writersblockwritersblock…or, not.

Recently, I got to sit down and have a thoroughly engaging conversation with several people about the nature of art and creative economy, of how to meld creative non-profit ventures with for-profit results – as it pertains to the artist (and now writer) residencies that the Pfister hosts.

One of the things that came up in conversation was how things like the Pfister Artist-in-Residence program offer a chance for the public to get a look at the process of art creation: of how a painting comes together, or what inspires a sketch, and they can watch this process happen in real-time. This discovery of an artist in a public space strips away the intimidation non-artists generally feel when face-to-face with a completed work of art. As someone whose other job is hosting authors in public events where that exact stripping away occurs—bringing readers out of the intimidating space of a book’s interior and into a conversation with its creator—I know that this can be revealing, insightful, educational, or even inspiring.

However, unless you happen to be someone watching me make conversation while sitting at the lobby bar or standing in a hallway, you don’t get to see me actually create my art. The process for these blog posts is virtually invisible. So, as I struggled with the writing of a post, and bore out some conversation with writer friends about writer’s block, I realized that this was an opportunity to do just that: let you see into my process.

Just as each artist-in-residence here has had their own individual process in creating their unique paintings, so the different writers for the blog posts will have different approaches. This is, essentially, mine.

First, I simply spend time at the Pfister Hotel. This includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  1. Make conversation with the employees, get a finger on the pulse and mood of the day.
  2. Write down some notes (Uni-ball Jetstream pen, 0.7, black ink). Snap a photo (Olympus Stylus 770SW or smartphone).
  3. Check out the happenings sheet at the concierge desk, see what’s going on in the ballrooms, up at Blu or over at Mason Street Grill.
  4. Wander. Take notes on sights, smells, colors, sounds, etc.
  5. Sit somewhere. Eat something. Drink something. Eavesdrop.
  6. Catch someone’s eye, gauge responsiveness. If positive, engage in friendly conversation.
  7. Scribble in notebook (red Moleskine, hardcover, lined).

Usually, at some point during the above list, something will have a light shone on it. Whether it’s a story a pianist shares, sounds I heard on a quiet Sunday night, a conversation with two out-of-town businessmen, or a morning in the Café – it’s really about drawing the lines, and connecting the dots, to create a story arc. So, what happens when those hours of time or pages of notes don’t seem to spawn anything? What then?

A writer friend replied to a recent complaint of mine about “writer’s block” by saying “Not. You’re just busy writing the wrong thing in the wrong forum.” Of course, what he meant is that as writers we sometimes get stuck staring at blankness, not feeling as though we have anything to say, despite having plenty to say. It’s a reminder that sometimes a writer simply needs to step away from the material and the delivery system, and try something different. It’s often about simply getting the juices flowing.

Not writing

So, I will…

…drink my favorite coffee and nosh on mini peanut butter cups (fuel).
…read something else. Or lots of something elses: last week I read three whole books and finished a fourth.
…watch funny videos about kittens scared of apples, or upcoming indie movie trailers.
…call my mother.
…take Vito for a long walk through Lake Park or around the East Side.

Eventually I sit back down, upload the photos I took, stare at my notebook, flip through some pages, until something jumps out at me. I then like to write straight through, and prefer to not do too many drafts or major revisions. I put in links as I write, and add photos where they seem to fit the narrative.  One thing is for certain: I’m never short of good material.

When a post is done being composed, I prefer to have a particular friend of mine read it. He points out simple mistakes, like grammar or punctuation, but also offers style observations and even corrects major errors (like one post where I—who knows how this got jumbled up—said that Shaq was retiring from the Chicago Bulls), while still giving the much-needed affirmations and compliments.

Then, up it goes, onto the blog.
It gets posted on Facebook, and tweeted on Twitter.
A copy is saved in a separate file for future archival use.
I close the computer, stand up, stretch, and…go do something else.

Until it’s time to start all over again.

