the unexpected outcomes.  Sometimes, too, that shot-on-the-fly or that spontaneous experience can reveal shapes and patterns and textures that we could have never planned.

I like that Ferderbar shared both kinds of photographs with me.  

PAMELA M. ANDERSON, FEATURING NINETEEN THIRTEEN

20160722_214305 (1) 20160722_214130 13833257_10154377389268909_1434921930_o 13838424_10154377394648909_1275315469_o 13838408_10154377395853909_141666941_o 13838591_10154377397958909_576671351_o13844050_10154377396213909_955475495_oI rounded off my evening in the Rouge Ballroom by experiencing a unique texture experiment that synthesized the experimental music of Nineteen Thirteen and the abstract painting of Pfister Artist-in-Residence Pamela M. Anderson.

I could try to do justice to Nineteen Thirteen musical stylings, but feel I should simply quote from their website’s homepage:

A cello crafted in Romania in the year 1913 is processed through today’s technology and framed by the percussion of Violent Femmes founding member Victor DeLorenzo.  

Cellist and composer Janet Schiff creates multi-layered, electrically amplified cello loops to the solid pulse of stereo drum rhythms. They interact in a sassy and superb fashion.

The cello is from 1913 and the music is from today.

Sassy and superb indeed.  At one point DeLorenzo drove–yes, like a car–his Zildjian cymbal, eventually using his snares to accompany Schiff in a plucking, strolling ostinato rhythm.  She began layering on top of that a Spanish dance melody which I soon realized was Maurice Ravel’s Bolero.

In another sassy move, DeLorenzo tipped over one drum, then his cymbals, then the other drum, lifted each and dropped them, stamped his feet on the stage to rattle them, tapped the side of the drum, and used untraditional parts of each instrument as Schiff worked in tandem with the languorous bowing of her cello.

When it came time for Anderson to paint, Schiff’s plucking reminded me of the Japanese koto Sakura, her bowing more classical, and DeLorenzo would lightly tap the drums for awhile, then his snares would sweep the drum head in long circles, then rattle the sides with expressive bursts.  The audience witnessed–perhaps for the first and only time–Anderson’s entire creative process, one shaped and textured by the music that Nineteen Thirteen was inviting her to interpret on paper.  In fact, Anderson used as one of her painting tools some of DeLorenzo’s snares.

Anderson was most influenced, she says, by “Victor’s drama and wanting to end the painting with a flourish.”  Her flourish?  The sudden and surprising addition of periwinkle blue.

This was a perfect example of how texture–this time, musical texture–could influence how a person created her world.  If Schiff’s cello or DeLorenzo’s drums had performed any differently, would periwinkle have appeared?  Where would the red have emerged–and how?  The black diagonal?  

. . . . .

It is what it is.  

It is what it is not.

I’ll always live in the first.  But I’ll always prefer the latter, because interpretation has allowed me from a young age to see my world differently and wonderfully.  It has allowed CoPA to transform photographer’s visions by layering them on one substrate versus another.  It has allowed Tom Ferderbar to capture mystery where there might not have been or beauty in what would normally be ignored or passed by.  And it has allowed Nineteen Thirteen and Pamela M. Anderson to create newness with every bow, pluck, snare, or stroke.

COMING SOON! A SPECIAL RETIREMENT TONIGHT, PLUS THE TEXTURES OF GALLERY NIGHT . . .

STAY TUNED!

Rocman “Roc” Whitesell retires from The Pfister Hotel tonight at 10:00 pm after 18 years of service as Concierge.  I got a chance to talk to him a few hours before he hung up his uniform.  Roc affirmed in my a belief in and celebration of ignorance–there is so much that we don’t know about so much . . . and that’s pretty cool.  I’ll be inviting Hotel associates and blog readers to share their favorite stories about Roc!

