From the Mezzanine: Milwaukee Art Museum Teens Descend on The Pfister

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

Windblown and soggy, they escaped the dark cold.  They entered the bright gallery space where new art was being hung for an upcoming exhibit, one girl wrapped in a beach towel for warmth, others with curls worried about frizzing.  One boy shook his purple hair, others nudged each other as they talked about their day. Last Wednesday, a dozen teenagers introduced themselves to me with friendly smiles that revealed their eagerness to begin their experience.  At their exuberant leader’s suggestion, they immediately got into a circle on the carpeted floor and began introducing themselves more formally, if “formal” means taking turns gently tossing a Nerf-like skull to each other.  I had a good vibe about these kids.

Last Wednesday, a dozen teenagers introduced themselves to me with friendly smiles that revealed their eagerness to begin the experience.  At their exuberant leader’s suggestion, they immediately got into a circle on the carpeted floor and began introducing themselves more formally–if by “formal” I mean taking turns gently tossing a Nerf-like skull to each other.  I had a good vibe about these kids.

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil
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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

Helene Fischman, the Manager of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Teen Leadership Program, had arranged to bring these twelve teenagers to The Pfister, a few blocks west of where they typically meet, to learn about the Narrator program and to practice their writing by responding to their experience of the Hotel.  This special Teen Advisory Council is, according to MAM’s website, “designed to develop teen leadership skills, build teen career connections to museum- and arts-related professionals, and bring about systemic change within the Milwaukee Art Museum.”  The teens–who attend schools as diverse as Marquette, Rufus King, and Milwaukee High School of the Arts–were invited to serve on the Council based on their demonstrated leadership and enthusiasm for the arts in previous MAM programs.  Helene takes them through intensive exercises that focus on how to respond to the world around them in different ways.  And, as was clear by how they acted with each other and with Helene and me, she teaches them how to respect that world and the people with whom they interact.  They are currently creating a monthly eNewsletter–with articles about goings-on at the Museum and around the city, recommended pairings of art and music, comics, interviews, and more–and getting ready to set up a Teen Art Exhibition.

Before most of them got a chance to view the magnificent lobby (only two of them had visited before), I offered them a mini-history of the Hotel as we relaxed in the Pop-Up Gallery.  I’m not the greatest historical storyteller (aka I’m no Peter Mortenson), so my histories usually get reduced to timeline highlights.  However, the teens listened dutifully (and with what seemed genuine interest).  In fact, we even had some good laughs.  For instance, once I told them that a fire destroyed the grand Newhall House in 1883, everything after that became, for the teens, about fire.  They guessed, incorrectly of course, that Guido Pfister died . . . wait for it . . . “in a hotel fire!”  That four days after the Hotel Pfister opened in 1893 . . . wait for it . . . it, too, “burned to the ground!”  (The correct answer?  The stock market crashed.)  So we had a little fun and took some liberties with the history of the “Grand Hotel of the West,” amused by Dick and Harry (the stately lion guardians), awed by the idea of the glass ceiling, tickled by the fact that someone wrote a march just for the Pfister Hotel, and, well, I’m not sure what they were thinking when I told them there used to be Turkish Baths where the WELL Spa + Salon is now.  I detected a smirk or two.