Coming Together

Floating around the room, dressed in white linen, her red curls a striking contrast to the layers of turquoise, jade and green crystal beads that encircle her neck and dangle from her ears.  She slices pieces from two birthday cakes, after being serenaded by a gallery full of friends, new and old.  Melodee, a masseuse and administrator for a healing arts education center, is in town visiting one of her best friends, who also happens to be the Pfister’s Artist-in-Residence, Shelby Keefe.  Originally from Milwaukee, Melodee moved to Tucson four years ago to pursue a new life with her “beloved.”  Everything about her is light and airy, yet warm and bright.  Her hands gesture with careful deliberation, and everyone gravitates towards her when she laughs.

People like this tend to be a magnet for creative people, and the circles of artistic creativity have certainly overlapped tonight.  For example, one of Melodee’s friends, the evening’s self-appointed photographer, Sandy, decided to invite another artist friend to tonight’s celebration in the Pfister’s artist-in-residence studio.  What Sandy didn’t know was that this young artist was also already friends with Shelby, the evening’s hostess!

Tia and I sat in one of the high-backed wrought iron chairs with their animal print cushions, eating cake and talking about art.  A former student of Milwaukee High School of the Arts, Tia was always a “drawer” but her dad, a painter and visual engineer, took her on as a student and encouraged, mentored, and inspired her, to become a more versatile artist.  Though his creativity comes out in his engineering work, he most “lives vicariously” through her, she says.  Her work, as she went on to college and participated in more art shows and honed her craft, is expressed in a variety of mediums: oils and acrylics, colored pencil, watercolors, even wearable art (though she primarily creates her jewelry for herself, not for sale).  While not her favorite medium, Tia really likes an interesting technique known as “gouache.”  She describes it as being workable and good for layering, like watercolor, but more substantive, like acrylics.

Drawn to the impressionists, Tia’s art displays a flair for magical realism combined with a strong nod to her ancestral background as a young African American woman. Her website features some incredibly moving portraits of black women in native dress, tribal patterns and color, together in dance, or celebrating children and family.  There are some more impressionistic-inspired watercolors where the men and women in them are nearly in silhouette, but bathed in, and surrounded by, so much color.  There are works that lend an air of “magical realism,” like the one where a woman’s streaming hair is adorned in flowers, pearls, and then the sun and moon.  After the ones of African women bonding together, my favorites are a set of commissioned works that depict jazz artists and blues jams – you can practically hear the scatting, bass-thumping, and complementary audience murmur.  I want to be inside these pieces.

As we talked at Melodee’s party about art in the community, Tia told me about the teaching she does in classrooms, after-school programs and Boys & Girls Clubs.  As part of her art classes and talks, she incorporates “talking circles” to help her connect to the kids, and for the kids to learn how to better connect to themselves and each other.  Tia says she doesn’t see a line between her artist self and her everyday self, and wants to help others be their authentic selves, too.  Seeing her work makes it clear how actively true this principle is for her, as her art celebrates circles, connection, a “coming together” of friends and family.  The peaceful joy that radiates from her person is the same joy that comes alive in her paintings and drawings – a joy expressed in movement, song and radiant, brilliant colors!

Who knows, perhaps Tia will apply for the next Artist-in-Residence year and you will get a chance to see her vibrantly joyous, inspiring work as it develops and grows.  I know Shelby’s encouraging her to throw her paintbrush in the ring, so to speak.

In the meantime, you can view Tia Richardson’s artwork online or, at least through July 11, on display at the Unitarian Universalist Church West’s Community Room Gallery as part of their current show, “A Celebration of African American Art.”

Save the Date: July Gallery Night at the Pfister

Start and end your night at The Pfister. During our Gallery Night reception on July 29 at 9pm, for sale enjoy live music and dancing, complimentary snacks and a cash bar all while watching a painting performance by Shelby Keefe.

All the Colors of the Rainbow

Tulips in Bloom

The weather in Milwaukee was (briefly) exquisite this week.  Temperatures soared into the low 60’s, the breezes indicated Spring was finally here with their combination of warmth and lakeside coolness, and the sun was brightly shining.  Perfection.  The daffodils and tulips are in full bloom on, what feels like, every city block.  In front of the Pfister’s Wisconsin Avenue entrance, tall, brightly colored pink and yellow tulips are ringed in the low, black, decorative iron that mark the corners of the sidewalk garden boxes.  All of this belied the clouds that were moving in, ever so slowly, threatening rain.

