Saturday, April 19, 2014

Denis Sullivan leaves winter harbor: a photo essay

"Wisconsin's official flagship," the Denis Sullivan left its winter berth on the Menomonee River yesterday. Owned and operated by Discovery World, the Denis Sullivan is "the world’s only re-creation of a 19th century three-masted Great Lakes schooner," according to the Discovery World website. It's mission is "To provide programming that is an introduction to field science with an emphasis on environmental issues, Great Lakes concerns and stewardship of our natural world."

Preparation for the short voyage from the Menomonee Valley to its active berth on the Discovery World pier has been going on all week. The ship has been shrouded all winter in a motley collection of tarps recycled from discarded canvas billboards. These were removed and carefully folded for future reuse. Crew members and volunteers worked diligently to prepare the vessel for sailing. 

The passage downriver was made without raising the sails, using the ships engines. An inflatable dingy helped turn and guide the big ship. The crew was joined by eager Discovery World staff. Everyone was bundled up against a biting east wind that brought cold temperatures off Lake Michigan.

To view the photo essay click here to go to my Urban Wilderness blog.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Milwaukee discusses creative placemaking

This afternoon Turner Hall ballroom was packed with a diverse crowd. Business executives, philanthropists, architects, environmentalists, educators, politicians and—yes—artists of all stripes gathered for a forum and discussion of placemaking.

Placemaking can be defined in a variety of ways, according to Alice Carle of the Kresge Foundation. “But art needs to be at the table,” she added, with emphasis. Lyz Crane, Deputy Director of ArtPlace America went further. Creative placemaking is “anything where you are doing art to create a sense of place” or to “shape the future” of a place.

They should know. The Kresge Foundation and ArtPlace America are major funders of placemaking projects. In 2013 Milwaukee was the recipient of a substantial grant from ArtPlace America for Creational Trails: A Placemaking Experience.

Crane was quick to add that “everyone in the room,” not just the artists, had a stake in the process. She also made a point of distinguishing between using “creative” as an adjective and an adverb; a place can be made creative but placemaking is done creatively.

The diversity of the crowd was no accident. “Cross-disciplinary” and  “connectivity” were themes repeated by many of the panelists, who themselves represented many of the various disciplines required to engage in successful placemaking. The format had a pair from each discipline onstage at a time, one from Milwaukee and the other from out of town. In addition to the philanthropic community, there were elected officials, developers, community organizers, city planners, and leaders in higher education.

Between the pairs of panelists we were informed about a series of six local case studies that exemplify placemaking: America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Creational Trails, The Harmony Initiative, In:Site: Art on Fon du Lac Ave., Islands of Milwaukee, and Three Bridges Park/Menomonee Valley.

The panelists were well prepared and insightful, I thought. And from where I sat the audience seemed both attentive and engaged. The room was abuzz for quite a while afterwards. It will be interested to see what becomes of the energy generated.

Here are a few other snippets about placemaking that caught my attention.

Placemaking must be unique to the place and build on existing community assets. It must engage with the community authentically. The sectors of a community must “get out of their silos” and work together. Efforts by one sector can act as a catalyst for change in others.

The arts are essential because they help us to see things in new ways. Arts and culture also can bring together disparate segments of a community.

Neil Hoffman, president of MIAD, reminded the audience of what a risk it was to move the school to the Third Ward. At that time, he said, far from having its current trendy reputation, it was a “war zone” where students needed an escort to cross the street. He suggested that groups and institutions should change their perspective. The nearly reflexive question, “What do we need?” should be turned around: “What do we have to offer?”

When asked to provide an example of a successful project, alderman Michael Murphy cited the Menomonee Valley and said, “We’ve been doing creative placemaking for twenty years; we just didn’t know it was called that.”

The two developers on the panel, Milwaukee's Barry Mandel and Omar Blaik, from Philadelphia, PA, each described how the inclusion of arts added value to their developments. Arts and culture "bring vibrancy to cities,"said Mandel. Responding to the question, "What do people want from community?" Blaik replied, "People want human interaction." He added that the trend in the U.S. towards single use development is backwards; it leads to segregation. Mixed use developments that include the arts energize places and stimulate interaction.

I don’t remember who said it but pride was mentioned more than once. The arts do more than “activate” places; they give a city something to root for. Alderman Murphy asserted that even controversial art was good for the community. Some people love it, some may hate it, but art, he said, generates “passion."

Amen to that.

The forum was jointly sponsored by The Greater Milwaukee Committee, Mandel Group, Inc. and The Creative Alliance.

Friday, April 4, 2014

"The Whitney Biennial for Angry Women"

Despite my own white male identity--which destiny I am as powerless to reject as anyone of another gender, ethnic origin, or racial identity--I found this critique quite powerful. For some reason my white male identity (I suppose it's superfluous or, worse, an example of the privilege that status affords me, to assert that I've never actually identified with that term) has yet to admit me to a Whitney Biennial.

