Margaret Muza: Musing About Her Muses (Part 2)

Before my time is up as the Narrator, I wanted to sit down with the new Artist-in-Residence Margaret Muza one last time (though I’m sure I’ll be back many times during her residency!) to get and share with you some of the back stories of the tintypes currently hanging in her studio.  As the walls fill with new ones, including mine (see end of post), and she decides to add larger-scale photos and perhaps change the decor, it’s likely that some of these will be replaced.  She began her stories with one of the most enigmatic ones.  It’s hard not to notice his earthy stare.

This one is my Uncle Tom.  I took this in front of the family cabin my grandpa built in Iron Mountain, Michigan.  Oh, your family has a family cabin in Pembine?  I know exactly where that is!  And it’s 40-acres of land?  Same here!

Well, we go there every summer, but now my Uncle Tom lives in Arizona and rarely comes home.  He was really skinny this year because he was bitten by a scorpion (it’s not the first time!).  He’s crazy . . . crazy cool.  He loves Patron, and I love Patron, so any time we get together, we sit and have some Patron.  When you’re around him, you want him to give you time–he’s that kind of guy.  Again, he’s crazy cool.  Like he calls his wife Vicki “his bride,” as in “This is my bride, Vicki.”

He never lets anyone take his photo, but when he saw me setting up my darkroom behind the cabin, he couldn’t resist asking what I was doing.  I told him that he had to sit for a photograph.  “No, no,” he said.  But he did anyway.

This is my friend Heather.  She’s an animator and editor.  She had her baby five days after that photo was taken.  We decked her out with flowers and she wore that black shawl.  She gave it to me afterward and it’s hanging on the wall behind my desk in the studio now.  I think it’s actually supposed to be a wall hanging like this, but I’m not sure.  It could be a shawl.  It’s definitely beautiful on her!

On the left is my sister Rachel near Cedar Creek.  We were trying to do a mock wedding so I could have samples, hoping people would want me to photograph their weddings with tintypes.  It was a beautiful day in the summer.

On the right is one of my other sisters, Claire.  She’s the most cooperative and available, willing to sit for almost anything, letting me pose her when I have a concept in mind.

The woman on the left is Jolena, and the man on the right is my boyfriend, Jordan.  They’re both double exposures.  I especially love the one of Jordan because of how it perfectly captures his profile.  One person said it looks like he’s looking out of a keyhole.  You thought he was peaking out from behind something frosted?  You can see his profile now, right?

I also wanted to know if any of the ephemera that fills every nook and cranny of her studio held any significance for her.  It doesn’t sound like there are any earth-shattering stories behind any of them.  In fact, as she held up little jars of beads and tiny nails and glitter (“Look at this cute bottle.  It’s like a little salt shaker.  For glitter.”), she mused that she really just like “little things that slip between the cracks.”

One of those things was half shell containing small tintypes no larger than 2×3 inches.  “This is about the size that most people could afford back when tintype was popular,” she explained.  “They could go to the fair and in a few minutes they could walk away with their portrait.  Especially with these little tintypes, you know that someone held it in their hands.  They sat, saw the process happen, held it in their hands–then either kept it or gave it to someone else.  Who held it in their hands.”

There’s a little bit of history everywhere you turn in Margaret Muza’s studio.  I encourage you to stop in, step back in time, delight in more of her stories, and sit for a tintype–maybe, just maybe, in the paper moon.

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p.s. I didn’t sit in the paper moon; instead, I sat in a white t-shirt against the white lace on the wall.  The effect is dramatic, I think!  Although I’m not sure how to describe my expression . . .

Margaret Muza: Musing About Her Muses (Part I)

Her last name is pronounced “myuza,” which sounds like music and muses.  Its origin is Kashubian, from an ethnic group that hails from Poland on the Baltic Sea.  Interestingly, Margaret Muza is related to the Jacob Muza who in 1872 established a colony on Jones Island (really a peninsula named after James Monroe Jones), essentially squatting there without a title for the land and inviting families from German-occupied Poland to immigrate there.  The fishing on Lake Michigan was a tempting lure for the Kashubian settlers, who had fished the Baltic for centuries.  Within 20 years, 1,800 people lived and worked on Jones Island.  I told her that I had just recently been introduced to Kaszube’s Park, the smallest park in Milwaukee, a few weeks prior: it was the first stop on Adam Carr’s Detours bus tour of Milwaukee’s south side.  Our interview would begin and end with Kaszube’s Park, in fact.

Not wanting her mother’s side of the family to be left out, Margaret then told me of her Irish great-grandfather, who got a third class ticket with a friend on the Titanic’s maiden voyage.  When his friend announced that he couldn’t go, Margaret’s great-grandfather, not wanting to travel alone, sold his ticket.  This stroke of luck is one reason why Margaret Muza is the newest Pfister Artist-in-Residence.