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Gallery Night last Friday in the Pop-Up Gallery and the Rouge Ballroom taught me about textures:

How atmospheric textures can affect a photograph of the Grand Tetons, or how printing in black and white versus color can lead to striking differences–thanks to insight offered by Coalition of Photographic Arts (CoPA) founding member Tom Federbar during the opening of his exhibit Yosemite & the Tetons.

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How printing a photograph on a different surface, such as Sunset Metallic Photo Paper or Brushed Aluminum or Breathing Color Elegant Velvet Fine Art Paper (all Prime Digital Media products), can change the way a photograph appears and is perceived.

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And how the musical textures of an electronically-amplified cello and the dramatic swish of snare drum brushes can affect what an artist such as Pamela M. Anderson, our Artist-in-Residence, sees and feels–and how that can translate to a blank canvas.

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All in all, to bridge the gap between the evening’s art and my life, I was reminded to attend to the “textures” in my own life–those I’ve been given, those others create for me, and those I create myself–and how they transform how I present myself to the world, how I am perceived, how I affect and effect.

Stay tuned for my full reflection on these stories!

 

 

Synergy: Performance, Art, & Service (Parts I & II)

Synergy.  I know it when I see it, or hear it, or feel it.  But when it does, sometimes it takes me a few days to make sense of it.  That’s why I’m only just publishing this synergy between three positive events that I attended last Wednesday and Thursday.  There are great things happening in Milwaukee!

PART I.

On Wednesday, my friend Christine and I attended a packed Pabst house for a special live presentation of Precious Lives, presented by WUWM 89.7, Milwaukee Public Radio, and 371 Productions.  Precious Lives is a two-year, 100-part radio and podcast series that explores the effects of gun violence in the lives of young people in Milwaukee.  Produced by Brad Lichtenstein, directed by Michelle Lopez-Rios, with music composed by Kiran Vee, the live show featured personal narratives from thirteen “actors,” including young people and community leaders.  Stories of ordinary lives disrupted by gun violence, stories of extraordinary people working for change.  All an invitation, a calling, to do our part.  

Precious Lives cast and crew.

By the end of the show, the entire crowd–representing every demographic in Milwaukee–was on its feet, clapping and rapping for change, committing itself to making a collective difference.  I could repeat the stories here about what it’s like losing a loved one, about what it’s like remembering the last words that someone ever uttered to you, about the girl who wants to be a global “teddy bear” and just love everyone.  But the Precious Lives website is so thoroughly and thoughtfully produced, I’d only be reiterating what’s already been said and heard.  So please visit it at PreciousLivesProject.org (follow the link above) and find out how you can be the change you want to see in the world.*

Needless to say, I left with a renewed intention to determine my part.  

* Also, follow Precious Lives on Twitter @_preciouslives_, #preciouslives, #findingamerica; on Facebook @ preciouslivesradioproject; and on Instagram @ preciouslivesproject.

PART II.

After the show, we headed to The Pfister’s Pop-Up Gallery to take in the Origin8 exhibit of abstract art from eight local artists, including our very own Artist-in-Residence and exhibit curator Pamela M. Anderson.   Truthfully, it was a shock stepping out of the elevated Pabst rap and into the white walls of The Pfister gallery with soft music in the background.  How could I reconcile what I had just heard–the lives of people damaged by gun violence–with the calming essence of these paintings, sculptures, and quilts?  I sought, eagerly and intentionally, for some connection between the artistic expression of grief and hope and the artistic representations in the gallery.

