Margaret Muza: Musing About Her Muses (Part I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why tintype photography?

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

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

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

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

Who or what are your muses?

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

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

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

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

 Most importantly, why green?

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

From Abstracts to Tintypes: Passing the Brush to Margaret Muza

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

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

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

FOOD AS ART: Pamela Anderson’s Legacy Dinner

Me and Pamela (Photo: Molly Snyder)

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

Dear Dominic,

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

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

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

We talked about voice:

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

And bravery:

But at some point in my life, perhaps after getting really good at painting floral scenes, I determined that I needed to be braver with my paintings. That’s an interesting word, you will say, to describe art: “bravery.”  It sounds like the stuff of heroes and soldiers and tightrope walkers.  But if we are to transform ourselves and find our voices, then we will have to be brave, a word, I’m guessing you know, that comes from bravo, Italian for “bold and untamed.”  So I’m trying to tap into moments that speak to me from 28,000 feet–I’m looking down now and see that Catalan sun reflect off the lake’s dark surface, creating lines of yellow, crests of white, the plane approaching the shoreline of emerging green fields (we’re south of the airport).  An almost invisible line stretches across my view–the flight of a bird?  An optical illusion?

And about artist’s signatures:

My massive paintings don’t have my signature on them.  That’s because I’ve decided to be brave: to let my tools, whatever they may be, guide me and let my paintings reveal my voice.  Many people get upset, in fact, when I don’t sign my paintings on the front.  But I think it’s better when someone can say that they saw one of my paintings from across a room or even a block away and said to themselves “That’s a Pamela.”  That means my voice is being heard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not pick the plums.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She picks a plum.

She bites.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | MARCH 2017 | Transitions Edition | “The Classic Look is Made to Last”

Today’s HUMANS OF THE PFISTER post is about “Transitions”–but also kind of an anti-transition story.  It’s more a story about endurance, about a stalwart establishment that has survived three transitions to become a 25-year staple of Wisconsin Avenue, just a half-block west of The Pfister. Meet the proud owner of The Sophisticated Man, Diane Hamiel, herself a sophisticated woman who was sporting sleek gold glasses that flared out to meet her delicate bob and a sharp black top with a poofy lapel, not to mention a kind, witty smile.

I owned the Leather Boutique for women when I first started.  It was mainly for women; the only things for men that we sold were wallets and belts.  The boutique was on 3rd and Juneau, near where they’re building the new arena.  But I lost the store to a fire.

However, that’s when I realized that men need help.  They need someone to help them get dressed up; they don’t have enough places to shop.  So I opened up my first men’s shop in the Prospect Mall in 1974.  We were such a small shop, and people didn’t think we’d survive.  But we were there until 1981 and moved to a bigger space in the Grand Avenue Mall, eventually moving to 322 E. Wisconsin, which is where we still are.

We sell classics.  One of the things I always say is “The man’s ideas may be changing fast, but the classic look is made to last.”  We still have guys wearing things they purchased 20, 30 years ago.  They come in and show you–and they come in with their kids now, too!   I feel like a big-time grandma!

I just love men.  At The Sophisticated Man, we love servicing men!  We can dress you up from head to toe: socks, shoes, underwear, shirts, suits, coats, slacks, hats, you name it.  We help them with personal attention. You can walk into the shop like that [gestures to my jeans and sweater] and you can walk out like you’re going to meet the President.  We dress all the sports stars–they come to us.

What would you hook me up with if I came into the store?

Like I said, we could dress you head to toe.  I mean, you can have your casual look [again, gestures to my jeans and sweater], but–you look like you’re a 15 1/2″ neck, probably a 34-35 long.  Yes?

Exactly.

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


(Suggestion: Play while reading.)

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

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

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

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

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

Finally: success!

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

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

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

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

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

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

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | MARCH 2017 | Transitions Edition | From Car to Carpool: A Chance to Relax & Regroup

At the end of January, I got in two car accidents in one week.  The first was snow-related: I hit the back of a bus, which had stopped in front of me.  I just couldn’t stop.  It totaled my car.  My dad was able to pick me up and let me use his car, a Mazda Miata that he had just bought and restored last year.  A couple days after hitting the bus, I got hit by a semi truck on my drive down to the Racine Art Museum where I work.  All of a sudden, the semi truck hit the back of the Miata, which swung sideways, and I was being pushed about a thousand feet on the highway.  All I could think was “My dad’s car!”  Of course, he was just happy that I was alive.  But I called my mom and she drove me to work, where my co-workers couldn’t believe that I had actually come into work after being hit by a semi!