Here are a few selections from a critique of the Biennial from The New Inquiry:

The Whitney Biennial for Angry Women


"Every two years, the Biennial anoints its debutants for the next round of museum trough feeding. Careers are ignited, financial introductions between artists and the wealthy are made, and Americans are re-educated as to what Art is supposed to mean in this country.

"This is the Whitney Biennial for Angry Women."

"The following quotes are drawn from the curators’ introduction to the Biennial catalogue:

'We hope that our iteration of the Biennial will suggest the profoundly diverse and hybrid cultural identity of America today.'

"Translation: 'The 2014 Whitney Biennial is the whitest Biennial since 1993. Taking a cue from the corporate whitewashing of network television, high art embraces white supremacy under the rhetoric of multicultural necessity and diversity.'"

"The curatorial statement at the entrance to the fourth floor reads:
 "Donelle Woolford [Joe Scanlan] radically calls into question the very identity of the artist…
"Translation: “Joe Scanlan is a white male professor from Yale who created a black female persona to promote his work, because he thinks that black bodies give their owners an unfair advantage on the art market. We are more comfortable with white fantasies of the other than examining lived experience."

"[The white man] understands the world better. That’s why he’s the director, the manager, the CEO, okay? That’s why he is in charge of hiring, and we get to be hired, okay?! It’s just the way that things work. He comes up with the ideas. You get paid to play your part. Do you get paid royalties? Do you become credited in the company? Are you the artist? No. But that’s not the point. The point is that he showed us something old that looked like something new, and we must be grateful. Okay?"

Dear White Curators,

"1. Diversity is not the inclusion of those not from New York. Diversity isn’t more white women. Diversity isn’t safe art. Diversity isn’t black bodies put on display by white artists.

"2. You don’t get to appropriate diversity as a buzzword for your PR work. Besides, we know how to count:

"—There is one black female artist (we refuse to count your fictional black female artist)

"—You put the two Puerto Ricans in the basement …

"—HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN is a collective of 38 mostly black & queer artists but barely gets treated as one artist. How amazing would it be if their 38 people counted as 38 people at the Whitney, which would accord them 40% of the museum’s space? They have been allotted an “evolving” temporary screening slot. They are the largest collective in the Biennial yet their real estate is virtually nonexistent.

"—Gary Indiana, another white male artist trafficking in racist fantasies, receives more space, time and visibility than the 38 members of HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN."

"We need to think about taisha paggett.

"Would the average viewer of the Whitney Biennial know that paggett was in the show? Probably not. Her name haunts the page of the museum guide, she is in “Other Locations.” “Other Locations” is tertiary placement such as: temporary screening schedules, “hallway galleries” and limited-run performances. But this is the Whitney Biennial for Angry Women. And we know she’s there, because we’re intimately familiar with Other Locations. We know she’s there because we set a fine-toothed comb to the catalogue to find her. We didn’t get to see her work in person. We didn’t get to stand with her, moving slowly, feeling our breath. But we can come to rest in her words on the page. To put it in her words, we can think about “a transhistorical, metaphysical her,” because when she talks through her words she speaks our lives back to us. We know this terrain, this terrain of the now. She is the beating heart of what we wish the Whitney was."

To read the entire article click here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014



I asked Nick, the owner of a specialty bicycle company called Fyxation, “Where did the name come from?” A gleam came into his eye as he replied; “I’ve been riding bikes since I was a kid.” BMX led to bicycle racing, which morphed into the more esoteric worlds of design and engineering. That led to a lifelong career that “goes beyond passion; cycling is a bit of an obsession for me.” He let the implication hang in a breath or two of silence: ah! A fixation.

In 2013 Fyxation moved into the ground floor of the Bike Federation building on 36th and Pierce, making it one of the youngsters in a new generation of start ups and established business that now call the Menomonee Valley home. Why the Valley? “Honestly,” Nick said, “I could have gotten an equivalent space cheaper in Glendale, where I live.” Proximity to the Hank Aaron State Trail and the collegiality offered by Team Sports—which owns the building—the Bike Fed and the nearby Urban Ecology Center tipped the scales.

The decision to move to this location was made while the now adjacent 3 Bridges Park was still in the planning stages. Nick remembers thinking that it would be “nice” to have a park next door, but it was really the trail that inspired him. However, he hastens to add, “The first time I rode on the bike path through the park—while it was still just dirt—I was blown away! I could clearly see that this would be an asset not just for the neighborhood but for the whole city.” He suggests that the view from the easternmost bridge, which connects the park to the Domes, will become the new “iconic vista” of downtown Milwaukee. I’ve admired that view myself!

Nick is also an avid fly fisherman and considers it a plus that the park has made the Menomonee River newly accessible. “There will be days when you’ll find me down there at lunch with my fly rod,” he said enthusiastically.