Before she became the Artist-in-Residence, however, Margaret used to work at Sweet Water urban fish and vegetable farm, where she filleted fish all day.  Handling so many fish made her hands rough and scaly, so much so that she would joke that she was actually becoming a fish.  She muses now how at Sweet Water she had linked herself to her Kashubian past.

Lucky for The Pfister, Margaret is not a fish, but an exuberant and accomplished tintype photographer who owns Guncotton Tintype, continuing a craft made popular in the United States in the 1850s and 60s. The process involves coating a thin sheet of metal with a dark lacquer or enamel to create a direct positive.  Margaret uses silver and a varnish she mixes herself, made from tree sap, lavender oil, and alcohol.  A tintype can be “coated, sensitized, exposed, developed, fixed, washed, dried and varnished in less than 10 minutes,” which helped make this process so ubiquitous at carnivals and fairs, as well as on the Civil War sidelines, where photographers set up portable darkrooms.  Everyone from children to presidents sat for these (almost) instant photos.

Guests at The Pfister have already begun having their photographs taken in the studio, which has been transformed from the bright and modern white walls that highlighted former Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson’s large-scale abstract paintings into a cozy green drawing room or living room with plush furniture, a writing desk and bookcase, a record player, and, of course, tintypes everywhere you look.

One side of the studio is set up for portrait taking and sports an impressive tintype camera the size of a St. Bernard, which Margaret will use to take, you guessed it, large photographs.

The closet has been converted into a darkroom.  And the room is replete with delightful vintage ephemera: toy cars, old books, golden fruits, wooden deer, feathers, statues, jars with tiny objects, mirrors, and even a little bat paperweight.

On the wall behind her desk hangs a huge print, reminiscent of an old postcard, of St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park. It is quite impressive against the green walls and juxtaposed to the many artfully scattered objects.

In this first in a two-part series about Margaret Muza–past, present, and future–I asked Margaret about the genesis of her craft.

Why tintype photography?

I love old things, old images.  I’m bigtime into history: everything was made so well and so beautifully.  It kind of breaks my heart that we seem to be getting away from that.  I get sentimental about it.

When I was little, whenever I wanted to do something, I couldn’t wait to get started fast enough.  So it doesn’t surprise anyone that I started doing tintype photography with no background whatsoever.

I remember that I once wanted a treehouse so bad.  I asked my mother, “Please get me wood.  All I need is the stuff.”  She was always getting rid of different kinds of scraps, but she never saved me the things I needed for the treehouse.  So I at least ended up making a seat, a kind of bench, up in the tree.  It’s still there, though someone else owns the house now.

Back then, I wanted my own spot, my own space–and I tried making it myself.  So later, when I discovered tintype, I just had to figure it out, too.  I knew that I’d learn faster on my own.  So I flew to New York to take a workshop, then just started collecting all the things I would need: all the chemistry, a manual, my first camera, darkroom lights, and so on.  Most of it I was able to find on Craigslist, either used or built.

Who or what are your muses?

My four sisters.  I’m comfortable with them.  I know them.  We help each other out.  And they and my one brother are the prettiest people I know, so they are the perfect models for me. And my two youngest sisters both sell vintage clothes in separate Etsy shops, so it’s easy to get that old feel in my photographs.

What is it about old photographs that you love so much?

There’s something about old photos that used to have a creepy effect on me.  Something about the people in them.  I wanted to know what it was that made them like that.  Was it that people were more intense-looking way back when?  Was it something about the process?

I think about the early scene in the film Dead Poets Society, where Mr. Keating has all the students lean in close to the glass cabinets to peer at the old photos of students past.  He wanted them to see into the photos, almost past them–into the past.  And that’s when he starts whispering to them really slowly: “Carpe.  Carpe diem.  Seize the day, boys.”

 Most importantly, why green?

It’s hemlock green, to be exact.  I have a problem with white walls.  I wanted a relaxing color so I could make the studio like a living room.  This is what my house looks like, so I wanted people to peak in and see a reflection of who I am.  The studio is going to be, after all, like a window into my life and my art.

In Part 2, then, I will learn about the first few weeks of her residency and how Margaret is planning to seize the day (and year) and help guests connect with the past while still keeping them very much in the present.  

I almost forgot!  I had said that my short session with Margaret began and ended with Jones Island.  I had just packed up and was headed to another meeting when a young man poked his head in and started looking around.

He was admiring a huge wooden half-moon onto which Margaret was getting ready to paint a face (photos forthcoming of the finished product, which will look incredible in her photographs!).  He remarked that he has a good friend in California who makes similar moons for sets and that he loves all things vintage, especially tintypes.  He hadn’t realized yet that Margaret was a tintype photographer and doubled-over in amazement. We asked if he also did tintype.  He doesn’t, but said he works for the United States Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan and his boat is moored– guess where?  Jones Island.  I had to leave the two of them at this point, but I look forward to learning and sharing more of their conversation in the next post!

