Something borrowed, something blue

Summers in Milwaukee are made for weddings, with blue skies, light lake breezes and sunshine peering through drifting white, fluffy clouds.  Any picturesque historic locale books up far in advance, even in a mid-size city like Milwaukee.  There’s a lot of competition  options for weddings in this town: Villa Terrace Decorative Art Museum, Lake Park, The Grain Exchange, Renaissance Place, Milwaukee Art Museum, and I’ve been lucky to attend weddings at several of these gorgeous places.  One place where I’ve seen numerous weddings, but haven’t known a single person getting married, is here at the Pfister.  Boasting over 6,000 weddings throughout its 115-year history, that’s over 12,000 people celebrating their new life together with nearly 3,000,000 guests.

One recent Saturday, in less than two hours and preceded by guests stopping at the concierge desk to inquire after their intended reception’s location, no less than four brides passed through the lobby.  Swimming through formally dressed guests are brass luggage carts, pushed and pulled by the bellhops, loaded with packages from Crate & Barrel and lavishly beribboned gifts.  From the bright sapphire blue to deeper shades of royal, and even the whimsical teal, there is an abundance of blue with the dresses of the ladies attending the receptions, possibly inspired by summer skies.

The first bride, in her strapless gown, train draped over an arm, bends down to pet the head of a very happy dog passing through the lobby.  A second bride and groom arrive to a much emptier lobby as guests have made their way to the ballrooms on the seventh floor, many with drinks in hand.  A photographer trails behind them, documenting each pause, every point of the finger to the ornate ceiling as they keep the fingers of their other hands intertwined.

A mother rushes by, coaxing along two little flower girls in matching dresses of ballerina-tulled skirts, with lavender ties around their waist, ending in a bright, big bow at the back.  Shortly after, comes the arrival of an entire wedding party.  The bride is in a full, white lace skirt with a ribbon around her waist as well; her bridesmaids sport purple dresses that complement the lavender of the flowergirls.

As this group gathers for photos on the second floor, a fourth bride and her wedding party stream through the front doors.  Her strapless, beaded gown is reminiscent of a prima ballerina.  Her hair curled into a bun at the crown of her head, the veil streaming down behind.  When brides at the Pfister, dressed in such lavish gowns, pose on the marble steps of the grand staircase, flanked by colorful bridesmaids, it’s clear how such an ornate place could inspire the desire for a little girl’s wedding dreams to be brought to life.

Beyond the romantic images and celebratory color, there’s a quieter, more necessary life that goes undocumented.  The bride that must borrow a cell phone from the photographer in order to reach her betrothed for coordination of photos upstairs in Blu.  Or, the young lady that comes up from the salon with her hair done, veil set perfectly in place, but is dressed in jeans and a zippered sweater and is accompanied by just one woman – one “of a certain age” who is likely mom, aunt or future mother-in-law.  And, meanwhile, on the seventh floor: The ballroom doors are flung open, chairs covered and tied, tables arrayed with wedding favors, namecards awaiting their inevitable plucking and replacing, flowers adorning and complementing every available surface, crystals on chandeliers and votives appear especially bright, sparkling and white: everything waiting, silently, in utter anticipation

Something Old, Something New

Grand Old Chandelier

I recently got to get acquainted with a freelance marketer, seek sports journalist and travel blogger from Texas named Jayme Lamm, who I met at the Pfister because Jayme was connected with the Astros and had heard about how wonderful it was from both the tour and booking managers for the team. Referred to me by the marketing director at Travaasa Hana in Maui, where she’d recently stayed, prescription Jayme was described as “a fun, bubbly blonde who looks stereotypically Texan, but then she opens her mouth and what comes out doesn’t match, at all.”  I’d nosed around on her website, read a few of her blog posts and began following her on Twitter, and was quickly convinced we could have some fun and I could probably learn a lot from her.

When she arrives, there’s an instant affinity: petite like me, she has sunny blonde hair, big brown eyes, is highly energetic, and reminds me of my younger sister.  We start chatting right away about what brings her to Milwaukee (a family reunion up North), and how she’s looking forward to spending a night out and about.  I warn her that on Wednesdays not much is going on, but I had an idea that would allow for a quick survey of Milwaukee: something old, something new, and something unique.