It is 4pm inside the hotel and the Pfister’s current artist-in-residence, Shelby Keefe, is about to give a tour* of the Victorian art collection that adorns the public spaces.  Starting from her studio, located just off the lobby, between the Pfister Cafe and Mason Street Grill, Shelby grabs the two tools of her tour: a slim paperback guide featuring a gilded frame on the cover and the words ‘The Pfister Art Collection,’ and a heavy-duty silver flashlight.

She starts off, right away, talking about how she dug out an old art history textbook from college in order to gain a refreshed perspective on the various styles and artists on display.  One of the first things Shelby shares is her realization that while the majority of the art collected by Charles Pfister comes from the 19th century and is mostly from the classical romanticists, the realists and a fair number from the Barbizon, Millet schools – the impressionists were very active in those same years.  By her own description, she is a “contemporary impressionistic painter,” and also a fan of much of the art being produced today that is very different from her own.  “A reminder,” she says, “that it’s always been true that artists are not all doing the same thing at the same time.”

Popping from one painting to another, Shelby wields her flashlight like an enormous lecturer’s pointer, illuminating specific parts of paintings which beg her emphasis: the shell being held up to a beautiful woman’s ear in Lenoir’s The Shell (about which a young girl once inquired “Is she holding a cell phone?”); the flirtatious gentleman in L’Eternelle Pomme d’Eve, which hangs over the check-in desk, by Georges Achille-Fould; the gauzy lace dripping from the dress sleeves of Adolphe Piot’s The Rose; how the dress on Clairin’s Dancer practically undulates (“I love how he lets the paint do the work”); or, the ‘Roma’ notation beneath a painter’s signature indicating he had studied in Italy (something which 19th-century painters would tout as a sign of their artistic respectability).

It’s remarkable what else is illuminated in this adjustable circle of light.  A painting by Eugene Fromentin, a Frenchman who painted in the “spirit and manner” of the Dutch, simply titled The Cows, instantly springs to the beautiful russet, deep green, and yellow shades of a field and stream on a perfect fall day.  The colors are muted in the mood-lighting, but they appear like magic when lit up directly.  The same thing happens with Louis Aston Knight’s gorgeous The Poppy Field, Daniel Ridgway Knight’s (no relation) The Rose Garden, and most spectacularly, Chianti by E. Giachi.  This last one, features a serving woman being charmed by, or perhaps doing the charming of, a young gentleman with splendid white, floppy hat while two portly men doze drunkenly in the background. A large cask is set off to the right, a stone wall straw litters the ground where thatch-bottomed jugs are spread.  It may not sound like a particularly colorful tableau, but the detail is astoundingly vibrant: golden threads, teal tights, pale green sheen on a wooden bench – each detail simply glows.

The tour wound its way to the seventh floor, where the ballrooms are located.  A wedding and a school’s anniversary gala were both set and the halls were beginning to swell with guests.  A young lady in layers of elegant, chiffon powder blue ruffles eased by, followed soon after by a suited man carrying a little blond girl wearing a sateen dress in bright fuchsia while groomsmen swam together, upstream, in their rose-red ties.  Between the art and the events, every shade of every color of the rainbow was painted on the air tonight.

Later, a wander up to the aptly-colorfully-named Blu for a listen to Dr. Hollander’s delightful and charming piano playing results in a glass of the evening’s featured red wine: a velvety soft Domaine du Sac from nearby Wollersheim Winery.  Two ladies sit at one of the window-side tables, admiring the view, pointing out landmarks, and sipping from aquamarine cocktails.  Suddenly, they pull out cameras and wildly gesture from one side of the vista to the other.  The rain had cleared some time ago, though the clouds had rendered the horizon a steel-grey, and a rainbow had appeared, stretching across the sky.

*Tours of the Pfister’s Victorian art collection are given by Shelby Keefe on Fridays and Saturdays, from 4 to 5pm.

Meet ‘n Greet Monday! Do you know Perry?

Well it’s Meet ‘n Greet Monday! While the Pfister Hotel has housed many celebrities over the years, viagra the true stars are our staff. Every week you will meet a member of our staff, and have your chance to share your memories and interactions with them. Today, case it’s the man who tickles the ivory, Perry, one of our Lobby Lounge Pianists.