 

 

 

From Abstracts to Tintypes: Passing the Brush to Margaret Muza

On March 24, Pamela Anderson revealed her collection of art produced during her residency at The Pfister.  The Pop-Up Gallery was alive with color and conversation before the pièce de résistance, the unveiling of her Legacy piece, which will soon grace the hallway next to the legacies of the former AIRs: Reginald Baylor, Katie Musolff, Shelby Keefe, Timothy Westbrook (well, his is in a glass case on the grand staircase landing), Stephanie Barenz, Niki Johnson, and Todd Mrozinski.

Here are just a few remembrances of the evening–and a sneak peak into the new AIR’s revamped studio.  Get ready to be transported to a different era with Margaret Muza’s tintype photography.  Story coming soon!

Cassy Scrima, Director of Marketing for Marcus Hotels, introduces Pamela
Friends, family, and guests prepare to watch Pamela pass the torch to the new Artist-in-Residence Margaret Muza
Margaret Muza, Todd Mrozinski, and Donna Basterash
Renee Babeau and some people I don’t know 🙂
Heidi Parkes and Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri
Two happy friends
Someone mugging with Melissa Dorn Richards
Guests mingling and contemplating Pamela’s artwork
Margaret Muza, Heidi Parkes, and Renee Babeau
One of Pamela’s sons, Adrian Cumming
Pamela giving her cousins Daniel and Anthony Anderson a close-up tour of her Legacy piece
Pamela trying her hardest not to cry–and somehow looking confident and proud of a year’s work of creating
Peter Jason activating his inner art critic while his girlfriend lets him do his thing
Voilà! Pamela’s Legacy piece
The Pfister family will miss you, Pamela!
But we know that you’re itching to get back into Material Studios & Gallery in the Third Ward!
It’s amazing what Mary Rose and the painting crew can do to transform a space . . .
. . . with, of course, a few added touches from Margaret! Stay tuned for my interview with the new Artist-in-Residence . . .

FOOD AS ART: Pamela Anderson’s Legacy Dinner

Me and Pamela (Photo: Molly Snyder)

When I first wrote about the Pfister Hotel Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson a little over a year ago, I contrived a letter from her to me, written from a plane:

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?

Now that she has passed the Artist-in-Residence “brush” to tintype photographer Margaret Muza, I have had occasion to reflect on her residency, the map of her artistic voice throughout her residency, our friendship, and her last week at The Pfister Hotel.  Even though one of her favorite places is the window seat of an airplane, Pamela couldn’t be more down-to-earth.

When I first encountered her in the studio, she had only just moved in to begin her year as the Artist-in-Residence and I was still applying for the Narrator position.  I was to write two sample blog posts.  It would have been easy to just talk to her about abstract art and color and paint, but instead we went deeper than that, almost right away.  

We talked about voice:

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.

And bravery:

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. 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?

And about artist’s signatures:

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.

Over the next year, I would get to know her voice (expressed with large tools as well as her own vocal cords), her bravery (bold and untamed but also refined and patient), and her Pamela-ness (I can recognize a “Pamela” very well now, I think).

I learned from Pamela’s voice that it is very important to listen, mainly because one has to: her voice is light and contemplative, often with an inflection that suggests that she is thinking several steps ahead even while she’s talking to you.  

I observed her paint a single stroke then step back to listen to the painting talking to her.  The next layer of color might not appear for hours.  I enjoyed coming back a few days later and seeing how it had transformed.

I heard her voice in the variety of instruments she used to express it–the brushes, scrapers, even mops–and the palimpsest-like layers of thick paint and light washes, blocks and lines, patches and wisps.  I heard a different kind of voice when we commiserated over political issues and social justice.  I heard other versions when she talked about her sick Kismet or her new house in Sherman Park or her friend Michael’s award-winning film or her Scandinavian heritage or a fabulous dinner she and her husband Steven had just made.

I delighted in little things like watching her mix her paints and clean her brushes, taping the outer edges of a paper, painting the edges of a canvas, changing the orientation of a work-in-progress to see if the new direction spoke to her.  

I enjoyed talking to her about emerging shapes, unique color combinations, the need for white space, and the power of creating depth on a flat surface.

Growing up, I always considered myself too by-the-book and representational and timid when it comes to creating art (I was a classical guitarist who could rarely play without reading the music and a ribbon-winning artist whose drawings and paintings were glorified tracing-paper pastiches of other people’s work).  The synchronous freedom and intention of Pamela’s work, then, excited me.  

What could I learn about my own creative process from observing hers? Could I learn how to paint with similar freedom and intention?  How could that be a good thing for all of us, in our daily lives, even without paint brushes?  

I’ll come back to these questions later.  But first, here’s another question: How does an artist as unique as Pamela celebrate the end of her residency at the luxurious Pfister Hotel?  With down-to-earth graciousness, humility, and gratitude.