Starting at the Pfister (“something old”), we toured the hotel.  A fan of old hotels because of their character, Jayme has stayed at a lot of beautiful places, but is impressed by what she sees here.  Ending inside Mason Street Grill, we settle onto a pair of leather stools at the end of the bar, and our bartender, Micah, approaches with the menus.  As we decide on our drinks (champagne for Jayme, a glass of Kung Fu Girl Riesling for me), Micah guides us through the appetizers.  I know we’ll be definitely ordering my favorite (Tuna Tartar Tacos), but we aren’t sure what else to get.  Thanks to Micah’s guidance, we add Mason Street’s signature Rockefeller Dip and Fried Surf Clams.

Conversation turns from the week’s Brewers games (“It got so hot and muggy with the roof closed for the rain!”) to her blogging work.  Jayme relates how she always keeps an eye out for stories, though because she has bad luck, the story often ends up being about her.  Our appetizers arrive and are demolished before we even knew they were there.  Jayme, with her story-finder’s observant eye, notices Micah’s pin – a small square, featuring a butcher knife and the words “certified foodie.”  We both instantly jump on this new thing and inquire after its meaning.  We’re informed that it’s related to something at Mason Street Grill called “Counter Culture, “ which consists of a 7-course meal served with a chef as guide, at a special counter facing the kitchen, a la a chef’s table.

Sprecher on tap at SPiN

Jayme and I then head to our next destination (“something new”). SPiN Milwaukee is located in the Third Ward, a short jaunt from the Pfister, which gives me a chance to point out other fine destinations for food and drink.  A combination table tennis club and bar, SPiN features ping pong tables for rent by the half hour or the hour and a full-service bar with food.  It’s quiet when we arrive, but gives us a chance to talk to the bartender, after he serves us a couple pints of Milwaukee-made Sprecher beer.  He and Jayme hit it off when he mentions being a musician and she mentions she’s looking to hire someone to write a little jingle with her for her charity work.

By the time we’re finished with our pints, having met one of the for-hire table tennis coaches and practiced giving perfect high fives (secret: keep your eye on the other person’s elbow), it’s quite late.  Instead of going on to our “something unique” which was going to be At Random: Bay View’s swanky, orange-lighted, rat pack-music playing, liquorrific milkshake fountain shoppe – we decide to call it a night.  SPiN managed to be both new and unique; as did Jayme.

For Jayme, the Pfister was old, new and unique and she looks forward to returning to Milwaukee to stay there, in order to best explore more of what the city has to offer, like the Safe House and Bryant’s Lounge, which were both recommended by Micah (and endorsed by me).  Plus, At Random is waiting, as is a whole array of new places that have cropped up in the city over the last five years.  It’s a terrific thing to be in a city that has so many wonderful things to offer, but I also like knowing where my favorites can be found: like Tuna Tartar Tacos and Kung Fu Girl Riesling.

History in the Air (Pt. 2)

<continued from Part 1>

“Every Sunday – it was a must – they’d take walks together, down to the lake.  There wasn’t a house or building there, it was all grass.  Just imagine how beautiful that was.  One time they were walking through an alley together, as a group, joking and having fun – and my mother said, ‘Oh, look at the red light there, isn’t that pretty?’  It was kind of high up on the building and one of the guys laughed and laughed and said, ‘Don’t you know what’s that for?’ and my mother said ‘No, no, it’s so pretty up there.’ Of course, they were talking about the red light district.  I’ve often gone down there, walking around, looking at the buildings and wondering which one it was.

“One day Teddy Roosevelt was in town, having lunch there, and he asked the waitress, ‘who made this beautiful, this wonderful salad?’  He said ‘I’m a salad person and this is the best salad I ever had, I have to meet whoever made it.’  So my mom came out of the kitchen to meet him.  They shook hands; he gave her a kiss and congratulated her on her salad.”

The photo, with Blanche's handkerchief and gold bracelet stamped with her initials

“She went on to be a nanny for a Doctor’s family before getting married and starting her family.  She was always a good cook – her food was delicious, very delicate – she would bake cookies for us to take to school.  Then people in the neighborhood started getting laid off – during the Depression.  I remember so many sad people. My folks’ nature was: ‘We have to feed these people.’ And so my mother was cooking day and night, making meals for so and so and so and so, and my sister and I would deliver on the coaster just like the snowstorms. But, that’s how we were brought up and it’s still that way in the family. You got to take care of people.”