Fyxation was begun in 2009 with a design for a tire, the Session 700, which the company describes as “a durable yet stylish urban focused bicycle tire.” At its new location the company has expanded its line. It now offers an extensive line of bike frames, components and accessories. Its specialty is custom-made bicycles.

Nick also introduced me to an employee named Mauricio, who designs and fabricates leather accessories right in the shop. Mauricio, a recent immigrant from Costa Rica, is proud to display the U. S. flag above his leather tooling station. The flag had been flown in Washington, D.C. He received it in 2000 after a one-year high school exchange program as an honor for being the youngest student to represent Central America in the AFS (American Field Service).

Nick and Mauricio both are proud of the amount of local sourcing that goes into the leather products. “We special order our tanned hides from Law Tanning right here in the Menomonee Valley,” Nick told me. It was news to me that the Valley still had a tanning company! Later, I drove past the address of Law Tanning on Pierce Street. The nondescript red brick building has no sign on it.

Come to think of it, the Team Sports building has a Bike Fed sign outside, but neither Team Sports nor Fyxation is identified. Nick explained that Fyxation is primarily a manufacturing company. While they get the occasional walk-in customer—and they do get internet traffic—they sell most of their products to retail bicycle shops. Nick did say that he has a Fyxation sign that he hasn’t gotten around to putting up. “I’m waiting for good weather,” he added with a chuckle.

Aren’t we all?

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.


Monday, March 31, 2014

Photo Phenology

Phenology refers to the observation of seasonal plant and animal life cycles. Aldo Leopold was a habitual phenologist. Substantial portions of his classic book, A Sand County Almanac, are devoted to such observations. Photography, of course, can serve the phenologist well with its ability to record the visible world with indiscriminate accuracy—as long as you know where to point the camera!

The Menomonee Valley Branch of the Urban Ecology Center has undertaken a long-term project that it calls Photo Phenology. The idea was inspired by the proximity of the Center to newly rehabilitated parklands in the Menomonee Valley. Stormwater Park, 3 Bridges Park, and the Hank Aaron State Trail are all a short walk from their back door. 

tracks in the mud
Once a month, on the fourth Saturday, a team equipped with UEC point-and-shoot cameras goes out on a regular route to record the changes that are happening with the seasons. Last Saturday I accompanied UEC staff members Lainet and Michael on their rounds. They explained that certain vantage places are repeated each time to establish consistent points of reference. They capture several views of the river and the broad landscape. They also keep their eyes open for small details and ephemeral changes, such as animal tracks, blossoming flowers, etc.

To read the rest of this story and see the accompanying photo essay go to: Urban Wilderness


Monday, March 24, 2014

Selections & reflections: the de Young Museum in San Francisco

Few things are as subjective as one’s taste in art. I taught art history as well as studio art for many years and in teaching circumstances one feels an obligation to a certain measure of objectivity. And truthfully my tastes in art are pretty diverse. After all, I chose the name of my blog with inclusivity in mind.

Still, isn’t it fun to choose favorites now and then?

I recently visited for the first time the de Young, half of a pair of Fine Art Museums of San Francisco. (The other is called The Legion of Honor, which houses “4,000 years of ancient and European art.” I missed that one.) In addition to modern art, the de Young specializes in non-European arts and cultures. I offer here an unabashedly subjective selection of a few favorites from the portions of the collection I had time to see.

At the outset I must say that I was quite enthralled with the entire experience, with both the museum itself and with the collections of art it showcases. I would gladly return for additional visits given the opportunity. The museum experience begins on the outside, with a unique architectural design by Herzog & de Meuron. Depending upon your vantage point, the structure can seem dramatic or austere, to stand apart from nature or to harmonize with its landscaped setting. The exterior surfaces are clad in copper still new enough that oxidation hasn’t yet faded its copper penny tones to the green it will eventually assume.

Among the building’s many lovely features are the circular perforations that penetrate the façade in places, allowing light and color from surrounding Golden Gate Park to filter into the interior.

The museum has a relatively liberal policy regarding photography of the collection. I was able to photograph, without using a flash, in most places. Having said that, I could photograph neither my favorite gallery nor my favorite work of art, for different reasons. Of all the sections of the museum, I enjoyed the Oceanic and New Guinea art galleries the most. But they were so dimly lit in order to preserve the fragile work that I didn’t attempt to use my camera.

I have since learned that the de Young’s collection of New Guinea art is both celebrated (no surprise) and controversial. In 2010 the museum was threatened with a lawsuit concerning the provenance of the Jolika Collection of New Guinean art. To read more about the suit and settlement, click here. (The image, left, is from that article in SFGate.)