And a five-course meal, of course, compliments of Chef Brian Frakes and his team.

About 50 people gathered in the Imperial Ballroom on March 21 for the inaugural Artist-in-Residence Legacy Dinner.  Pamela welcomed us with characteristic humility (“The whole year has been so special.  I’m kind of just getting the hang of it!  I am feeling blessed and grateful that I’m here, living my dream.”) and a reflection that set the tone for the rest of the evening: “The conversations with guests have been the most meaningful to me.  I have learned more about myself.  The conversations make you dig deeper into the things we take for granted as artists.  ‘Why color?’  ‘Why abstract?’  Yes, why color?  Why abstract?  Questions like these forced me to think about why I do what I do and how I’m developing my practice.”

Why does each of us do what we do?  Why do we do what we do the way we do it?

Some guests were asking these questions of Pamela when she invited them to write words on little pieces of paper while they enjoyed pre-dinner cocktails.  Not exactly little pieces of paper–more carefully cut out mixed greens, Belgian endive, even Styrofoam cherry tomatoes.  As people wrote down their favorite colors, textures, words, and such on the delicate papers, they knew somehow that they wouldn’t just be observers and consumers at this meal–they would be participants.  And if the paper cut-outs and Sharpies were any indication, the evening would be both elegant and fun.

If that wasn’t down-to-earth enough, each course was named after a different theme.

The first course was “Family”: Verlasso salmon belly carpaccio with beet cream, chive crème fraiche, and aquavit dill splash, accompanied by an arugula scallion salad, pumpernickel, and a glass of Maison Nicolas Pinot Noir Rose from France.  This little delicacy, we learned, was inspired by her Finish-Norwegian-Danish heritage, as well as her son: the Verlasso salmon came to our plates compliments of her son’s sustainable fishing business in Chile.  

Before we ate, however, another surprise for guests: former Artist-in-Residence Stephanie Barenz was on hand to offer her interpretation of the “Family” dish.

I am glad,” Stephanie began, “that Pamela picked this course for me to speak at because family and home have a big role in my own personal artwork.  I am always comparing point A, where I came from, to point B, where I am going.  And my guess is that whether you realize it or not, you are constantly doing this, too.  As we think about our homes we think of rootedness, what identifies us as individuals, and all of the experiences that have made us who we are.  The course we are about to eat is comprised of many different elements that speak to Pamela’s childhood and family memories. Speaking of rootedness, there is even a beet, a root vegetable, in this course.

“I am a drawing teacher, and one of the first drawing exercises I do with my students is a blind contour drawing.  In this way of drawing we look at the object or thing that we are drawing, and let our eyes follow the contours or outline of the object.  We don’t look at our page and we never let our pencil or tool leave the page.  There is a metaphor here.  As you move from point A to point B in your life, maybe away from your home to a new place or relationship, you look forward but still have your hand on the page, or in the place that you are rooted. So in this next drawing prompt, I want you to look forward at something in the room, maybe it is something that reminds you of home, like your partner sitting next to you or a familiar dish in front of you, and I want you to do a blind contour drawing.”

So, alternating between forks and wine glasses and Sharpies, fifty guests in the Imperial Ballroom broke into uproarious laughter as they trained their eyes on each other–of objects around the room–and got back to their roots, so to speak.  As they enjoyed a sophisticated salmon appetizer, they were transported to a younger time of doodling and giggling and writing on the table tops when a parent wasn’t watching.  (I forgot to mention that all the tables had white butcher paper table runners.)  It was certainly difficult to keep my own eyes off the paper and my pen rooted to the paper–and I wasn’t alone–but the challenge was certainly a refreshing diversion from customary dinner time propriety.

Pamela chose me to interpret the next dish, entitled “Comfort,” comprised of butternut squash ravioli, beurre noissette, maple charred cauliflower, fresh ricotta, amaretti gremolotta, and sage, joined by a Peter Yealand Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand.  I had planned on recounting to the dinner guests how Pamela is, like this dish, both sweet and savory, but instead wrote a poem I called “Comforting Metaphors,” each line inspired by one of the components of the dish.  See if you can match them up:

The girl in orange pajamas hibernates in her favorite quilt.
A puddle of spring rain imprints a muddy field.
The charred sequoia has just released its seeds.
A lone cumulus hangs on a blue fall curtain.
The earthy spice of dry clay crumbles in the farmer’s hands.
But why should anyone die who has sage in their garden?

The last line is borrowed directly from folk wisdom regarding the healing properties of sage.