I stayed for two more hours while El told me more stories about her life in Bay View – working for Bucyrus during WWII and waiting for the bus in the snow when her shift ended after Midnight; about marrying her childhood sweetheart (Dan, the butcher’s son with whom she attended elementary school and “did everything together – played together, fought together); all the garden clubs she worked with; going on a fishing trip to Canada for her 25th wedding anniversary; her kids and grand-kids and five great grand-kids (“One is going to be a writer!”).

We wandered around her yard, as she gathered dirt and a spare pot to send me home with wild onion bulbs to grow in my apartment.  She showed me the banners hanging in her yard, which lie in the flight path of the airport, honoring the 128th Air Refueling Wing and the 440th Airlift Wing – her husband, Dan, served in the war with the signal corps – and every time the signature sound of those military planes is heard, El rushes out to her backyard to salute them.

So this weekend, as jets and bombers buzz the shores of Lake Michigan for the Milwaukee Air Show, I’ll be thinking about Eleanore Hinich and her husband Dan’s service during WWII, as well as her mother’s kindness and generosity and how El so warmly embodies that nature and spirit.

I’m certain Teddy Roosevelt would have been pleased to find out that years later, Blanche was still making delicious food, only this time to feed the hungry mouths of families in Bay View who were forging through the Great Depression.

As for that onion bulb in the little ceramic pot?  It’s already sprouted up, getting ready to be chopped up and added to a delicious meal which I’ll be sure to make for a friend.

“Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.”  -Theodore Roosevelt

 

History in the Air (Pt. 1)

“Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.”  -Theodore Roosevelt

I park in front of the Bay View home of Eleanore Hinich, admiring her vast garden of butterfly plants and wildflowers as I approach to ring the doorbell.  She’s expecting me, because she has a story to tell me.  I’m meeting her at her home because, at 93-years-old, she doesn’t drive anymore.  The door opens and a very slight woman greets me in khaki shorts, tennies and a Bucyrus Museum shirt with “Eleanor” stitched on it.  Her shirt is tucked into her shorts, and a brown leather belt is cinched tight to the last possible hole.  She blinks at me through her dainty metal-rimmed glasses, runs a hand through her cropped hair and, upon my introducing myself, flings wide her door, “Come in!  Come in!”

She apologizes for her attire, as she’s been working on her garden.  We talk briefly about how hot it’s been, and then she says, “So, you’re here to ask me about my mother?” as she escorts me into the kitchen, offering me a seat at her table where a milk jar holds an array of wildflowers from her yard.  The walls are painted a sunny yellow, and the window is framed by white eyelet lace curtains, overlooking the backyard where there’s a pool and some banners hung on the fence.  I nod, explaining that one of the security managers at the Pfister had told me about meeting Eleanore (‘El’) some time ago when she came in with some family members and an old photograph.

Blanche

El jumps up.  “I’ll get the photo.”  She zips out of the room, reappears within moments, a folder in her hand.  She places a photograph on the table.  It’s 8.5 x 11, glossy, and black & white capturing three lines of people in kitchen whites and serving aprons.  Printed at the bottom are the words “Pfister Hotel” and the year – 1914.  Seated in the front row is a woman whose face is circled.  Her ankles are crossed, her hands clasped in her lap.

“She’s so beautiful,” I say.

El nods, “she was a beauty – auburn hair, more chestnut than auburn.  She was very fussy about everything.”  She pauses.  “So, what do you want to know?”

I pull out my notebook and pen, ask, “What was her name?”  And so we begin.

Blanche Mrowinski (nee Rykowski) was born around 1892.  For a brief time she worked as a salad girl for the Pfister Hotel.  As El told me stories, she rarely sat still, getting up to make coffee, set out chocolate chip cookies, and work at getting the ground out from under her fingernails (“not coffee grounds, real earth, from outside!”).