Name – Perry

Position – Pianist

How long have you worked at the Pfister Hotel? – 14 years, unhealthy since 1997.

Why do you like working at the Pfister Hotel? – The Lobby Lounge has the best atmosphere, friendly people, whats not to like?

What’s your favorite Pfister memory? – When I first started, Mr. Ben Marcus would stop by the piano, just to say hello.

Tell us something we don’t know about you? –  From about 1978 until 1988, I was playing Theatre Pipe Organ in Pizza Restaurants in Chicago and Milwaukee.

What is the oddest/weirdest request that you have ever gotten from a guest? – One late night in the Lobby Lounge, the bartender had stepped out for a moment, and a woman who had obviously been enjoying her beverages that evening, sat right down next to me with an odd request.  She asked, “Hey, you, can you stop playing and make me a drink?”

Thank you Perry for being a participant on Meet ‘n Greet Monday.

Have you met Perry before?  Tell us a story about meeting him.  Thank you so much for being fans of the Pfister Hotel, and look forward to a new person to meet every Monday.

Perry ~ Pfister Pianist

Gallery Night with Shelby Keefe [VIDEO]

Shelby Keefe put on quite the show on Gallery Night on Friday, here April 15 at the Pfister Hotel.

With a great display of a few of her current pieces and a live performance of a completed piece in 20 minutes on her first Gallery Night, buy viagra we are in for a treat this year with Shelby Keefe as our current Artist-in-Residence.

Listen in to hear about her approach and the culmination of her first Gallery Night as the new Artist-in-residence.

Kevin Bacon Meets his Match

In three characters or less, can you connect yourself to the popular actor Kevin Bacon? How about if I give you six characters? Or, we can go back to the standard version of the game (that was actually made into a board game, by the way) and ask that you use six movie actors and their films to draw a line between Kevin Bacon and what ever actor whose name you draw.

The Pfister should design such a board game. They can give Mr. Bacon a run for his money as more than A Few Good Men have passed through these hallowed halls. I’ve met people in the hotel who have had life long experiences here—beginning as a child, they have had traditions built around pizza, the holidays, the lions (now available as stuffed souvenirs in the new gift shop), teas and brunches. I’ve met those couples who share a regular date at the hotel or who met there. Others are introduced to the space through work, and name badge still attached testify “oh, yeah, I’m glad they booked the program here! I’ve never been here before!”

But in conjunction with my plein air tribute to AIR Shelby Keefe, I have to say, my favorite “Six Degrees of Pfister’” comes when the six degrees unite Milwaukee, past and present, local and newbie, to the hotel from outside its walls.

 Recently, I’ve met a young woman who just moved here from out of town. I invited her to join me at a dinner for a group of the oldest women in town—oldest women’s group in town, that is. Since 1894, the AAUW Milwaukee Branch has been creating historic moments and hosting speakers.

As this Newaukeean met with those steeped in the city’s history, recommendations for where to go, who to meet and what to join flew. As testimony to her own efforts at building roots, the Newaukeean explained she had participated with another professional organization she’d joined in town…at an event at Blu, “at the Pfister Hotel, have you ever been there?”

I couldn’t help but smile. I shared my Narrator card. We talked about the beauty of an event that starts during daylight hours and extends into evening and what happens to you when you witness that from 23 stories above the city. There are no Tremors up there, but great stories about times when Joan Rivers and the gang got Footloose. I explained my role and all that I’d seen so far in my tenure—I warned her “Many who report to you on Milwaukee are Flatliners, but don’t believe them. Sit at the Pfister and watch how much we love our community and how many people continue to return to it time and time again.”

I realized it’s not my new city anymore, it’s hers.

The Pfister has been my Kevin Bacon. Either someone says to me “hey, have you ever stopped for a drink at the Pfister? We were just there, it was great” and I have to explain it’s my home. Or, I become the lever for someone else, “You work with the Pfister? I was just invited to an event there and I’ve never been!” It’s the perfect connector in the city and it’s never had a flop. I dare you to play the game—are you at least three degrees from the Pfister Hotel? What’s amazing is, whether or not you’ve realized it yet, you are.