My haiku-like lines were no contender for the surprising stand-up by one of my predecessors, Molly Snyder, a (insert scare quotes, as per Molly’s demonstration) “local celebrity” thanks to OnMilwaukee.com.  After Pamela talked about growing up on a farm, we sliced into the “Wisco Pork” dish–a Meaux mustard pork tenderloin with parsley dust crust, horseradish, Yukon pea puree, chocolate pork jus, and a Zinfandel from Seghesio Angelas Tables (Sonoma)–and Molly regaled us with her story (more like a performance) of being an eating contest champ.  Arms flailing in front of her face to mimic stuffing her face with everything from cream puffs (“easy”) to bacon (the pork part of the story = “difficult”), she had us laughing in between succulent bites of pork.  

And have you noticed that each small plate came with a full glass of wine? The party was just getting started.

Enter me again to help introduce the “Peanut Butter & Jelly” course, inspired, as you might guess, from one of Pamela’s favorite childhood foods.  This was not your mom’s PB&J, however.  Chef Brian transported us with a peanut butter and chocolate terrine, a vanilla bean anglaise, and a Merlot blackberry syrup, and paired it with Dibon Cava Brut Reserve from Penedes, Spain.  And this was not an easy one for me transform into words.  How to make PB&J interesting?  (Thank you for the challenge, Pamela!)

I knew from talking to Pamela that she liked her sandwich to be made a particular way and that it often accompanied her when she began her life as an artist, crayons at the ready.  But it was all the other details she told me about, the specifics of place and time and light that intrigued me even more.  Therefore, like I had with my first imagined letter of hers, I borrowed her words and transformed them.  I called the poem “Plums”:

Do not pick the plums.

She knew the sting
of her mother’s voice,
like a wasp shaken from its nest,
if she dared eat a plum.
Less a wasp, perhaps,
than the irrational nip
of an adult who had heard
too many reports of children
choking on rippled pits.

Nonetheless, trousers rolled,
she tiptoes to the back stoop,
teetering a plate, a glass,
a notebook, a bucket–
one eye on the plum tree,
the other on her juggling act,
the third already composing
in her child’s mind
with the pandemonium of colors
she carries in her ice cream bucket
of crayons.

At least her mother
had buttered both sides
of the Wonder Bread
and slathered a swirled pillow
of peanut butter on one side
where the raspberry jam
could rest, blanketed
by the other wondrous slice–
softness upon softness upon
softness upon softness.
No danger here, though
when she takes her first bite,
a slick glob of jam will slide down her chin
and onto her shirt, which she will lift,

She finds the only slice of sun,
places the milk and sandwich
in the shade, listens as the crayons
thud softly onto the warm stone,
and nestles the notebook in her lap,
pausing to listen to the big elm canopies
in the front yard sway in the wind.

No coloring book today,
with its lines, its borders and rules.
Today she will fill the blankness
of these pages with a riot of red
and orange and yellow, of purple
clouds and black fields, scratching
the paper with prodigious swoops
of her arm, pausing occasionally
to bite half moons into her sandwich.

An arm jostles the milk glass.
The white splashes her hand
and seeps through the cracks
toward her notebook, but she finishes
etching a burnt square of sienna before
rubbing the milk on her pants
and snatching up her drawing.

She listens for her mother inside,
and walks defiantly off the porch.

She picks a plum.

She bites.

The earthiness of the peanut butter
meets the tart ripeness of the plum.
She shudders, but not because
she is afraid of the pit that lies inside.

When she returns to the porch
it is with sticky hands ready
for new crayons
and new pages.

Stephanie brought the meal to a close by inviting us to one more drawing activity to accompany dessert, themed “America’s Dairyland”: shaved triple cream, black pepper honey, and a fried cracker, served with another champagne.  She began by referencing one of the first paintings that I had seen of Pamela’s, one year ago, the one that inspired the 28,000-feet-in-the-air letter: “One of my favorite series of Pamela’s is a series she did of aerial views of America’s farmland.  You can see one of the paintings on the easel in the corner.  When you look at these aerial views, they appear to look like a quilt, all different colors, patterns, and textures coming together to form a tapestry of sorts.

“There is a quote by Wendell Berry, one of my favorite authors, that I really like.  He said, ‘Eating is an agricultural act.’  As you look at the food on your table, it is and has been a part of many different places and stories, which is a really beautiful thing if you think about it.  Living in Milwaukee, we get the privilege of being very close to the farmland or dairyland that produces the food that we eat.”

“Going back to Pamela’s paintings of farmland and to this idea that each thing we eat has a story, I would like you to create a mini version of this quilt idea. Take your crayons or pencils and put several different patterns or textures next to each other that remind you of rural Wisconsin. Maybe it is a red square next to a patch of green, that references a barn and a field of soybeans. Or a muddy patch next to swirling white, which may remind you of how the fields meet the sky.”

Just as Stephanie suggested, Pamela is going to take these “quilt” images–along with everything else sketched on the butcher paper–and create a new piece of art from our food-and-wine-fueled experiments. Stay tuned!  