“I think she stayed at the Pfister when she first started – they had rooms – instead of walking or taking the streetcar, because she lived on the South Side.  One of those ladies [in the photo] was her best friend. She talked about this friend of hers a lot. They were very close.  They were all like sisters and brothers –a big family, there. They were kind of nice to each other, setting each other up on dates. She had boyfriends from there – she’d tell us about the dates, and where he lived – this one and that one… They had so much fun together.

“Some of the girls who worked in the dining room would come home with blue ribbons, from the beers, and one girl would collect the blue ribbons and make pretty little things out of them.”

(Me:”Actual blue ribbons came with the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer?”  El: “Yes!  Do we still have a Pabst Blue Ribbon?”  Me: “Yes, they still make it, but I don’t think they’ve actually won a blue ribbon in a long time.  I think the first one was the only one.”  We both burst out in laughter over this bit.)

<to be continued…>

Tune in tomorrow for Part Two…

 

9 o’clock on a Saturday

While the evening was waning for most of Gallery Night attendees in the Third Ward — and elsewhere around the city — in the main ballroom off the Pfister lobby, Rouge, the party was just beginning.  In the center of the room, quite literally taking main stage, was a set-up ready for a rockstar.  Elevated dais, multi-colored lights on metal scaffolding, a screen to the left featured a close-up of the canvas and easel standing center and a screen to the right featured a close-up of a paint palette.  The canvas center stage was awash in colors – shaded in diagonals, melting into one another, from the left corner down to the bottom right.

Taking the stage

The contrast was striking: flashy, rainbow-colored lighting in this techno-savvy art presentation vs. crystal chandeliers, huge mirrors and gilded edging around the room where the ceiling meets the walls.  It was old meets new in spectacular fashion.

A woman steps up onto the stage and people, many with wine glasses or beer bottles and plates of appetizers, all hush as they turn to face the stage.  Even those looking at the paintings hung on the back wall turned around to pay attention to what was about to happen.  The woman was slender with bobbed blonde hair and dressed in all black – cropped pants, comfy black sandals; a collared shirt, and loose vest swaying with her movements.  It was clear she wasn’t dressed to be the main attraction, though she was the reason everyone was here – even the band, set up to the side of the room adjacent to a dance floor where some people sat so they could have a clear view of the stage.

Shelby Keefe, the current Artist-in-Residence at the Pfister Hotel, announces what she’s going to do: For the next twenty minutes, she’s going to paint, to music, an entire scene on the canvas set up for this purpose.  She’s never painted this scene before and is using a photograph to work from.  A computer screen offstage left is set up with a counter on it – 20:00.  Shelby introduces the band: the Mali Blues Group, and begins.

20 minutes to go.

Initially she starts out painting white, and then teal, circular strokes in the upper left corner of the canvas.  Less than four minutes in and she remembers to put on her painting smock.  More color – browns and tans, followed by black lines with reading glasses at the ends – no, wait, not reading glasses: it’s a streetlamp!  The painting is coming to life and it feels like Pictionary while everyone buzzes to their neighbor about what they think they are seeing.

The band grooves away on their instruments: a drum set and guitar with African percussion and a wooden, stringed instrument called a kamelon ngoni.  Their “One Love” banners are draped on either side of the stage, at their feet, and the love is definitely in the air as several people move to the dance floor.

Shelby bobs to the beats and rhythms put out by the band, while her hands move floridly with such smooth, practiced motions that the effect is as incongruous as patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time.

12 minutes left on the clock.

Buildings are taking shape.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, but this Milwaukee streetscape is being built in less than 20 minutes.  Now half a dozen dancers are on the floor, sashaying and spinning.  Shelby glances at the photograph in her hand as she swashbuckles paint onto the canvas.

9 minutes remain.

A dancer whips her ponytail around while lifting her knees high to the beat of the percussion, her Chaco-clad feet are barely on the ground for any length of time as the music picks up.  There are several pairs of bare feet and one guy is even in socks.

3 minutes.

The tension has been building, the music matches the pacing, more dancers arrive, and the painting is really coming together now.  There’s a clear depiction of flowers in purples and pinks, and a distinct red canopy that is clearly the Wisconsin Avenue entrance of the Pfister.

0 minutes.