My single favorite piece in the museum was by David Hockney. “Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos” is far more complicated a work of art than its title suggests. It is comprised of eighteen digital screens that together span nearly 24 feet. The images on the screens are synchronized to depict a single landscape. (It cycles through seven different landscapes, one at a time.) However, in typical Hockneyan fashion, the images on the screens don’t quite register. Because of that, as well as the motion of foliage blowing in the breeze and the movement of the 18 cameras, the overall effect is just enough off-kilter to be both fascinating and lyrical. As I stood in front of it and raised my own camera, though, the guard stopped me.

Ironic, I couldn’t help thinking, that of all the works of art in the museum the one you cannot photograph is the one that no single image could ever hope to capture. (I found this semblance of it on the LACMA website.)

I’ve always been a fan of Wayne Thiebaud and I prefer his landscapes to the more famous cakes and pastries. It was no surprise to find this native son well represented at the de Young. I found “Diagonal Freeway” most appealing.

In a room devoted to trompe l’oeil that featured mostly nineteenth century paintings of the usual animal skins and artifacts hung on walls I was drawn to this less common sculptural subject. Made of porcelain by Richard Shaw, its prosaic title, “Book Jar with Ashtray,” implies that part of the top is a lid, though the verisimilitude made it hard to distinguish that.

El Anatsui is a sculptor from Ghana. This monumental piece is typical of recent work that resembles traditional African textile design but is made from a variety of metals and found objects.

Perfectly situated in the elevator lobby, with its unpainted concrete walls, was a retrospective for a local San Francisco artist named Ruth Asawa who died in 2013. Most of the work involved abstract woven basket-like forms. A few, like this one, represented leafless tree forms either hung from the ceiling or projecting out from the wall, casting evocative shadows on the concrete.

The Chihuly sculpture in this case I enjoyed as much for its juxtaposition in front of the tree visible through the atrium window as for its own qualities. I have a hard time believing that its placement was coincidental.

These are a few that stood out for me that day. I have no doubt that were I to return on another day I would find an entirely different selection, equally fine and compelling. But I must conclude my personal tour with a walk in the garden and a story about seeing one of my favorite artists in a new light, so to speak.

I might have missed the sculpture garden altogether if I hadn’t noticed from the window what looked like the top of a Turrell installation surrounded by an unkempt mount of grassy earth. It brought to mind a tonsure atop a head with dirty, uncombed hair.

Sure enough, as I walked down the ramp that led to it, a plaque identified it as “Three Gems,” by James Turrell. A tunnel led not directly into the space but into a circular corridor that surrounded it like a moat. The entrance was on the far side.

I sat on the bench that ran around the circumference of the circular interior, admiring the gravity of the space and the lightness of the sky visible through the characteristic ceiling aperture. Much like several similar pieces I’ve visited elsewhere. The rest of my experience was anything but typical.

I heard the muffled echo of pounding footsteps hurrying down the ramp and around the “moat.” A girl about nine or ten and an even younger boy appeared in the doorway. Startled by the sight of me, the excitement on their faces was briefly arrested. When I smiled they quickly resumed their enthusiastic entrance, tumbling in upon each other and laughing in delight. The sound of their laughter reverberated off the curved walls. They were clearly familiar with this place and instead of adopting the hushed silence that is typical of adults, including myself, they began to call out as you might in a cave, to hear the echo. Lo and behold, the echo changed as they moved about in the small chamber. In the center, directly below the aperture, the sound deadened noticeably. When they hopped on the bench and ran around it, shouting, their voices boomed.

In its own way it was as enchanting as the silence.

Their young mom appeared suddenly, beckoned them from the doorway. They took off, still laughing and I listened to the fading thunder of their footsteps as they ran up the ramp.

In the ensuing silence I became aware of the muted sounds of traffic in the park; then an invisible jetliner somewhere overhead, not crossing the disk of open sky.

A middle-aged woman stepped partway inside. Avoiding my eye, she looked around—but not up! She backed out again and left.

Finally, four other women of varying ages came in. They crossed through and sat, spreading themselves around the space. The initial hushed silence, most likely in deference to me, led to some chatter and laughing. Again the sounds bounced around the space. Satisfied, I relinquished the chamber to them. Then another surprise: no sooner had I stepped through the tunnel onto the ramp than one of them sang out a single, pure note.

I stopped a while longer, once more entranced. The voice was joined in a chorus of tonal chanting, its resonance lifted on the air through the open ceiling. The solemnness of the vocalizations then shifted as they tried out birdcalls. Like the children before them, they engaged with the chamber using a variety of senses and moods. When I’d had enough, I turned and slowly strolled up the ramp, saluting Turrell for his 3 gems. 

View from the de Young tower looking towards the Golden Gate Bridge (which is in the fog.)

This is the second installment of reflections on art from San Francisco. Click here to read about Di Suvero and the cranes. I have also posted reflections from Muir Woods National Mon. on Urban Wilderness.