Before the evening was over, however, Molly, Stephanie, Stephanie’s husband Zach Wiegman, and Pamela read the Word Salad to which we had all contributed during the cocktail hour.  The often surprising, sometimes humorous, juxtaposition of words was poetry in itself!

I was delighted that my year with Pamela had begun and ended with the Midwest Aerial Views series.  The abstract patterns–inspired by a blending of the organic and the artificial, the natural and the human–offer both a distanced perspective and an introspective opportunity to see oneself in the greater scheme of things.   It wasn’t just about colors and shapes and lines and scrapes; it was about seeing and understanding and interpreting and translating the world.

So, back to my earlier questions: What could I learn about my own creative process from observing hers?  Could I learn how to paint with similar freedom and intention?  How could that be a good thing for all of us, in our daily lives, even without paint brushes?

I’ll say this: I was an English teacher for 22 years.  I’ve probably had about two thousand students.  When, for instance, one student decided against becoming a sanitation worker so he could become an English teacher, that was one of the highest honors one could ask for.  As Pamela’s year at The Pfister was coming to a close, I finally got the guts to try painting with freedom and intention.  I’ve a long way to go, but I have Pamela to thank:



Pamela, you have not only “passed the brush” to the new Artist-in-Residence, you have also inspired me.

Photo credits: Molly Snyder, Cassy Scrima, Pamela Anderson, Shelby Keefe, and me

A Room With a View: Afternoon Tea at Blu (Finally!)


(Suggestion: Play while reading.)

It is no wonder that Blu has been named the Best Hotel Bar in Milwaukee by OnMilwaukee.com.  But it’s not only their thirst-quenching selection of premium cocktails that earned them this billing–or their stunning views of downtown and Lake Michigan, or their bookings of some of the hottest jazz and other musicians in the city, or their BluTender fundraising events for local non-profits.

It’s The Pfister Afternoon Tea.  It took me and Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson almost a year to partake, but last Friday we did, on one of those afternoons when the crisp air and bright sun combine to showcase everything with diamond-like precision.

While many other hotels in the United States offer high tea service (we won’t mention their names), it’s safe to say that The Pfister is one of the only ones that doesn’t just hand guests a menu with dozens and dozens of teas.  Instead, Tea Butlers (or, as I like to call them now, “Tea Sommeliers”) offer guests tableside tea blending.  After guests are seated, a Tea Butler arrives with a gueridon service trolley and, like someone handling precious antiques, lifts each of thirteen beautifully jarred teas, expounds on each tea’s origin, unique ingredients and flavors, and other fascinating miscellany.  The thirteen selections are Rishi Teas, harvested around the world and headquartered in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, which lends local flavor to the exquisite sensations of breathing in each tea’s aromatic subtleties.

Our Tea Butler was Juan Rodriguez, who has been amazing guests with his tea knowledge for eight years.  “I learned a lot from taking the [Rishi] tea vendors crash course at the beginning,” Rodriguez says, “but I also did a lot of my own research, went to libraries and book stores, read a lot about the history of tea, different kinds, and so on.”  His explanations of each tea’s nuances–and how they would pair with the selection of dried mangoes and plums, fresh apple, lemon, and ginger slices, and  cinnamon, mint, and dried hibiscus flowers–were as relaxing as the sunny heights from which we listened.

The exquisitely polished silver tea pots came one at a time (Juan indulged each of us with three different pots as opposed to the usual one).  My round began with the delicate 1893 Pfister Blend White Tea Rose Melange, was kicked up a notch with the Vanilla Bean Black Tea steeped with cinnamon, and was settled with the Tangerine Ginger.  Pamela enjoyed the Jade Oolong, Chocolate Chai, and the Tangerine Ginger as well.  And what an indulgence it was–that’s a lot of tea, that’s all I’ll say.  But before we could indulge, we had to let it steep for 3-4 minutes, after which we were instructed to hold onto the chain of the tea ball infuser so that it wouldn’t fall in . . . alas, someone didn’t hold onto the chain (hint: those aren’t my fingers in the photos).  And so commenced the Thirteenth Labor of Hercules:

Finally: success!

While I waited for the fishing expedition to end, a little research answered a question that was lingering on my brain: Why is it called “high” tea.  I assumed it had something to do with the level of upper-class distinction, with pinkies-in-the-air, with a British custom that I remember reading about and seeing in films in college (I was stuck on Edwardian England, as well as on a certain girl named Erin–Lucy Honeychurch to my George Emerson–who would lavish me with tea in her purple dorm room).  In fact, it was E.M. Forster’s Room With a View–which, come to think about it, is what Pamela and I were experiencing at Blu–that sparked my romanticism of old.  But Lucy’s view from the Pension Bertolini in Florence had nothing compared The Pfister’s view!