At first, I figured I would get another car (the insurance check came in just a couple of days).  I went to the dealership and told the salesperson that I wanted to get another Prius (that was the bus car), but there were none available.  So I started to think about it: This is the first time I can actually carpool to work.  I mean, I could have in the past, but you know, I had my own car.  One of my colleagues lives in Riverwest, so I asked him for a ride.  Why not carpool with him?  Of course, I offered to pay for gas. It’s turned out really well.  If I have to stay late for a meeting or something, I’ve discovered that there is a bus from Racine to Milwaukee that’s pretty decent.  It’s only $3.50!  What’s the price of a city bus?  About $2.50?  Amazing.

And there are other ways I can get to and from work: my mom and step-dad live in Racine, so I can get rides from them; Lyft; Zipcar; and the Sturtevant Amtrak, which I can get a ride to if I need to.  There are so many tools for transportation!

I really like that the accidents made me think about my choices, my schedule.  I think about what I’m going to do and how I’m going to do it. I am still very involved in the art community in Racine, Kenosha, and Milwaukee, but in the end, I find that I’m spending more time at home where I can relax and regroup.

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | MARCH 2017 | Transitions edition | Xenodocheio & Spiritual Connections

Last night I met Dean at the lobby bar, relaxing with a cocktail.  I had just asked the bartender, Shelby, for a cordial of wisdom and she had offered that her “life motto has always been that laughter is a cure for everything. And there’s something you can laugh at in every situation.”  Dean agreed with her, then asked me what I was doing.  I told her and she told me that she had worked for many years in the Spa as a hairdresser and that even though she has her own studio space down the street now, she still comes back to The Pfister for drinks because she loves the atmosphere.  Dean is the first of March’s Humans of The Pfister and without my having to announce this month’s theme of Transitions (the awkward meteorological transition from winter to spring we’ve been experiencing, with balmy weather one day and snow the next gave me the idea), she began with an etymological lesson about transience.

I’m Greek, and the Greek word for hotel is xenodocheio (ξενοδοχειο), which means something like “a place of strangers.”  That’s what a hotel is. They’re not about the locals–it’s a transient place.  And a hotel bar–it’s a real mix of everybody.

I’ve met so many people here at the bar–lots of celebrities, obviously, and, get this, I was Barbara Bush’s hairdresser any time she was here–but I really enjoyed Maya Angelou.  I was sitting her and she came up and sat next to me, just like you are.  And I fanned out on her!  But she was–just like she is.  Cool, laidback.  A guest just like anybody else.

She’s a spiritual person.  I’m a spiritual person.  So we connected spiritually.  If you connect with someone spiritually, then the subject of the conversation doesn’t matter as much.  We could talk about cars or politics or whatever.  But that’s all stupid.  Not stupid–I don’t mean it that way.  But insignificant in the long run.  What you will remember at the end of your life is the connections.

I wanted to capture Dean laughing.  Something was wrong with my new camera (well, it was probably me–I’m still learning about f-stops and low-light conditions and ISO settings!), but I kind of like how her photo turned out: a little blurry, a lot authentic, and even a little spiritual.

PLUME SERVICE 4.0 | February 22, 2017 | Victorian Paintings Gone Wild (Warning: NSFW…just kidding…come on…they’re paintings!)

Before we get to the results of the fourth Plume Service writing workshop, let me just say: This is not what I had planned!  It’s not important what I was going to have the writers’ focus be; what’s important is that we decided to begin by brainstorming a list of different genres and formats with which we could experiment that evening.  You know, alluring ones like lists, emails, and texts (snore); stirring ones like personal ads, advertisements, and autopsy reports (morbid); passionate ones like stand-up comedy and . . . bad reviews (now that could be fun).  Thumbs up, thumbs down.  2 out of 5 stars.  Critical commentary.  Then someone, I can’t remember who, mentioned (shhhhh) e . . . r . . . o . . . t . . . i . . . c . . . a.

Amused, I turned around to gaze at the painting of Venice that had attracted so many Plume Service writers before.  A gondola.  A ship.  A tower.  Waves. This was going to be hard.  But then, when you think about it (really, take a stroll down the halls and along the walls of the ballrooms), The Pfister’s walls abound in sultriness.  Consider these suspects:

(just kidding)

Time for a cold shower?  Yikes.

And consider, too, the names: “Flirtation” (there are two of those!).  “The Kiss.” (Are those two babies?!) “The Captive.” (Wow. Thank goodness for feminism!) “Trysting Place.” “The Chess Game.”  “Love’s Dream.” “The Royal Love Feast.” “Admiration.”

