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.
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.
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.
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.