I was surprised to discover that the “high” part of high tea was originally a reference to the working men who took their mid-afternoon meal, standing up or sitting on high stools, eating cakes, scones, and cheese on toast with their tea.  It doesn’t seem like there was a cause-and-effect to what happened next, but eventually the upper class co-opted this practice (much like they did with one of my favorite Danish meals, the open-faced sandwich, or smørrebrød).  For them, high tea was a proper snack before hitting the town.  It is rumored that in the early 1800s, Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, began using mid-afternoon tea and a snack to cure her “sinking feeling” (apparently, the British typically only ate breakfast and a late dinner).  More women began joining her for tea, snacks, and socializing.  And the rest, I guess, is history: Anna has tea, everyone wants tea; John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, develops the sandwich, everyone wants high tea sandwiches; the upper class needs a nineteenth-century version of a 5-hour energy drink before promenading in Hyde Park, everyone wants that boost (which is strange, because promenading seems pretty leisurely to me).

I’m not sure what Pamela did after our Pfister tea, but my niece came into town and we went out for tacos and tequila (for me–she’s only 20), a far cry from the goat cheese and watercress sandwiches; delicate cucumber sandwiches; dill-chantilly, curried quail eggs; chive and herb-roasted turkey pinwheels with red onion marmalade; Scottish smoked salmon rolls with roe; chocolate dipped strawberries with white chocolate shavings; freshly baked blueberry and cranberry scones; lemon raspberry mascarpone tarts; opera tortes; French macaroons; madeleine cookies; and lemon curd & strawberry preserves.

To top it off, the high tea harpist soothed us with songs as diverse as the symphonic version of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and John Legend’s “All of Me,” her fingers strumming beautiful notes while Pamela and I talked about art and creative placemaking, photography and city-building, the upcoming Jane’s Walk and 200 Nights of Freedom, Black Power and the state of education in our country.

I guess even high tea couldn’t tame the artist and activist in us both.  In fact, what it did was both bring us back to a time when both the working class and the upper class shared a similar pastime and propel us forward into new ideas and hopes for the future.

Time to start drinking more tea–and the start of an annual tradition.

PHOTO ESSAY: Get Inside Yourself by Getting Inside the Box

Come on in.  The door is open.

Make your Self at home.

Don’t be shy.  There aren’t any rules.

Lounge.  Relax.  Write.  Doodle.

And share a part of your Self on the walls.

This project is a metaphor for that inner place we go to when we take creative risks.  It also represents the playful creative spaces we built as children, like a tent made of blankets, or a shelter made of branches, places where we felt secure and free to express ourselves.  I have to silence the outer world sometimes, so I asked myself, When have I felt the most secure.

~Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri

Wait.  If The Lounge was a place to relax, what’s The Retreat?

Perhaps it’s a lounge that’s a little farther out but more inside your Self.

Look around.  Read the artifacts, like laundry hanging to dry.

Strike a pose like nobody knows.  This is your retreat.

Just don’t forget to leave your own artifact: a message, a hope, a musing.

There’s room on the line for everyone.

This project was a knee-jerk reaction to the phrase ‘think outside the box.’ To me, it’s trite and empty.  I mean, every brushstroke, every creation, is a risk.  When we take our biggest risks, we go inside.  That’s why this is called ‘Inside the Box,’ because it’s like getting inside the self.

~Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri

A Drawing Room?  Isn’t that like The Lounge and The Retreat?

Does the name of the box dictate what I must do?

Ah . . . no lava lamps or hewn logs here.  Only a chandelier of freedom.

Take a risk.  Draw a nude.  Announce your calling.  Preach the light.

I don’t like the word ‘should.’  It’s a difficult word.  I’d prefer ‘I could do ___.’  This is all about letting go of ‘should’ so that people have the freedom to create what they want.  These are safe spaces, then, with no requirements.  I ask people to try to refrain from using the word ‘should’ while they create in the boxes.

~Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri

Jeanne’s mother (left) emerges from The Retreat.
Jeanne (right)

Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri’s INSIDE THE BOX exhibit runs through March 4th in The Pfister’s Pop-Up Gallery.  The immersive environments invite you to leave a mark on the world, to share part of your Self (in fact, the word “character” comes from the Greek kharakter meaning “engraved mark” or “symbol or imprint on the soul”).

Jeanne works mainly with watercolor, acrylics, and mixed media, so these large-scale boxes certainly challenged her artistically (and logistically–once you see how tall they are, think about how she got them into The Pfister’s elevators and doorways . . .).  She comes from a long line of artists, including her four sisters, her mother, her uncles, and her grandfather.  Her studio is located in the Marshall Building, 207 E. Buffalo, Suite 602.

Accompanying the boxes are selections from her series “Cabled Together,” which, according to her artist statement, explores the “often-overlooked power lines, cables, and wires that connect us. The tangled webs of wire, the ways in which they divide space, the mystery of the many gadgets that accompany them, and the structures on which they hang or which they support are intriguing and fascinating.  I travel frequently, thus my work represents cables in a variety of environments.” 