(l-r) Heidi Parkes, Rita Maria, Nina Ghanbarzadeh, Ann Baer, Pamela M. Anderson, Nirmal Raja, Leah Schreiber Johnson, Melissa Dorn Richards. Photo credit: Sara Risley

So I studied Pamela’s huge urban and natural landscapes, Nirmal Raja’s painted saris, Heidi Parkes’ quilts, Nina Ghanbarzadeh’s intricate, mesmerizingly lacy lines, Ann Baer’s primary colored salad forks and massage rollers, Rita Maria’s spiritual crows, Leah Schreiber Johnson’s ominous but hopeful monotypes, and Melissa Dorn Richards’ brilliant, outlined gestures of color pointing toward the sky.  I looked for symbolic connections between the Precious Lives voices and the paint and pen and shapes and threads.  Here’s what I found, then created from their fragments of their art and words:

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 1.29.31 PM

The words on this little collage are like lessons of peace and connection for Milwaukee:

Anderson claims the natural and urban world as her “sanctuary” and “vessel,” created from “intimate encounters with [her] daily life.”  Marie intuits crows as “messengers” that help her “awaken to [her] authentic self,” “stay in touch with [her] true self,” and recognize her “soul’s purpose.”  Lesson: Be open and close to your world.  Appreciate the sacred nature of everything around you.  Let your world connect you with yourself and others.  The purpose of life is to live a life of purpose.

Baer brings new life to discarded daily objects, creating whimsical towers and multi-dimensional wall sculptures–she calls them “totems”–that remind me of colorful horseshoe crabs or shiny insect exoskeletons.  Richards looks for the “humanness of non-human objects, always looking for that awkward gesture or irregular line,” then produces paintings with heavy outlines and vivid colors to celebrate that humanness.  Lesson: Recognize the beauty and humanity of those who are “discarded,” “awkward,” or “irregular.”  Then do something about it: claim, reclaim, create, construct, celebrate them.  And do it all with color.

Raja meditates upon the “possibilities and choices that lead a person to the present moment . . . the ripple effect of our actions,” describing her palimpsestic prints as a process of “accretion,” or a gradual build-up of layers.  Ghanbarzadeh also layers, but with hundreds of circular traces or cross-hatches to hypnotic effect, and in other work not displayed at the gallery attempts in her artwork “to find a more universal language” by “deconstruct[ing] written language into curves, lines, and dots.”  Lesson: Don’t forget your past and what got you to the present.  As you move into your future, build upon the layers you’ve already created.  Cover the layers you don’t want people to see; they won’t disappear, they’re under there, but you can build yourself up the way you want to be seen.

Parkes “continues a family tradition” of quilting passed down from her maternal grandmother, integrating into one quilt various views from the ground looking up and from the sky looking down.  And while Parkes builds and connects, Johnson produces monotypes of “crumbled landscapes” that represent the “destructive construction of cultural transformation” in places like Wuhan, China, which inspired some of her work in the gallery.  Lesson: Don’t ignore the “crumbled landscapes” in your life and in the lives of others.  And when you recognize them, stitch them back together again, preferably in a new pattern, a new design, a new form.  See things from different perspectives: look up if you normally look down, look down if you’re always looking up.

At least that’s what I saw when I visited the Origin8 exhibit, which runs through July 18th.  I left the gallery, just like I had left the Precious Lives performance, with a renewed sense of hope, which would be strengthened the following day at the Jewish Family Services Luncheon of Champions in the Hotel’s Grand Ballroom.

Read PART III, about the Jewish values of tzedaka (צדקה “charity”), chesed (חֶ֫סֶד “loving kindness”), and tikkun olam (תיקון עולם “repairing the world”), in my next post!

 

An Introduction: Prequel No. 2

Here is the second of my two “prequels” to my first official post as Pfister Narrator, in which I will formally introduce myself and give thanks to those who have come before me.  This prequel is also adapted from a sample blog post I submitted to the selection committee.  “Window Seat” is inspired by a Saturday afternoon conversation I had with the new Pfister Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson.

Spring had finally arrived–at least for a few days–but instead of doing a long run in the 70-degree sun, I decided to wander into the Pfister to uncover a story.  Luckily, the sun followed me into the lobby and down the hall to Pamela’s studio.  Eager to meet my potential colleague, I was greeted both by geometric splashes of primary colors (can shapes be both geometric and splashes?) and by the kind, soft-spoken artist.  

