From Abstracts to Tintypes: Passing the Brush to Margaret Muza

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

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

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

FOOD AS ART: Pamela Anderson’s Legacy Dinner

Me and Pamela (Photo: Molly Snyder)

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

Dear Dominic,

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

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

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

We talked about voice:

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

And bravery:

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

And about artist’s signatures:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not pick the plums.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She picks a plum.

She bites.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


(Suggestion: Play while reading.)

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

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

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

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

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

Finally: success!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Molly Snyder

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

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

Raisin man.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gallery visitors consider the Happy collage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First, she reminisced:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drawn Out from Drawing the Eye

Jerry and Mary Ann were still, help focused, steely almost. Their eyes were shooting lasers at the painting on the wall. Art. It brings out the best in your eyeballs.

I found Jerry and Mary Ann as I stopped by Resident Artist Todd Mrozinski’s studio to ask him a question (and really just to be around him because he is the nicest man in the world). The husband and wife duo were alone in the studio admiring Todd’s work as he was off giving other guests a tour of the Pfister’s art collection.

I started up a conversation with Jerry and Mary Ann and found out they were staying at the Pfister for the noblest of reasons. They were in town to go to a mushroom farmer’s wedding. The mushroom farmer in question is no random bib overall wearing laborer with Portobello dirt under his fingernails. No, viagra this mushroom farmer is their son who Mary Ann told me was the only mushroom farmer in Milwaukee. Jerry, adding some dad wisdom, said, “He’s still kind of finding himself.”

They explained that their son had, in fact, thrown in the towel on mushroom farming as it’s a pretty tough racket. I didn’t get into it with them, but with kale currently kicking the keester of every veggie for the hot spot on the food pyramid or plate or rhombus or whatever it is today, buy I can only imagine that growing mushrooms isn’t going to put a lot of money in your retirement account.

Jerry and Mary Ann are out-of-towners and they explain that their son met his fiancée when he came to Milwaukee to work with and learn from Will Allen at Growing Power. The wedding is planned as an au natural affair with a reception in a barn, and it sounds like a save-the-world through socially conscious food sourcing kind of dream way to get hitched.

I ask them where they are from, and my eyes light up when they tell me they hale from Long Island. I always have one question for Long Islanders and it’s a selfish, familial sort of way to get to the gut of knowing a stranger from the island jutting Eastward from Manhattan.

“What does the name Suozzi mean to you?” I ask. I’m not just picking the Italian surname from thin air. It’s my wife’s last name and she has several cousins involved in various levels of Long Island politics from supervisor to mayor to dog catcher to that one Suozzi who just likes to vote.

“Oh, Suozzi…that guy overpromised and didn’t deliver much,” says Jerry. “Why? Do you know him?”

I explain the family connection to the couple. They look slightly nervous, as if they might have just hit a nerve. I assure them I am agnostic about it all, as I’ve never met the Suozzi they are referring to in person. I do know however that the guy they have mentioned is the same one who used to get a check from my wife and I for his campaigns because we thought if any Suozzi had a shot at the White House it was that one, and we wanted to make sure we were on the prospect list of people who might get a night in the Lincoln Bedroom.

We turn from the East Coast to the Third Coast and talk about their impressions of Milwaukee. The in town stays they have made for wedding prep have all been the same—a delight and a change from the hustle and bustle of East Coast life. They mention their amazement at the open streets, free from clogged foot traffic, and we all agree it’s a nice place to be.

It’s time for Jerry and Mary Ann to meet up with family, but they ask me that most thrilling of questions for any local to be able to offer an opinion–”What’s a good place to eat?” I check myself because I know that I could keep them tied up for the rest of the day with recommendations but offer up two suggestions of places for them to try close to the Pfister. We shake hands, and they tell me to give Todd their well wishes as they both are impressed with the art they’ve seen and the sheer fact that it’s right there within the hotel they have chosen as their base camp for the mushroom farmer wedding. I hope that my dinner suggestion is to their liking, and if there are chanterelles on the menu, I hope they pass the scrutiny of the parents of the only former mushroom farmer in the city of Milwaukee.