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

We made our way to the Mezzanine, got ourselves settled on the floor again, and I talked to them about the joys and difficulties of being the Pfister Narrator, in particular what it’s like approaching strangers.  “Sometimes, honestly, it feels like I’m looking for a date,” I tell them.  “I know, that’s creepy, but it’s kind of true.”  I give them my best Joey from Friends: “How you doin’?”  Sometimes, I add, it takes some coaxing and getting over inhibitions or even language barriers.  Sometimes it’s about seeking out the “loudest” person in the room, whether that means volume-loud (like the LSU fans when they were here to go to Lambeau) or appearance-loud (like the one person in the room that looks like he works on Project Runway, covered in tattoos and incredible floral skinny jeans).  I admit that sometimes I’ve prejudged people unfairly (“too sporty,” “too quiet,” “too north woodsy”–whatever those things actually mean, which is nothing) and that I’ve more often than not been humbled by what people are willing to share with me.  I meant to give them these examples in particular: the “too sporty” guy who I thought was just going to talk about golf but who told me that the time he felt most alive was after he gave one of his kidneys to his eleven-year-old daughter and started embracing Buddhist values; the “too quiet” woman who wowed me with her photography and oil paintings, embracing her inner Bohemian; and the “too north woodsy” guy who talked about fishing like it was a spiritual experience.  I do share with them one of my most recent Humans of the Pfister, Claudia, an Associate at The Pfister who was serving wine and hors d’oeuvres at a recent function that I was at.  I told Claudia to take a break from pouring us wine–we could do that ourselves–and tell me a story about a fear.  After breaking down her inhibitions a bit, I got to hear her moral philosophy on the light and the dark.  I’ve come to not be surprised when eloquent wisdom comes from the mouths of anyone I talk to here at the Hotel.  I think I used the word “humbled” at least a dozen times.

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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman

It was time, then, for the teens to do what they were here to do, which was to explore the Hotel and respond to it.  Helene and I had decided to offer them three main observation subjects: Painting, People, or Pillars (a third “P” that meant any of the architectural details of the Hotel).  I invited them to imagine what was to the unseen and unrepresented left or right each painting’s scene, or above or below, beyond or in the foreground.

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I suggested they observe guests’ and Associates’ characteristics and eavesdrop a little, or even talk to them if they seemed willing.

Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil
Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

And Helene asked them to consider what the pillars or carpeting or handrails had to say to them, or imagine who had constructed or walked or touched these elements in the Hotel’s past glory days.

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

And then they were off.

Some of the teens headed directly to the third floor, others ventured down the stairs into the lobby, gazing up at the ceiling or walking down the hallway toward Mason Street Grill.  At least one remained in the mezzanine, contemplating the rendition of Domenichino’s The Hunt of Diana.  Jack West and I were doing some serious art criticism about this piece!

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Jack West (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)

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Helene had encouraged them to be patient and take some time to look around, observe, and listen before they took their thoughts and imaginations to paper. As Helene’s beautiful photos show, the teens took her words to heart and also embraced the Hotel’s offer of “Salve”:

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Josiah Grabber (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Marcelo Quesada (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Tom Krajna (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Sarai Van Leer (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Joicelyn Brenson (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Suvan Praseutsack (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Sheyenne Wilson (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Margaret French (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)

When they all returned, we took a break, ate some boxed dinners prepared by the MAM chef, and talked about, among other things, the seniors’ college application process (two of the teens were still juniors), where they were applying, what their dream schools were.  The teens enjoyed each others’ company, clearly enjoyed having Helene as their leader, and welcomed me into their conversation with ease and delight.  In particular, talked a lot with Montaser Abduljalil, a polite and inquisitive young man.  We talked about art at his school and the school where I used to teach, about my photography project called ZIP MKE, and about how marvelous the Hotel is.  Monty, as people call him, loves that “one of the Pfister’s goals is to make your stay feel as cozy and home-like as they can, with carpet and marble everywhere and the welcoming staff.”

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

When we moved back to the Pop-Up Gallery where there was more light and less noise (the lobby was hopping!), I learned that some of them had talked to Pamela in her studio and that Monty had approached Dr. Jeffrey Hollander at his piano and talked to him for awhile, learning how Hollander remembers every song that anyone has ever asked him to play.  (In fact, before we left for the evening, Monty asked him to play Debussy’s Claire de Lune–and was simply in awe when he heard Dr. Hollander play it.  We had to stay to hear the entire piece.)

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

Dang, these kids were good!  And then, again gathered in a circle on the floor, Helene and I heard each of the teens share what they had written.  Each was written in a different style and form.  Some were poems, some were lists of observations, others were dialogues imagined or overheard, still others were written from the perspective of, say, the carpet or an empty display case, as with Sarai Van Leer’s insistent poem:

Empty
A space waiting to be filled
Hollow, for decoration?
They are saving me for something special that’s why there is nothing in me yet.
Every other one is filled with careless objects,
Just things to look at
Never to take note of
Wine, conditioner, advertisement, glasses, and more liquor
Why am I empty?
They must be saving me for something special, right?
I mean they must be!
I won’t be just something to pass by and look at,
Never to take note of!
Yet, I am special.
I am not filled
Nothing is there, my beauty is too precious
Too beautiful to be filled with nonsense objects.
I am something to take note of!