Our conversation delighted and incited (insighted?) me, so I reimagined her spoken words in the form of a written letter addressed to me, from her, two weeks prior, just before she began her one-year residency at the Pfister.  For me, the art of letter writing is a dying art form, and since we talked so much about painterly and writerly voice, I wanted to hear her in a different way, from one of her favorite spots in the world: the window seat of an airplane.

Now that I know that I will indeed be working closely with her in the next twelve months, I look forward to writing her back.

April 1, 2016

Dear Dominic,

I’m writing this from 28,000 feet.  Soon, I will touch down on the hotel’s carpeted runway and disembark in my new studio-for-a-year.  I haven’t met you yet, but I sense your imminent arrival at my doorway.  From the window seat–a must-have when I travel–I am snapping photos real and imaginary.  Right now, the sun guides the plane, a Catalan yellow sun the way Miró reimagined it (we’re actually over Lake Michigan right now, but my mind has traveled to Catalonia before).  The clouds are high, muting the sky in a pastel blue that Diebenkorn would have appreciated (I’ve traveled to the west coast with him before).  I’ve been around the world with painters past and present, Dominic, but would you believe that I’m only beginning to map my own voice now?

You will ask in a couple of weeks, “Did you not have a voice before?”  Did you lose it?  Can a painter, like a writer, have a voice?  Don’t we all have one?  

I certainly had a voice before.  I’ve been mapping it all my life, just as you have been mapping yours, the contours of your inscape, the swirls of your unique fingerprint–that’s what voice is.  Not necessarily something that can be heard or seen.  It’s always inside us, but it’s about developing it.  There’s so much in our world that we have access to visually, that for me, as a painter, finding that fingerprint has been difficult.  It’s difficult for all of us, because we have this sense that it’s all been done before.  You must feel the same as a writer.

Of course, I’ve been informed by–you can’t help it and there’s nothing wrong with it–the fluid landscapes of Diebenkorn and the geometrical, splashy fantasies of Miró, but I’ve remade myself so many times, all on my own.  I didn’t go to school for art, but I did look and study on my own, collecting images and preferences from so many sources.  And I played as a child, all the time.  That was a key to my talent.  If it was a brightly colored block or brick, or Lincoln Logs, or anything you could build with, I was creating something.  I guess you could say I had a natural talent for seeing how things fit together and how they could fit together in new ways.  But at some point in my life, perhaps after getting really good at painting floral scenes, I determined that I needed to be braver with my paintings.

by Pamela Anderson

That’s an interesting word, you will say, to describe art: “bravery.”  It sounds like the stuff of heroes and soldiers and tightrope walkers.  But if we are to transform ourselves and find our voices, then we will have to be brave, a word, I’m guessing you know, that comes from bravo, Italian for “bold and untamed.”  So I’m trying to tap into moments that speak to me from 28,000 feet–I’m looking down now and see that Catalan sun reflect off the lake’s dark surface, creating lines of yellow, crests of white, the plane approaching the shoreline of emerging green fields (we’re south of the airport).  An almost invisible line stretches across my view–the flight of a bird?  An optical illusion?  (To be truthful, I’ve already painted this, but it wasn’t of a Lake Michigan shoreline.  It was something altogether different, intuited in a private conversation I was having with my world.  In any case, I hope you’ll see it when I hang it in my Pfister studio.)

Another painting that will be in my studio when you visit me in a couple of weeks is an aerial landscape (you’re going to notice this right away, I’m thinking–we see with similar eyes): patches of primary colors like children’s blocks and elemental earth, the geometry of agriculture, the interruption of rivers, straight lines that partition (I see straight lines in nature–why?).

