Sunday, April 27, 2014

Art and science at the Urban Ecology Center

Visual Reflections: A Printmaker Collective

“The challenge is immense.” The phrase lingers in my mind as I slowly circumnavigate the room, reading stories of environmental restoration and seeing artists’ representations of those stories. The “challenge” refers to what artist Douglas Bosley offers as a “call to arms.” Bosley teamed up with Kingsley Dixon, an ecologist in Australia, via the twenty-first century technology of Skype. In an exhibit label the artist outlined the specific challenge:

“For two decades, a million acres of western Australian land were cleared per year. Kingsley Dixon’s mission is to restore a million of those acres…. The challenge is immense. The land is essentially wasteland. …Nevertheless, Dixon’s group and many others are building the science and the solutions to make this dream possible.”

Bosley’s lithograph of ghostly flowers and a monumental “1M” rising from a barren landscape attempts to express that million acre challenge.

For Yvette Pino, founder of Bench Press Events and organizer of this project, the challenge was to bring together fine artists and ecologists like Bosley and Dixon to stimulate dialogue and collaboration. The success of her effort is displayed along the gallery walls.

The challenge for Bosley, as for each of the 12 artists in the project, was to create an image inspired by conversations and, in some cases, interactions with the collaborating ecologist.

The prosaic title of the exhibit, “Visual Reflections: A Printmaker Collective,” doesn’t begin to describe the complexity of the project that led to these prints hanging on the gallery walls. The theme of ecology is expressed directly in the premise of the project. Pino invited twelve fine art printmakers from around the U.S. to collaborate with twelve ecologists from as far away as Australia and China.

An untitled woodcut by Colorado artist Kim Hindman superimposes terrestrial and aquatic life forms on a map of New York harbor. The spatially ambiguous composition emphasizes the ragged edges of the famous estuary. A text panel identifies restoration of seawalls and the water’s edge as the specialty of ecologist Dr. Marcha Johnson, Hindman’s collaborator.

The colorful, boldly abstract patterning in “Return, Take Over,” a serigraph by Wisconsin artist Katie Garth, might be mistaken as merely decorative. But the conceptual rigor in the work as well as the interdependence of printmaker and ecologist are hinted at in the accompanying narrative. In the artist’s words, “John [Reiger] explained several restoration strategies… each using varying levels of intervention. Mentally, I juxtaposed the initial disturbance…with its subsequent restoration. Both altered the landscape, but with opposite intentions…. ‘Return, Take Over’ depicts the cohabitation of growth and decay in order to represent this duality in human disruption.”

A densely detailed and somber mezzotint of a subtly surreal scene hangs in a far corner of the gallery. Leaves sprout from oddly geometric rocks. Fantastical creatures seemingly made from splinters of wood and stone march like crustaceans—or scorpions—through a hard, crystalline landscape. The mood is dark, foreboding. The title, “LD.4334.1409,” which may refer to scientific enumeration, adds obfuscation to mystery.

The ominous mood comes as a surprise after viewing the rest of the exhibit. While diverse in other ways, the overall tone of the show is bright, upbeat. This is perhaps the greater surprise. Sunny optimism is not necessarily to be expected in an art exhibit about ecology in a time when climate change seems to be trending inexorably towards climate chaos. But while the haunting mezzotint with the enigmatic title may be more consistent with such a vision, don’t come to this exhibit looking for stereotypes.

In fact, don’t go looking for this exhibit in a traditional art gallery. The challenge for the uninitiated is to locate the exhibition space. The flagship branch of the Urban Ecology Center at Riverside Park has had arts programming as one of its missions since its inception. The lower level Community Room of the Center was designed with art exhibitions in mind. The austere white cube of traditional gallery spaces, however, is another stereotype to dismiss here. Viewing the art may involve maneuvering around a room set up for the educational games that regularly bring hundreds of schoolchildren to the center to learn about the natural world.

That those children may enjoy seeing on the walls serious art geared for an adult audience is not a bonus. It’s a deliberate strategy to establish interconnecting experiences. Ecology and a culture of scientific inquiry pervade everything the center does. The positive tone of this exhibit may be a consequence of that kind of sensibility.

Optimism also may be a motivating attitude for the ecologists. All specialize in the forward-thinking field of environmental restoration. The impetus for the project was the 2013 World Conference of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), which was held in Madison, WI. All of the ecologists chosen for the project are SER members and the prints were first displayed last year at the Conference in Madison.

Several of the artists went beyond the use of imagery to express ecological principles in their work. For example, artist Heather Buechler teamed up with ecologist Debbie Mauer, who both reside in Illinois. After hiking together in prairie preserves and discussing the balance of nature, they harvested big bluestem and panic grass from one of the sites. Their collaboration continued into the studio where they processed the grasses into handmade paper pulp “to create a paper that is tied to the place that inspired it.” The image Buechler printed on the handmade paper, entitled “Diversity in Small Parcels,” is a complex layering of grass stems, the watershed of the Illinois River, and a silhouette of Lake Michigan.

Several of the prints were even framed in unfinished wood recovered from discarded industrial palettes. The recycling effort is intended to resonate with scientific methodologies; it also takes the concept of the cycle of nature beyond metaphor.

“Visual Reflections: A Printmaker Collective,” is on display through June. The Urban Ecology Center is located at 1500 East Park Place, next to Riverside Park. Hours are on its website.

One final challenge: if you arrive at this unique gallery when no one else is there you may have to grope along the wall to find the light switch. At the Urban Ecology Center no energy is wasted. Creative energy, however, is continually being generated.

An edited version of this review first appeared in Art City.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Zimmerman is open for gallery night


You're invited!

Menomonee Valley Artist Residency
Open House

Along with my hosts at Zimmerman Architectural Studios I invite you to visit with me this Friday. Come see what I’ve been doing so far this year.

Zimmerman Architectural Studios
2122 W. Mount Vernon St.

Friday, April 25
5:00 - 8:00 p.m.

New work and works in progress will be on display.
If you have never been to the historic gas building that Zimmerman remodeled for their offices, it's worth a visit in itself!

Refreshments will be served.

Zimmerman is easy to see but hard to find. It is the large brick structure behind the tall octagonal tower near 25th Street between St. Paul and Canal Streets. Access is from 25th Street.

To learn more about the Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency and for links to blog posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.

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.