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Sarai’s inspiration

Or Thomas Krajna’s elusive “Vending Behind Closed Doors”:

Fitting in is obsolete.
Practicality and manner outweigh her. Endless possibilities of consumerism.
One action outweighs your trust.
The windows can’t see.
The doors can’t see.
Technology inputs and uneventfully changes history.

And Marcelo Quesada’s vision of the lobby:

The people mingle. The walls tower, a rich light brown of milky coffee. They curve in a heavenly, sweeping motion towards the ceiling, switching to a creamy baby blue that sings of church hymns and lullabies from my mother. The angels, depicted as children–soft, floating, just like the warm mumble of the lobby conversations. The piano is distant–the notes drip and sing and dance off the mocha walls, giving dead paintings a kiss of life. Glasses of ice and liquor clink and swish in a familiar gesture. Soft, dim yellow lights warm the space. It is full.

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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Monty (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman

All the pieces were rough drafts, but each held a new an interesting insight into the life of the Hotel–and each was read not from the floor but from a ceremonial chair, holding the ceremonial Nerf skull.  And, more important than the writing they had accomplished, after each reading the teens snapped or clapped for each other and rolled an orange to someone who would be the designated reviewer, offering one thing they liked about the piece their Council colleague had shared.  This was no time for critique, just celebration and positive response.  It was a pleasant bookend to the evening, which had begun in a circle of warmth from the cold and warmth in each others’ company.

Oh, and did I mention that Monty was taking photos the entire time?  A few of his photos are above in the article, but here is only a handful of the nearly 75 that he sent me.  I don’t think that last Wednesday will be the last time that Montaser Abduljalil (or the other teens*) will be visiting The Pfister Hotel!

 

PLUME SERVICE: Bringing the Art to Life

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If these walls could talk…

Over 80 Victorian paintings and other art pieces grace the walls of The Pfister Hotel, an impressive art collection worth more than the original cost of the Hotel in 1893.  It is considered to be the largest collection of Victorian art in any hotel in the world.  Each art piece captures people, animals, and nature, sometimes posed, sometimes in medias res, in the middle of some exquisite, or mundane, action.  Very often, the carved and gilded frames are artworks in themselves.

On Saturday, November 12th, from 12 noon to 2:30 pm, you will have the opportunity to join me for PLUME SERVICE, the first in a series of free writing workshops that will have you not only staring intently at the paintings but stepping into them (well, not literally–I don’t think the Marcus Corporation would appreciate that!) and imagining what it would be like to exist in their worlds.  If not stepping into them, then stepping back and contemplating the bigger picture, the world just outside the frame. What’s to the left and the right that the painter’s eye has cropped out?  What’s happening above or below?  What is that figure looking at beyond the boundaries of the canvas and wood?  If not stepping into or stepping back, then stooping a bit closer to the oils and watercolors to notice details you might have missed.  If not stooping to look, then bending an ear to listen, perhaps imagining the taste of a fruit, even breathing in deeply through your nose to smell the salty air (no one will judge you!).

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What is Diana telling to her women at the beginning of the hunt?  What are the two women talking about at the altar of Athena?  And what is going on in the head of the nude figure at the edge of the pool?

The paintings offer us intriguing compositions and perspectives and colors, but since Domenichino, Bompiani, and Mayer are no longer here to give us the scoop, we’ll become art (and artistic) sleuths uncovering the stories these paintings tell and expressing them in our own words, through flash fiction, poetry, and other written forms.

 

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I want to know how the girlfriends in Scadrone’s painting met, what’s going to happen after the chianti is bottled in Giachi’s, and who loses Lesrel’s card game.  I’m curious to know the words to Peluso’s romantic serenade or how the woman in Grolleron’s piece is going to get that man to leave. her. alone!