These paintings are informed, as I’ve said, by Diebenkorn and Miró and countless other artists, but I’m making them my own . . . I think, I hope.  Sometimes I feel brave, other times not.  You know that I applied for this position three times?  That’s ok, though; I’m glad I didn’t receive the residency those other two times.  I wasn’t ready.  Of course it was validating to be a finalist, but once I validated myself, when I heard my own voice and said, “Hey, that’s me,” that is when I decided to apply one more time.  Maybe that’s what “voice” is: that thing inside you that says/writes/paints/creates itself out of you and says, “Hey, I’m you.”

by Pamela Anderson

The plane is about to touch down.  When you come to visit me, I’ll be wearing gentle black lace and I’ll speak with a soft voice, but you’ll also notice that I speak with large scraping tools, mops, and oversized paint brushes and that my massive paintings don’t have my signature on them.  That’s because I’ve decided to be brave: to let my tools, whatever they may be, guide me and let my paintings reveal my voice.  Many people get upset, in fact, when I don’t sign my paintings on the front.  But I think it’s better when someone can say that they saw one of my paintings from across a room or even a block away and said to themselves “That’s a Pamela.”

That means my voice is being heard.

I wish you all the best as you find yours.  And I look forward to meeting you.

Sincerely,

Pamela

We Are The Sesame Street of All Hotels, People

I am a man of a certain age who is able to proudly claim to have been raised in part through the counting, alphabetizing, and sharing lessons regularly doled out on the standard bearer for all great children’s programming, good old Sesame Street. Even into my forties, I still have bold images of the residents of Sesame Street, the flesh and bones ones as well as the felt and fake-hair ones, playing and working side-by-side.

I found myself thinking hard about what made Sesame Street such a magic place as I enjoyed a recent Pfister event. Our new Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson recently kicked off her year in the studio with a sparkling night of art and celebration. One of the highlights of that night was a performance by a group of young artists from The Florentine Opera.

Outside of the obvious talent displayed by these singers as they filled the Pfister’s Rouge salon with soaring melodies, I took note of something else that was special about these performers. They all might have shared the same megawatt capacity for smiling and charm, but the faces that displayed those smiles did not all share the same pigment of skin. I find myself thinking more and more about race in this country as discussions come front and center about how we as a nation can work and play better together now and into the future. That’s why it’s nice to know that right here at home at the Pfister Hotel, the spirit of Sesame Street and all its lessons of inclusion feels alive and potent.

I have made it a habit when I enter the Pfister to look up and see the SALVE motto hovering over the lobby, the hub for all guests as they arrive and start a visit. SALVE, that “all are welcome” ideal, is not just a gilded adornment that floats in the air at the Pfister. You realize it is a real boots-on-the-ground reality as your eyes descend from the heavens and you see that the mix of men and women who make up the life of the hotel as guests, drop-in visitors and associates is as varied, ecletic and diverse a gathering as the mind can conjure. Walking through the Pfister lobby on any given day is sort of like taking a stroll down the best kind of Main Street, USA, one where you only take a moment to think about race and gender because you pinch yourself and say, “Wait a minute…I’m somewhere where I’m not thinking about race and gender.”

That sort of Main Street, USA reminds me a lot of Sesame Street, a place where no one cared what you looked like, where you were from, or how fat your wallet was. I’ve met many spectacular individuals as I’ve enjoyed being part of the fabric of the Pfister, and I realize now that I’m struck by how little time I spent recognizing their differences but instead focused on all our shared similarities. The Pfister’s doors are literally open around the clock to anyone, no matter what step they take in the grand walk of life.

Pamela’s opera singer friends presented a showcase of mixed repertoire to kick off an evening of artistic joy, but I was really swept up by their opener, a German language version of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Somehow it all seemed so right, a quirky mash up of something that was unexpected but familiar all at the same time. The tune had a “life is good in this place” sort of feel about it as the room filled with cheer. It’s a feeling that I have every time I’m at the Pfister, and one that I fondly carry forward into adulthood with a full heart of acceptance and appreciation that first started to glow in my youth when my some friends from all different walks of life told me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street. I never expected it, but I’m sure happy that I’ve stumbled upon Sesame Street at 424 Wisconsin Avenue in my dear hometown.