The 2014 Pfister Artist in Residence Finalists

Congratulations to our six 2014 Artist-in-Residence finalists. Their work will be on display at Gallerie M in the InterContinental Hotel beginning on January 13th, shop 2013 through February 14th, 2013. The public will be able to vote for Richard & the other 2014 Artist in Residence finalists through the Pfister Hotel Facebook page beginning on 1.17.  Fans will be able to vote once per day through 2.14.  
(Please note that the public vote only counts for one chair on the final selection committee).

Starting at Noon on January 17th, and you can vote for your favorite artist by visiting the voting tab on Facebook right here.

You can read the proposals from each of the finalists by clicking their names below:

Brandon Minga
Dena Nord
Richard Dorbin
Niki Johnson
Jeff Redmon
Stacey Williams-Ng

2014 Artist in Residence Finalist – Richard Dorbin

Richard Dorbin – Milwaukee, WI

 

Proposal:  I love interacting with people and learning their stories. I also love creating images that have a human narrative. These two loves can dovetail into a new medium for the Pfister Artist-in-Residence: Photography

Imagine an image of a guest’s nightstand, littered with a crumpled wedding invitation, a withered boutonniere, and crumpled tissues. How could an image of “trash” on a nightstand be compelling, emotional, or even artistic?

I believe that I have the experience as an artist, a listener, and a story teller to answer that question and do it in collaboration with guests in the gallery.

There are countless stories to be found in the objects, faces, guests and employees of the Pfister. Those images can be emotionally charged and artistically compelling.

That very collaboration will be the creative process that drives the creation of my art.

Gallery nights will also be collaborative events that will highlight established professionals and aspiring photographers as well as creating exciting, in-the-moment imagery as part of the event.

The gallery space will display an on-going and ever changing collection of images that will tell stories with a unique and textural voice, as well as being host to photography classes for underserved parts of the Milwaukee community.


Richard’s work will be on display at Gallerie M in the InterContinental Hotel beginning on January 13th, 2013 through February 14th, 2013.  The public will be able to vote for Richard & the other 2014 Artist in Residence finalists through the Pfister Hotel Facebook page beginning on 1.17.  Fans will be able to vote once per day through 2.14.  
(Please note that the public vote only counts for one chair on the final selection committee).

Starting at Noon on January 17th, you can vote for your favorite artist by visiting the voting tab on Facebook right here.

You can read the proposals from each of the other finalists by clicking their names below:

Brandon Minga
Dena Nord
Niki Johnson
Jeff Redmon
Stacey Williams-Ng

2014 Artist in Residence Finalist – Jeff Redmon

Jeff Redmon – Milwaukee, WI

 

Proposal:  The Future Is Now

As the 2014 Pfister Artist in Residence, I will bring a new dimension to the program as the first contemporary abstract painter chose, creating a body of work that stimulates people’s sense, providing excitement, intrigue and inspiration within a world class luxury hotel.

It’s fair to say that the early 21st century digital revolution has had a profound effect on our society as the 19th century industrial revolution had. This makes it an exciting time to be an artist with remarkable new ways to communicate and share creations with a global audience. I plan to take full advantage of the tools at my disposal to create a digital marketing campaign with the goal of physically driving people to my studio at the Pfister for personal interaction and sales.

Bringing the Future is Now to the Pfister is an incredible opportunity to take my artwork/artist practices to the highest level, expanding upon my distinct style of line work and vibrant colors. I will draw inspiration from our amazing city, creating a series of large-scale electrifying paintings, t-shirts, prints and various mixed media pieces.

My studio will have easels with large colorful oil paintings, exploratory drawings, and a cozy living room area for presentations and discussions. I will use paint and markers (removable) to display my latest ideas on my studio windows, creating a live interface, prompting hotel patrons to enter and interact with me.

If chosen, I will proudly carry-on The Pfister Hotel’s legacy of art and art appreciation.


Jeff’s work will be on display at Gallerie M in the InterContinental Hotel beginning on January 13th, 2014 through February 14th, 2014.  The public will be able to vote for Jeff & the other 2014 Artist-in-Residence finalists through the Pfister Hotel Facebook page beginning on 1.17.  Fans will be able to vote once per day through 2.14.
(Please note that the public vote only counts for one chair on the final selection committee).

Starting at Noon on January 17th, you can vote for your favorite artist by visiting the voting tab on Facebook right here.

You can read the proposals from each of the other finalists by clicking their names below:

Brandon Minga
Dena Nord
Richard Dorbin
Niki Johnson
Stacey Williams-Ng