Speaking of which, there are plenty of, uh, amorous scenes–I’ve never seen someone so happy while cutting an apple.

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I also wouldn’t mind hearing your vivid descriptions of the horses in Schreyer’s “The Wallachian Post-Carrier,” the title of which fails to capture the raw intensity of hoofs and sweat and earth.  Or of Lindsay’s “Mahomet,” the noble lion (who actually looks a bit perplexed), and even of those too-cute kittens in a basket by LeRoy.  Oh, and the monks–very amusing!

I envision the pieces we write together becoming placards that will accompany the paintings on the walls and, quite possibly, becoming audio recordings that will be available to guests who would like to take an art tour.  Imagine: your words becoming part of the life of The Pfister Hotel.

So please join me on November 12, bring your favorite notebook and writing utensil, and prepare to bring the Pfister’s art alive in a new way!

You can RSVP by emailing me at hotelnarrator@gmail.com or by visiting the Plume Service Facebook Page.

NOTE: The December workshop will be on Saturday, December 10.  We will continue our work of storytelling.  You can certainly attend both–there is a lot of art!–but you do not have to attend the November workshop in order to join me in December.  And stay tuned for early 2017 plans!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gallery visitors consider the Happy collage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First, she reminisced:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gallery Night: Interpreting the Textures in Our Lives

It is what it is.  Perception.

It is what it is not.  Metaphor.

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . .

TRANSFORMATION: AN EXHIBITION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOSEMITE & THE TETONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PAMELA M. ANDERSON, FEATURING NINETEEN THIRTEEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . .

It is what it is.  

It is what it is not.

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

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

STAY TUNED!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for my full reflection on these stories!

 

 

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

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

PART I.

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

Precious Lives cast and crew.

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

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

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

PART II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jazz Virgin

I admit it.  I’m a jazz virgin.

But The Pfister Hotel is going to initiate me.

At the Mason Street Grill on Wednesday evening, after listening to part of a set by the Jamie Breiwick/Mark Davis Duo, I snuck up to a table where a woman was sitting alone.

The Jamie Breiwick/Mark Davis Duo

Her companion had just temporarily vacated his seat to chat with Jamie and Mark.  This seemed like a good opportunity to see what she knew and thought about jazz.  I introduced myself (her name is Sheryl) and remarked about how smoothly Jamie’s embouchure and Mark’s fingers communicated with each other, almost telepathically (I didn’t use the term “embouchure”–I had to look that up!).  I was really bemoaning the fact that I’d never been able to tear my eyes away from the sheet music and just, well, jam.  Improvise.  Instead, my classical and acoustic guitar playing was always literally by-the-book.  Sheryl conjectured that improvisation was like telling each other, “We’re going to do this together–but also separately.  Let’s just agree to play in this key, this tempo, this style.”  Then I’m going to play, then you’ll come in when it seems right.  I’ll listen to your notes, you listen to my rhythm.  We’ll build off each other.   Communicate and create with a look, a beat, a tone.  We’ll build off what we know and take it from there.

20160608_214806Sheryl’s husband, Kurt, whose seat I had taken, is an accomplished pianist, composer, and arranger.  When Kurt returned to the table, I learned that he had arranged the music this spring for James & the Giant Peach at The Prairie School, where Jamie and I just got done teaching for the year, and had also just performed with Aretha Franklin at the Riverside the previous Friday.  When I told them that one of my missions as the Narrator is to uncover the story of jazz at The Pfister–and educate myself on the genre–both Sheryl and Kurt recommended that I begin my instruction with Ken Burn’s famous Jazz documentary series.  Sheryl admitted to knowing about as much as I do about the technical side of jazz, but it must be nice having a jazz expert to which to defer when jazz virgins like me ask questions like “How do Jamie and Mark know when to come in after the other one solos?” or “Are there many female jazz musicians?  Have there ever been?  If not, then how come?”  or “Were they just playing Coltrane or modern jazz or Monk or someone else?”  She was able to help up to a point, then she and I were in the same boat.  I hope we’ll find ourselves in that boat again during my year-long Pfister initiation into the world of jazz.