Color on the dance floor

As the timer ends and the music winds down, the grand final flourishes are applied to the painting and the room is filled with applause.  Shelby takes a moment to thank everyone, and says “I’ll be out there dancing!” and when off she goes to the floor, the party goes with her.

Back at the bar on the other side of the room, I meet Deena who says, with the feathers in her hair catching the colors from the stage lights: “She has a way of looking at reality that is so colorful, with such an elegant spin.”  And, in one sentence, she captures the entire night: a colorful reality with an elegant spin.

Games People Play

Jenga!

There’s a clattering sound that breaks into the still, Sunday afternoon quiet of the lobby lounge.  It’s startling, but muted enough that nobody else turns to look.  When I do look, I see wooden blocks, scattered over the top of one of the lobby tables, as three young men in t-shirts and shorts settle in for a game of Jenga.

Within seconds, I’m parked in the fourth chair for a round of this tricky, wooden block stacking game.  Introductions are made: Michael, Mike and Mikey* all offer up a firm handshake and a slight southern accent.  All in from Dallas, Texas, they are here for their 8th year staying at the Pfister for Northwestern Mutual’s annual network representative meeting.  Mike and Mikey are killing time waiting for their scheduled massages at WELLspa, and Michael eyes up a nap, as they’re all three heading to the Milwaukee County Zoo later this afternoon for a “garden party” put on by NML as one of the numerous family-friendly events going on around town at any number of our institutions and museums.

“If there’s any way you can get in,” says one of them, “you want to go.  It’s so much fun!”

We talk and laugh while taking turns testing a wedged block, then slowly tapping, pushing, pulling until one ekes free, followed by an even slower, more tentative placing of said block on the top of the increasingly unbalanced tower.

We talk about Milwaukee – they like exploring the town when they’re here, heading to nearby watering holes in the evening hours – and they tell me what to check out in Dallas, if I ever go: Barcadia, a bar featuring old-school arcade games, like Tron and Space Invaders, is definitely up my alley.

The three are all equally as similar as they are different.  Tall and fair, a little on the soft-spoken side; tall and dark, but warmly gregarious; and frat boy turned father of two who still know show to crack the great jokes.  All three are married with kids, and, as we played and chatted, Michael announced that he just heard from his wife the night before that she’s starting a blog, too.

“Too?”  I asked.

Yes: “too”.  Apparently the wives of the other two already keep blogs—mostly on the domestic side, though the primary focus and purpose is to keep friends and family in the know with their kids’ lives: photos and stories and so forth.

Part of their boyish camaraderie comes from the fact that they work in the same office, started right around the same time, and are all about the same age.  They talk easily about how they don’t feel directly in competition with one another (though Mikey did win a recent sales contest that allowed for him and his wife to join 49 other couples for a weekend trip to San Francisco), even as they operate solely on commission and therefore are competing for the same market base.  Of course, part of this comes from a low market share in their region, but a bigger part of this comes from that feeling of family you get simply by working with people you like for 40 hours a week in the same physical space.

Available games to check out also include cards, Mancala, Uno, Chess/Checkers, Apples to Apples, Monopoly, Poker, Scrabble and more! Any of which I will gladly take on any challenger any time...

We applauded poor Mikey for his attempts to goad us into toppling the tower, though ultimately it fell for him.  A second round tumbled for Mike.  Kudos were given to Michael and I for not losing twice in a row.  Mikey went off to get his massage, and the remaining three of us went in for a game of Yahtzee.  Having not played in 15 years, they were patient with me as I re-learned the game, from scratch.

While they were only three out of the estimated 10,000 people who came to Milwaukee earlier this week, they reflected what I saw in most of the people passing through the lobby during the days of the conference: warm, polite, friendly, and family-oriented but not without a penchant for some fun.  And, thanks to the games shelf now taking up space in the Pfister Cafe, we had a ton of fun.

*Two out of these three names are real.  The third, well, we all agreed it would be a lot more fun to just give him a similar moniker as the other two.

writersblockwritersblock…or, not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not writing

So, I will…

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

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

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

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

Until it’s time to start all over again.

Making Music

A couple recently told me that playing cribbage was part of their secret to a long, happy marriage.