That’s a Big Clock: Robin and the Polish Moon

Robin Campbell, The Pfister Hotel’s house carpenter for eight years, retired two years ago.  But he came back for Gallery Night last Friday to see the work of his friend Stephanie Barenz, the Hotel’s fifth Artist-in-Residence (AiR), as well as the work of the other AiRs past and present. When she arrived, she described him in avuncular terms as they greeted each other warmly.  “I designed the huge frame for her painting in the hallway,” Robin beamed.

I had originally attended the opening of “Bridges: Artistic Passages“–an exhibition of current works by all eight AiRs, including the exhibit curator, Pamela Anderson–with the intention of writing about bridges and passages, with interviews of the AiRs and guests.  It was, perhaps, too early in the evening to capture a good story: downtown was spilling out onto the streets and into cars and buses, homeward bound.  Perhaps some of them would make their way back downtown for some art appreciation.  Many of the artists were also participating in Gallery Night at other studios.  (I plan to go back and capture my impressions of the exhibit in a future blog; you should visit, too!)

In the meantime, however, I caught the eye of someone across the room, who looked at me almost knowingly, inviting me to his table like he had something important to tell me.

I had not known that the Hotel had a “house carpenter” (I wondered where the workshop might be).  “In my shop at home,” Robin informed me. He then proceeded to flip through his phone’s gallery, like an eager teenager, to show me tables he had masterfully refinished, cabinets and shelving he had designed and built, and an impressive moveable wall in an upstairs ballroom.  He regaled me with a story about how all the doors in the ballrooms had needed tweaking one year (“None of them would close, they were all crooked”) and how he saved the Hotel a lot of money by correcting all eighteen or so doors–in only a day and a half!   As his finger swept through the photographs, it dawned on me that the beautiful glass case on the grand staircase landing was probably–“Yes, I made that, too.” (I was embarrassed that I had walked by the case so many times without realizing that the dazzling blue dress encased within it was crafted by Timothy Westbrook, the fourth AiR.  I thought it was, well, what did I think?  A ball gown from 1893?)

He also designed the case for Niki Johnson‘s Tether, the deep red tub lined with feathers and fur that sits across from the art studio.

There’s also a massive butcher block table that looks like puzzle pieces that Chef Brian Frakes pulls out for special presentations, and Paint Department Supervisor Mary Rose told me later that he also built all the podiums in the hotel and the long tables in the basement’s Salve Staff Canteen.

It was clear that Robin took exceptional pride in his work, as well he should.  He turned that pride to humility for a moment, though, when he told me how Stephanie had honored him in one of her paintings during her residency.  The woodwork was interesting, but now I wanted to follow him down this path.

Stephanie had joined forces with Narrator Molly Snyder to collaborate on a book of paintings and writings inspired by their time at The Pfister. Called The Carriersthis collection is both rooted in Milwaukee and transient with departures and travels and arrivals.  In one of the rooted painting-story pairings, “Robin & the Fisherfolk,” a small fishing boat in the foreground is overwhelmed by a turbulent magenta-yellow sky and a tower of concrete, construction cranes, southside homes, and a strangely dark and imposing Allen-Bradley Clock.  One of those homes is the one Robin grew up in.

Robin & the Fisherfolk (2013) by Stephanie Barenz. Mixed media on canvas, 84″x60″.

During his childhood, his family lived five blocks from the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower.  His house was on the west side of the street, looking east. It’s the house on the middle-right in Stephanie’s looming tower, the one with the porch.  The moonlight was so bright it would shine right into his house and onto the desk in his room.  His family, as did many in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, called it the “Polish moon,” a sobriquet in honor of the Polish immigrants of Walker’s Point.  What I love is that Robin made it seem like it was only his family that called it that; there was that sense of pride again.  As an accompaniment to Stephanie’s painting, Molly captured a similar special pride in her short story:

by Molly Snyder

“We never had to have a clock or thermometer in the house,” Robin mused, “because all we had to do was look out the window.  And my school was two blocks away.  We’d watch the guys washing the glass of the clock–especially when we were studying.  It was so cool, how could you blame us?

Robin had been enjoying the appetizers and had somehow devoured all but a lonely raisin, which he picked up, then placed back on the plate.  I understood that the stark white plate was one of the 40-foot, 3-1/2 inch clock faces.  “You knew it was a big clock, obviously, but when you saw a man up there?  Then you told yourself, ‘That’s a big clock!'”  The only photo I have of Robin is this one of him pointing to the raisin man:

Raisin man.

We saw Stephanie arriving, but before they greeted each other with friendly memories and hugs, Robin left me with this: “Eventually, I got to work as a painter in the offices and parking lot of Rockwell Automation– and guess what?  I was up there on the side of the building on one of those swing stages, just like the guys I’d see from my school window.  It’s funny how everything comes full circle, isn’t it?”

 

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

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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.