This pleasant conversation seems like a good starting point for my initiation–that and Ted Gioia’s Jazz Standards, which I had tucked into my bag in case I had time to read while listening to Jamie and Mark.  I wouldn’t have time to read, but I would go on that evening to meet several other people who undoubtedly will become some of my jazz mentors this year.

Jamie made sure to introduce me to August (Auggie) Ray, vice president of Jazz Unlimited of Greater Milwaukee, whose mission is “to support the art of jazz in all its forms and encourage local jazz musicians, composers and venues by cultivating an interest in jazz through local live performances, youth scholarship opportunities and community outreach throughout the Greater Milwaukee area.”  Auggie sat near the piano and typed prodigiously into his iPhone, posting to Facebook a photo of the Duo, some notes, and the location.  He calls The Pfister “one of the best promoters of live music in the city.”  With live piano seven days a week, live music in the Mason Street Grill six days, and live music at Blu at least two times a week, I couldn’t argue with him.  The Pfister is not alone in promoting live music, especially jazz.  Auggie moves from one live music venue to another throughout the week, averaging two a day, although his personal record is six in one day: Amelia’s at 5:00, The Packing House at 6:00, Caroline’s at 8:00 (mostly blues), Mason Street Grill at 9:00, then the Jazz Estate for until 1:00 am (reopening in July!).  At each new place, he posts to Facebook.  He is a constant presence in the life of jazz and blues in Milwaukee.  We only got to chat for a little bit, because he was headed up to Blu, but not before he gave me a Jazz Unlimited newsletter (this is going to be invaluable!) and told me that Dan Albrechtson, who plays piano in The Pfister lobby, has a steady gig–on every second Monday at Hart Park in Wauwatosa, where I live–giving a concert and jazz history lesson with Pete Wood, Bruce Yeo, Don Shesky, and Rob Moore.  (I’ll see you there soon, Dan!)

Before the night ended, I joined Mark Davis and his Wisconsin Conservatory of Music colleague, guitarist Paul Silbergleit, at Blu, where, it turns out, Mark Thierfelder had booked The Julie Lyon Quartet from New York City to play a special show with his Mark Thierfelder Trio.  (Of course, Auggie was up there already, posting away!)  Among other musical combos, Mark also plays with The Jazz Corporation, joined by Greg Marcus and Bill Bonifas.  While Julie sang the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong version of 1945’s “Frim-Fram Sauce,” popularized by The Nat King Cole Trio, Paul and I discussed my earlier regret, the one I’d shared with Sheryl, about never being able to improvise or jam.  In something of a consolation, he assured me that there are musicians who only improvise but who don’t really know music, and that there are musicians who can only read music, who know notes on the page and perhaps music theory, but who don’t really feel music.  He argued for a happy medium.  We also talked about how one’s environment can come out in one’s music, just as it can emerge in writing (Paul referenced Hemingway and Key West).  

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The Julie Lyon Quartet

However, as interesting and cerebral as our conversation became, these are things I’ll have to think about later as I try to learn more about jazz, as an art form and as a source of stories here at The Pfister Hotel.  Sometimes, at midnight, in a crowded bar with interesting gentlemen and songs about pork chops and bacon, oss-en-fay and shafafa, one just wants to enjoy one’s Old Fashioned, nibble on wasabi peas, tell stories, laugh–and listen.

What Did You Create Today?

Everywhere I turn in this cozy room, I encounter a new artist.  

Pamela Anderson, The Pfister’s new Artist-in-Residence, is on the west coast during this event, and her fellow artist, Melissa Dorn Richards, has taken up temporary residence in the studio, carving the thick white paint on her square canvases to re-imagine industrial mop heads in surprising ways.  

But here, in the former space of the upscale Rogers Stevens menswear store that has been transformed for a United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) event hosted by the Marcus Corporation’s managers, the unsung artists of The Pfister are emerging.