After being married for thirty years, “there are only so many TV shows you can share,” said Tim and B.C. as we sat with crisp, cool drinks in hand, waiting out the heat of the summer afternoon in the air conditioned lobby before they head to Summerfest.

Tim’s dad used to play with the grandkids, as a way of bonding with them.  A few years ago, during a family reunion over the Fourth of July weekend, Grandpa sat in the lobby with seven grandkids clustered around him, learning the game.  His German relatives played a particularly cutthroat version where if a player missed points, the opponent got to pick them up.  Ouch.  I bet those kids can peg a mean score as a result.

When not playing cribbage, the family took a “nostalgia tour” of Marquette, where Tim and his sisters and parents all went to school.  They went to Summerfest, watched the Big Bang fireworks, and generally hung out in the Pfister’s lobby – “the best in the world.”  Tim’s sister apparently commented on the infamous Bloody Mary that’s served here, garnished with the usual veggies and also some Wisconsin sausage, “it’s a meal!”

These two, Tim sporting a blue Hawaiian short and B.C. bedecked in gold earrings and a big smile, are regulars to the hotel because of its proximity to Summerfest, for which they are in town.  Just up from the Northwest side of Chicago where they live, Tim and B.C. are huge music buffs.  They unashamedly admit that it might surprise people to know they are most excited about seeing Milwaukee’s own homegrown cover band, The Toys.  Though, they’re hoping to catch Michelle Branch after The Toys’ show is over.  We scan the entire 10-days’ lineup together, and they both remark over the classic rock stage headliners.  It’s a true tribute to the genre with (deep breath) Hall&Oates,REOSpeedwagon,Styx,BlueOysterCult,Cinderella,PeterFrampton,KansasLeon RussellandAmerica (exhale)!

I share a story about picking up America by America on vinyl when I was a kid.  Tim, clearly trying to get a handle on what year I might refer to when I say ‘kid,’ asks, “was that the only way you could music when you were ‘a kid’?”  No, cassettes were also big at that time, though eight-tracks could also still be found.  B.C. pipes up, “I never really cared for America.  Their sound was ‘too nice’ – I like music with a little more edge.”

They banter back and forth briefly about what this might mean and, somehow, this triggers a story from Tim about George Harrison’s song, “While my Guitar Gently Weeps.”  He recalls reading it in an issue of Rolling Stone Magazine: Apparently, Harrison brought his song to McCartney and Lennon, who poo-poo’ed it.  A short while later, Harrison was giving Eric Clapton a ride home and asks if Clapton will come in and play the song.  Clapton replies, “No, can’t do it.”  Harrison asks, “Why not?”  Clapton answers, “You’re the Beatles, you don’t do guest musicians.”  But, he’s ultimately convinced, goes into the studio and records the song.  A while later, Harrison, McCartney and Lennon get into one of their tiffs and Harrison storms off.  McCartney turns to Lennon and says “If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday, get Clapton!”

Milwaukee: Where the Music is

Another couple, over glasses of wine, also regales me with music tales while they wait for a friend.  They’re here to hit up Sugar Land and Bobby Friss, and used to come to town from Madison to play the local slots when they were part of a band.  Their stories, as musicians, are juicier, and not quite suitable for public consumption but were just the sort of amusement that gets shared between drinks with other music aficionados this time of year.  They briefly lament the local bands not getting good coverage or time slots any more, so I throw two names for them to check out – local bands who they’ll be sad to have missed, but who both made good impressions at the Big Gig this year: Wil Phalen & the Stereo Addicts and Juniper Tar.

If there’s one thing Milwaukee doesn’t have a shortage of these days, it’s really good local bands making really good music.

Meanwhile, girls in matching shorts, tanks and cowboy hats stroll by, arms linked.  Britney Spears is playing the Marcus Amphitheater tonight, and I’m guessing that’s where they’re headed, though they could surprise us all and show up to sing along as America belts out “Ventura Highway,” in the fading sunshine.

Coming Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer in the City. . . of Festivals

Patriotic Flowers

It’s summer in Milwaukee.  Finally.  We know the calendar has said it’s summer for some time now, but the weather simply hasn’t cooperated, as evidenced by the city’s wavering between the wet, cold of March and the hottest, most humid dog days of August.  Not only has the mercury risen and the sun come out to tan the hides of hundreds of folks cavorting on Bradford Beach, but the clearest sign of the season has begun: the fireworks have been shot off, PrideFest has passed, the festivals are here!