Bad reviews and erotica it was, then!

Will all of these make the cut and grace the walls of The Pfister?  I dare say, probably not.  A little (a lot?) too risque.  But I can say that the writers accepted the challenge without batting their eyelashes, they wrote with passion and concentration, they shared their pieces out loud at the end, snapped and clapped their praises for their fellow writers, and discussed the intricacies and honesties in each story.  Sure, there were a few blushes and giggles.  But the experience was liberating, refreshing.  How often do we talk to each other with such candor and immediacy about sexuality, let alone sensuality?  Without shame or embarrassment?  And how often with relative strangers?

We’ll start with a tame one.


Richard Lorenz’ Sunday Afternoon (as interpreted by Christina Oster)

Phyliss and Benjamin liked to color within the lines.  They were regimented people with allegiance to the “dullsville du jour.”  Sadie Saccharine was their feisty neighbor, a woman of vibrancy who brought flirtation and festivity to any and all she encountered.  Sadie had a way of encouraging Phyliss to make bold changes and take chances.  After all, it was Sadie who encouraged Phyliss to change her name spelling from the typical two L’s at the end of it to two S’s.  She had flirtatiously said, “Think Phyl-iss – like a kiss!”

Phyliss and Benjamin had a horse ranch with brown horses and black cows.  They ate porridge for breakfast and spaetzle for dinner.  But when it came to evening, it was retire to bed–not much spark for the forbidden.

A knock at the door occurred one Sunday afternoon.  Sadie appeared, dressed in Victorian Secret, whispering to Phyliss.  Benjamin, eating porridge, tilted his ear closer, then raised his eyebrow.  Intrigue ensued. He set down his porridge, approached the ladies, winked, and playfully asked, “Color me three?”


R. Wood’s “Seascape” (as imagined by Bethany Price)

I saw you resplendent from across this small world.  In a time of flowering and self-searching.

I came here with a lover, Armand, but around your waves a new muscle of spirit and flesh pulses in me.

The greenery where we lay is too stifling.  His hands around my shoulders and neck while we lay.

I’d rather you bed me.

But instead you bed the body just passing below my line of vision.  He slipped, this nude man with matted hair.

I imagine his soft penis and mine kissing like your waves do among the endless cerulean.

Your song bids me come.


Andrea Secondo’s “Tired Out” (as imagined by Bethany Price)

He had set the table an hour before Armand got home.  Typical of him, lateness–but he understood, too, the hectic nature of his days.  After gossip of the sun-soaked day, Armand fell asleep.  The wine didn’t help matters.  I will bed him gently, he thought.  I will tuck his covers around his chin, admiring the soft body that has loved him for so long.

In the dark, Armand’s toes will curl around his calf, his soft murmurs, drunken, as sweet as when they tangle together, under the richness of God’s graces, the sun stroking their faces along with the usual suspects.


“Diana of the Hunt” (as imagined by Monica Thomas)

She’s come bearing horns made of moon, shaking brick and bound in garb of mushroom sack and thick rope.  Young Athena, bare-chested in bejeweled breastplate, by her side.

Look, look–how on the distant hillside they frolic to nude-photobom Susan Boyle’s left-breasted man-spread selfie.

These twins in braids splayed naked in the shallow pond as the lean greyhound laps up water, hellhound held in tight fists by her collar.

Uninitiated, the right bank eunuch is gearing to cross legs, wearing nothing but a thong.

The hem of Aphrodite’s apprentice rides way above the knee while a servant squats in front, strumming the female master’s lute from behind.

Far left, these lovers share throbbing hearts and Paul Simon’s soft, sly face.

The arrow pierced the tip of the smooth, erect pole at the right bank.

One battle-clad Amazonian arm hangs blue ribbon laundry from the May Day frame amongst the golden blindfold and the herald’s horn.


“Untitled Landscape” (as interpreted by Eduardo De la Cruz)

The thought of your touch sparks my core.  It makes me miss you more. It was there, painted on a spring dusk when the trees had just witnessed its first yellow leaves, when the air was so quiet and the flow of the river so tender, that you could hear the gentle scratching of the grass on feet.  On a day like this, we took what the world had given us and became all in one. Your breasts, like two tender fruits of heaven, rested on my bare skin. Your hands joined to mine; the way your curls rested on my shoulders as I leaned inside against the riverbank.  I could feel the cool air on my back as your fingers gripped the skin on my hips.  I could feel us now and I could live this moment forever.  Every strike on your pelvis made the gentlest bounce on your curls.  As I prepared to climax, I could feel your grip tighten, almost there, almost there…

Crap, I dozed off for a minute.  I find myself staring at a simple painting of a nature scene with a pair of trees and a river parallel to a dirt road. And in the glorious scene of it all, I could only think about two things: how I felt like the biggest loner, and the intricate things I must do to act cool while I hide this boner.