  • The bartender, Luther, creates music, mainly percussion, out of anything he can find, having recently elevated a washboard to create a wicked sound and acquired a tuba (I reminisce about my college girlfriend and I foxtrotting to “Moonlight Serenade” played by a Seattle street musician with a tuba).  We chat about how he’s seeking new creative ventures for himself, much like I am, adventures that will allow him to create for himself and others, especially after years of raising his children and cleaning their creative peanut butter smears off of sofas.
  • Also at the bar is James, a rep from Copper & Kings American Brandy stationed in Butchertown, Louisville, Kentucky, who regales me with a language still foreign to me, but one I would willingly learn: non-chill filtered, copper pot-distillation, pure pot-still, full integrity, extraction, palatability (that last one I get!).  I enjoy his spirited Absinthe Blanche creation, a double-distilled Muscat brandy with traditional absinthe botanicals, and his company’s neighborhood’s namesake, Butchertown Brandy, described on their website as “bad-ass brandy . . . non-chill filtered without adulteration by boisé (oak flavor or infusion), sugar or caramel color for an uncorrupted natural flavor and natural color.”  Of course, I detect all of those characteristics. . . I’m an art connoisseur.
  • Joe from Milwaukee’s own Great Lakes Distillery shares the new Rehorst Barrel Reserve Gin, oak barrel aged to give it a creaminess that complements the botanicals and a golden to amber palette that delights my palate.  I share with him how my friends and I created a couple of summers ago the “Walkers Point Trifecta,” which begins with a tour of the distillery, followed by an affordable meal at Conejito’s Place Mexican Restaurant across the street, and washed down with cocktails at The Yard across the roundabout.  Good times.
  • After a little while, Peter, the Hotel’s food & beverages purchasing manager, is kind enough to introduce himself and engage me about his art: at work, he says, keeping food and beverage costs down is an art, and at home, he claims to “create masterpieces” (out of leftovers, that is).  I don’t doubt his culinary skill.  He wears it like a badge of honor and gets philosophical with me (I love that), agreeing that any time we take nothing and create something, or take something and transform it, we’re making art.

So why are all these artists gathered among the emptied wooden clothing racks bedecked with hors d’oeuvres and rows of wines for a cork pull and bottles of spirits for silent auction?  This May 10th event is one of the many UPAF events that are held at the Hotel throughout the year (and one of many just this month!), a testament to the company’s commitment to the arts and artists.  Begun in 1967 to support organizations like the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and the Florentine Opera Company that would be performing in the new Performing Arts Center, UPAF has endured to this day, raising in 2014 over $12 million, due in part to co-chair Peggy Williams-Smith, Senior Vice President of Marcus Hotels & Resorts and SafeHouse Restaurants.  The Pfister Hotel’s commitment to UPAF ensures that “funds to ensure entertainment excellence” are raised, that the performing arts are a continued “regional asset,” and that donor gifts are “responsibly steward[ed].”  

As the Narrator, I have set up a table in the corner with Pfister cocktail napkins and colored Sharpies, with an invitation to join past writers in the esoteric art of napkin brainstorming.  

Prepared to hear from the artists!
Prepared to hear from the artists!

As guests approach my table, I greet them with a series of questions to answer about art, artists, inspiration, and performing.  Guests find some of them easy to answer, confident in their support of the arts and their opinions about why they’re important: How do you define art?  What inspires you?  Other questions stump them, which is my intention.  My favorites, and my go-to questions of the evening, are “How are you an artist?” and “What did you create today?”  I’ve found throughout the years that if we don’t paint or sculpt or play an instrument, most of us don’t consider ourselves to be “artists.”  But, as Peter and I agreed, any time we take nothing and create something, or take something and transform it, we’re making art.  We are artists–all of us.

As an English teacher and lover of word origins, I also share with guests that the word art derives from a Latin word meaning “joint” or “to fit together,” that inspire comes from the Latin “to breathe upon,” “to inflame,” or “to put a spirit into,” and that perform hails from the Old French “to provide completely” and the Middle English “to make dreams come true.”  For me, knowing the etymologies of short words like these that we take for granted opens up new avenues for understanding.  If art is a “joining,” then what is it that it joins?  If inspiration means to “breathe upon,” then who or what is breathing, what is being breathed, and upon whom?  And if every time we perform we’re “providing” something that “makes dreams come true,” well, how cool is that?