Boasting large cultural fests like the Lakefront Festival of the Arts, Festa Italiana and Irish Fest, street festivals like Locust Street Days or Summer Soulstice, and numerous church festivals across the city and its suburbs, Milwaukee’s self-appointed (and well-earned) nickname is the “City of Festivals.”  And, currently in full swing right now, is the biggest festival of them all: Summerfest.

Centrally located to the Summerfest grounds means the Pfister is packed to the Jason-Mraz-fedora-brim with fest-goers.  They group together with friends, and the children tag along behind their moms.  Coolers are being dragged or carried, backpacks are stuffed with sunscreen.  The ladies are (mostly) tanned and adorned in skirts and heels, summer dresses and wedge sandals, capris and flip-flops with glittery sequins or earthy embroidery.  The men in tees and plaid board shorts, jeans and tanks, sunglasses (some still wearing them inside), but especially: hats.  Besides the numerous summer straw fedoras made popular by the aforementioned visiting musician, there are black glittery cowboy hats, jaunty leather types, paddlesport visors, and fitted baseball caps. The variety in fedoras, however, is particularly astounding, and those wanting in on this fashion can find some splendid samples at the Brass Rooster, newly opened in Bay View.

The abundance of exposed skin also results in a revelation of tattoos: colorful flowers on a lady’s back, a line of stars down the back arm of a man, a girl in a yellow dress with a variety of black & white/gray landscapes and portraits – one on her shoulder is a particularly stunning Marilyn Monroe.

There is a strong juxtaposition of summer attire with Roc’s tails and vest or Peter’s grand mustache and wide tie.  This only makes the traditional, formal dress of the concierges stand out even more, creating an air of elegance that is nearly theatrical, were it not for their easy-going laughter or kind directions on how to take the trolley loop around downtown.

“Gertie”

Of course, it’s also the Fourth of July weekend and guests have arrived from all over to spend their holiday here. There’s one guy who managed to bring all the summer fashions together.  He stands at the check-in desk wearing all of the above: the t-shirt, plaid shorts, flip-flops, straw fedora, backpack AND has a cooler!  I meet a fabulously flamboyant male ballet dancer from San Francisco who is here on a mini family reunion of sorts, a beautiful redhead from Tucson celebrating a hometown birthday with her longtime friend (and artist-in-residence) Shelby Keefe, and a couple from Illinois who has fled domestic festivities in favor of a holiday weekend away with their sweet, adorable 2.5yr old Basset Hound named Gertrude.

Gertrude is a charmer: her giant paws with exercise wristbands of wrinkled skin bunching around her ankles, pumpkin-fed soft fur, long and unbelievably silky ears, gorgeous tri-color markings, and those soulful eyes make a deadly combination.  Her “parents” are thrilled to be able to bring her with them on their getaway.  They even took her up to the seventh floor where, vacant of any conferences or group bookings, they found a veritable playground where they could play fetch with Gertie*, who normally would take off (as hounds are wont to do) and not come back as she followed a scent outdoors someplace.  They loved that employees would walk by and smile, nod, say hello, maybe give Gertie a belly rub and go on their way.  “It’s so wonderful to stay in a place where we can walk around with her inside, or play a little in a big, empty space and it’s okay!”  Gertie shows her gratitude by licking my bare toes.

Yummy!!

I think how it’s too bad that Gertie won’t be allowed in the one place everyone else is sure to be tonight between 11pm and 3am: in the Café at the Pfister, enjoying their inaugural ‘Summerfest Late Night Buffet’ for only $19.95.  Who am I kidding?  Gertie will be so tired from galloping around her new playground, she’ll be fast asleep on a big, fluffy bed next to a bigger, fluffier bed while the rest of Milwaukee listens to music, drinks, dances, and eats long into the holiday night.

 

*Gertrude has no idea how lucky she is, as she shares her nick-moniker with Milwaukee’s most famous animal: a duck, also named Gertie, whose bronze statue stands by the river, a symbol of hope.