I hope you enjoy this musical ditty as much as I did.

Pamela

And now, we turn to Pamela.

It’s Pamela Anderson’s first day as the Pfister’s new Artist-in-Residence. I will endeavor to answer all the questions that come along with Pamela’s name.

No, she does not know David Hasselhoff.

No, she does not tease up a mane of golden blonde hair.

No, she does not run down sandy beaches in her swimsuit saving wayward surfers…well, at least I’m pretty sure she doesn’t.

And, yes, Pamela is a painter who is bold, expressive and the first of her kind for the Pfister. Pamela is the first abstract painter in the Pfister’s roster of artists who have made the ground floor studio their home.

Here are a few other things to know and adore about Pamela.

She’s tough. She’d never talk about it, but health issues have tried to slow her in recent times. Pamela brushes all that off and simply keeps getting back up when she’s knocked down.

She’s persistent. Pamela has such obvious joy over having been selected to be the Pfister’s Artist-in-Residence. She comes to the role after showing that commitment is not defined by overnight success but by what you do in the face of rejection to show that you really want something.

She’s super talented and charming. Her paintings brighten spaces all around town, and now we’re blessed to have them showcased at the Pfister. I’ll give guests wandering into her studio a warning shot…give yourself some time to stop and chat because you’ll find it’s hard to pull yourself away from the great conversation you are bound to have with Pamela.

She’s got great taste. Her studio is going to shine because of her great eye for style. She’s one well-put-together lady, too. When I see her coming, I’m happy to straighten my tie and step up my game.

Pamela and I got to spend some time together chatting about what it means to be an artist in service to the Pfister, and I know she drank deep from the well of knowledge that is our outgoing Artist-in-Residence Todd Mrozinski. Pamela is primed and more than ready to define the next twelve months in her own terms. Watch as she bursts on the scene at the Pfister and takes us all on an artistic journey of thrilling twists and turns. I know I’m tickled with excitement about what’s about to come.

Have a happy day one, Pamela. What a joy it is to have your splashes of color and wit adding new dimensions of life at the Pfister. Make the experience your own in each and every way and everyone will win big.

Follow me on Twitter @jonathantwest for more smart remarks and snappy retorts.

Todd

And then there’s Todd.

Today is officially the final day of Todd Mrozinski’s term as the Pfister’s Artist-in-Residence. For me and others around the Pfister, this is the moment when Todd leaves us with one final everlasting shadow. His own.

Todd made his mark during his artistic residency by using the shadows cast from the light at the Pfister to capture the profiles of countless guests, associates and well-wishers with brush and paint. Sounds like a simple proposition, and you may be thinking, “I sort of remember doing something like that in grade school, right?” But you would be wrong. Todd is a magician of sorts, an artist of supreme talent who somehow is able to show more than just a profile with his paintings. I don’t know how he does it, but Todd is able to paint a person’s soul.

Todd has talents I’ll never know. There are the obvious ones with a paintbrush that he wields with devastatingly exciting effect each time he approaches a canvas. There’s also the unerring commitment to his work as I often stood gaping at the volume of what he has been able to create during his time as Artist-in-Residence. I think, however, that the thing the amazes me most about my new friend Todd is a heart bigger than seems capable of being held in one human being’s chest.

Todd doesn’t simply paint people. He loves people and must paint them. It seems like an understatement to say that Todd is a universally beloved man. Around the Pfister, the thing we fortunate ones who have gotten to work with Todd do the first moment we see him approaching is smile and breathe a little easier full of a special sort of feeling. You know that feeling…the one you have when you see your best friend coming towards you. When you see Todd, the world seems right and everything makes sense.