The guests’ napkin responses reveal to them and me new ways of thinking about ourselves:

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“I provide the world with an open ear.” “I assisted guests with reservations today!” “I try to make someone say Wow every day.”

Before the event comes to a close, I have the pleasure of chatting with Mary and Kathy, guests of Donna, Executive Assistant to the General Manager.

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Mary and Kathy, two artists.

At first mild and reserved, these two handsome women proclaim that neither of them is an artist.  However, with a little encouragement and inquiry, Mary tells me that she once took an art class to maintain her teaching certification.  “You wouldn’t believe that I made these things,” referring to the art, in different mediums, that she produced.  “I kept looking at them and saying, ‘Did I make that?’”

Hearing this, Kathy admits, “I guess deep down there’s something in each of us that’s artistic.”  And then she opens up: “A neighbor at my residence invited me to join the drama club.  We do little one-act plays mainly.”  So you are an artist, Kathy.  “Well, not really.”  Mary reminds her that she was the narrator for The Wizard of Oz.  “Oh, yes.  I had to get everyone involved.  And we made our own costumes.”  So you are an artist!  “Well, not really.  I did once play a teenager going out on a date–and then my parents interrupt the date. But I’m not an artist or performer.”

Indeed you are, Kathy.  Indeed you are.

 

The Pfister Films: THE APPETIZERS

And so we come to the final film, a cheeky little ditty I like to call THE APPETIZERS.

I think it is fitting that THE APPETIZERS is the final film that I’m sharing with you all. It is in so many ways a celebration of the glamour, the sophistication, the romance, the surprise, and the charm that sparkles between so many people who end up falling in love at the Pfister.

THE APPETIZERS is also a tribute to one of my absolute favorite things about the Pfister. But telling you what that is now would be what the kids these days call a spoiler. You’ll just have to watch to find out what my great Pfister love really is.

And before I share this last film with you all, a word to you all about what this film project has meant to me, and perhaps what it can mean to you, dreamer, creator, human being.

Becoming the Pfister Narrator meant a lot of things to me as a writer. It filled me with pride and joy. I pinched myself almost daily, never really fully believing it was true that I was the in-house writer for a stunning historic hotel. I developed friendships that I will maintain and treasure for a lifetime, being afforded the chance to meet all sorts of fascinating characters from a wide variety of backgrounds. More than anything, however, becoming the Pfister Narrator reminded me that the best thing you can do to feel alive is to make things.

I’ve made a lot of things this year. I’ve strung together thousands of words and hopefully have helped readers understand that the Pfister is a truly unique place. Through it all, I was always encouraged to speak with my own voice, and take chances. Even with something as full of pitfalls as making four short films. I never professed to be a filmmaker when I came up with this idea, but I’ve always loved movies. And, for better or for worse, I thought, “What the hell!” As I come out on the other end of making these four short films, I understand that the great joy of the project was to get together a bunch of friends and make something that we all loved creating together and then share it with others. I hope you have felt a bit of the sense of play and wonder that we all had in creating these pieces, ones we finished and were bursting with excitement to share.

I encourage anyone reading or listening to these words to walk down a similar path. You don’t need to make a movie, but by all means, get your friends together, tell stories, have some laughs, and figure out the hard stuff you don’t know how to do along the way. If you’re shooting for perfection at the end of that road, I can tell you that you’re going to be disappointed. If you want to have an experience that you can cherish forever, I guarantee you’ll be paid in great memories over and over again.

I thank everyone who supported this film project for helping me indulge in a dream and open up a part of my creative soul that I hope I can build upon in the coming days, months and years. I’m not quite done with my writing as the Pfister Narrator as I’m taking full advantage of the fact that April has thirty days, but for now, I bring you the finale of my short film project, THE APPETIZERS.

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