H.A. Bras’ “The Cardinal Reading” (as interpreted by Dominic Inouye)

One critic of H.A. Bras’ “The Cardinal Reading” purports that “Bras sees the background as less important (sic) which can be seen in the lack of detail.”  While this may be so, it may be equally valid to argue that the background details that are more important.  The background details and the foreground ones–and, to be sure, the cardinal’s costume itself.

Consider, for instance, Bras’ choice of decorative flourishes, however undetailed or blurred: to the left, a painting of a mysterious, foggy island, the kind to which one would row for a clandestine tryst; the equally enigmatic wallpaper swirls obscured by a too-large and ominous cardinal shadow; the arched doorway to the right revealing a curtained space perfect for a quick change . . . of scenery; the velvety table clothing creating another ideal hiding space; not to mention the elaborately mussed folds of the cardinal’s very own robes, bunched oddly enough to hide a, well, . . . And, of course, the slight mountain of carpet, most likely unrecognized by most, rapidly pushed up in haste as feet scrambled away, revealing a small, dark, gaping cave.


“Man and Woman With Guitar” (as interpreted by Ana Moreno)

As they did every evening after supper, Elizabeth and her husband warmed themselves close to the fireplace, talking about the day’s occurrences and other topics of immediate importance.  Elizabeth’s husband was an older, worn, tired man who thought of nothing but trade embargos, tobacco shipments, and balancing his money purse.

As he drifted off to sleep, Elizabeth’s mind began to wander as her fingers lightly strummed her guitar.  Her fingers intentionally stroking each string, she looked intently into the glowing embers and began to imagine his fingers softly running up her thigh.  The chords melded together as she imagined the tips of his fingers brushing against her wetness. Instinctively, Elizabeth spread her legs, inviting his dreamlike touch to encompass her entire beiing.

Her strokes became strategic, intentional, one building on the other.  With each pluck of the guitar, Elizabeth imagined her husband’s fingers being thrust inside her.  Her rhythm became heated, eccentric.  The sounds emerging from the guitar became stronger, harder.  Her breath began to quicken.  Fingers strumming in continuous motion.  Building and building.  Until one final, immense crescendo sprung from her guitar as she moaned in outwardly emphatic pleasure.

Elizabeth’s husband stirred in his chair at the sound of his wife’s immense pleasure, though he did not wake from his solitude.  He was a man of business and comfort, Elizabeth thought as she composed herself from her all-encompassing orgasm.  He has no time to think of such lowly things as pleasing me.

If only, though, she thought.  If only.

PHOTO ESSAY: Get Inside Yourself by Getting Inside the Box

Come on in.  The door is open.

Make your Self at home.

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

Lounge.  Relax.  Write.  Doodle.

And share a part of your Self on the walls.

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

~Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri

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

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

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

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

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

There’s room on the line for everyone.

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

~Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri

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

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

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

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

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

~Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri

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

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

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

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

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | FEBRUARY 2017 | “First Loves” Edition | Musical Connections

I guess I was in junior high–7th grade maybe.  We had a co-ed gym class where we did ballroom dancing: waltz, cha-cha, jitterbug.  I think it was girl-pick-a-guy.  Well, I had a crush on a boy named Tom.  I was hoping he’d ask me, but I was too shy–and he did!  And we won Best Jitterbug out of the entire 7th grade!

Back then, we “went out” (not really “steady,” of course).  We were like boyfriend and girlfriend, but really we just hung out together.  I went to high school with him, too, and we became good friends.

Funny story: he ended up marrying a girl named Donna!  I think it was our 25th high school reunion when he introduced me to his wife . . . named Donna of all things!

Love goes with passion–for me–and that’s music.  Nothing will give me goosebumps more than performing with another person.  Periodically, it’s even a mystical moment, a synchronicity of what I’m playing and what they’re playing, when we’re unified.

All of a sudden, I’m off the page, not thinking about what’s on there, and it’s like something else is leading me.

It’s like that with my husband today.  Even with the mundane day-to-day, there are times when I somehow get out of my selfish part–and we’re a real pair.  Frankly, it’s otherworldly.

This is what differentiates us from the rest of creation.

(Rob’s instruments are his clarinet and his voice.  He has played in symphony orchestras like the Milwaukee Symphony and has played with individual artists as well.)