Historic Hotel Selects Next In-House Storyteller: Welcome, Stacie Williams.

The historic Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee has named Stacie Michelle Williams as its second ‘Pfister Narrator.’ In the role, she will spend time in the hotel’s lobby, interviewing visitors and guests and sharing their stories on the Pfister’s blog (blog.thepfisterhotel.com). As narrator, she will be posting blog entries twice-per-week over a six-month period.

“To say I’m excited to be the next Pfister Narrator would be inaccurate and a little bit of an understatement,” says Williams. “More accurate would be to say that I’m a little nervous, as there’s great pressure in telling people’s stories with truth and honor. I am also more than excited, I’m thrilled: this is a chance to share the love of my adopted city of Milwaukee, to do so through such a beautiful historic establishment and via the voices of those who, often, like me, are not natives either.”

With a love of stories and storytelling, Williams has worked at a local Milwaukee bookstore for more than five years, and has experience in travel writing and blogging. She studied theater at University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee and is active in its creative writing program.

Williams was chosen to serve as narrator based on her writing style and outgoing personality from a significant pool of qualified applicants by a review panel, which included publisher of The Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee, Mark Sabljak; executive director of the East Town Association, Kate Borders; Judith Moriarty, a longtime local writer; and representatives from the hotel, including Julie Ferris, The Pfister’s first-ever narrator.

“We were thrilled with the success of the introduction of the narrator program last year,” says Joe Kurth, general manager of The Pfister Hotel. “Our guests have a special connection to The Pfister and interesting stories to tell—it has been wonderful sharing their unique experiences and backgrounds with the rest of Milwaukee and beyond.”

Williams will begin her stint as narrator on May 1, 2011. More information about the Pfister Narrator program can be found at www.ThePfisterHotel.com/Pfister-Narrator.

Meet Stacie Williams, our next Pfister Narrator

Plein Air Office Space

I try not to write about the staff. They’re an easy target—each is polished, ampoule professional and full of juicy bits of knowledge. They’re the eyes and ears. But we, the “in-residencers” are also staff in a way, but with the very specific charge to engage and make the hotel colorful.

So, what I’m trying to say is, pilule I have to tell you about hanging out with Shelby Keefe, the new Artist in Residence. A program different (and longer) than the narrator, Shelby’s work life will live at the Pfister for a full year. She has a giant, glass-walled fish bowl to work in and be ogled, which is why I thought it was charming when she said “Where is your office?”

And thus began the explanation of how I don’t have walls to paint or works of art to hang…and only for a minute did I feel a bit strange explaining my office was in the bar…because truly, it is. Have notebook will travel…but that’s not all that different from this woman who also conducts most of her art work in the outdoors.

Shelby was moving into her new studio and it’s a world apart from the life Katie brought to the space. You’ll notice immediately the change in subject matter and color. Shelby chose the same direction for her easel and stool, however, and I wondered if it was naturally feng shui or just the most convenient corner of the space.

What you need to know about Shelby, however, is how ready she is for this gig. She’ll be there late. She’ll be there often, she’s not afraid of the people, she can’t wait for them (or, so she thought until she gulped and realized the very next day they’d be arriving). Her work is full of color and the day we chatted her shirt matched at least three of the paintings on the wall, which made it feel like when I stepped in to introduce myself amid her hammering and unpacking, I had fallen into a color palette. She laughed at what I noticed, given what I suspect was a talented artist’s version of “oh, this old thing?”

She’s eager. She’s also ready to show you what her art means; she was bursting with energy as she explained how she enjoys people watching her art demos and what her performance painting would be like. (I got to see the special brushes. I’d say you could be jealous, but you can see them too—just stop in her studio).

Shelby was a lot like me. I felt that vibe, that readiness. I hope she knows just what she’s gotten into, because what she’ll get out of it is more than she’ll ever know.

In honor of Shelby, who I found has a friend in common with me—another unique performer in the Milwaukee area—I think I may adopt some plein air writing to match her painting. I end up having the best conversations with guests on the elevators and in the parking garage, why not out in front of the hotel on warm spring days? Come find me there next week and we’ll capture the open air joy of the Pfister and its amazing and colorful staff, and welcome, Shelby!