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.
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:
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.
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.