It would be hard to write any tribute to my fellow artistic colleague at the Pfister without also talking about his wife, the dazzling Renee Bebeau. Renee’s pure love of the world and her obvious deep connection to Todd has brought added joy to the Pfister, and everything she seems to touch turns to something golden and full of joy. Renee was Todd’s true partner during his residency, organizing the Pfister’s thrilling Holiday Artists Fair, helping to coordinate the many shows Todd curated over the past year, serving as model for some of Todd’s paintings, and creating her own stunning art side-by-side with her beloved guy.

Todd leaves the Pfister having inspired me as any great artist does. I think of his friendship, the feeling I had every time I saw a new piece of his artwork, and it makes me want to get about the business of dedicating myself even more to my own life’s passion. Todd is the greatest advocate the art world could ever ask for, but more than that, he is one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever known. I will miss him, and I know I’m not alone.

Goodbye Todd. You leave a long and beautiful shadow, my friend. Thanks for all you have given and all you allowed us to take away.

Follow me on Twitter @jonathantwest for more smart remarks and snappy retorts.

The First 30 Years

Some couples got it. Ron and Maryann don’t just got it. They define what it means to got it.

I think about marriage every day of my life as a really happily married fellow myself. Some of the things I think about are how satisfying it is to have a life partner and how you never can stop working on making your marriage all it can be. Ron and Maryann have hitting it out of the park as a successful married couple for 30 years. They reminded me that all the stuff I think about marriage is never to be taken for granted, site but also that you gotta always do a little more. You gotta always make time to laugh.

The happy couple is, in fact, laughing as I meet them all refreshed and glowing after a Well Spa visit that Maryann secretly arranged for their 30th Wedding Anniversary. They’re looking over a painting of a teapot in our Pfister Artist-In-Residence Studio, and and Ron is telling Todd Mrozinski that the teapot looks just like the one in a sort of B-movie extravaganza he and his bride came upon when flicking through the channels last week. “It was called ‘The Brass Teapot’ and I’d say, yeah, it was pretty good,” says Ron.

Maryann is quiet and smiles up at her hubby. It looks like a smile she’s practiced a lot. I can just imagine these two snuggled next to each other in recliners or something, store their hands touching as they reach into the bowl of popcorn. The word “lovebirds” comes to mind.

Ron explained to me that he had had some practice with marriage before getting hitched to Maryann some 30 years back. Considering his track record with his first two marriages before he struck gold with Maryann he tells me, “I never thought I’d get to five years, but then you start passing ten, 20, 25, and then all of a sudden you’re at 30. Who knew?”

I’m not convinced that it’s as easy as that to rack up 30 years of marriage, and I ask the couple what’s their trick for being each others ball and chain for three decades and smile like they do as they look upon each other like they’ve just met. They talk of their travels, the joys of being parents and grandparents, and the most important word each of them has learned by being married to one another.

“Yes,” says the couple. “Always say ‘yes’ whenever anyone asks you to do something new.”

Saying “yes” for Ron and Maryann has meant traveling to far off places, having friends in all corners of the world, and opening their eyes to all the possibilities of how to see and tell a story. As avid theatre and concert goers, the couple explain to me that you should take chances and see live performances even when you have no idea what the show is going to be about. I’m always dubious of this kind of thing from years of producing theatre myself, some of it the sort of stuff I’d like to forget I ever put on stage. Ron tells me not to fear.

“No, no. Don’t have regrets about that.” He tells me that one of the most memorable dates he had with Maryann was when they decided to buy tickets to a Vegas style show advertised in a small performance space. They showed up for the performance and waited in the audience until they realized that they were the only two people who had bought tickets.

“It was a little uncomfortable when the show began, it just being Maryann and I in the audience,” said Ron. “But, you know what? It ended up being a real good show.”

Maryann smiles again. Ron looks at her and knows it’s time for them to make tracks for other adventures. Thirty years and all it takes is a wink, a smile and a chuckle or two. If that ain’t love, mister, I don’t know what is.

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