Friday, May 30, 2014

Bad debt is good business!

The first thing I notice about the nondescript two-story brick building is the sign. Or, to be more precise, the wrong sign. I’m looking for Professional Placement Services (PPS). I check the address again. I’m at the corner of 12th and Mount Vernon and number on the building matches. But I see only “Signarama” in bright red lettering. I wonder how much privacy a collection agency needs.

After confirming that I’m in the correct building the second thing I notice are the locks on the doors. In the main lobby I press the call button, identify myself and hear the familiar click of a lock disengaging. On the second floor I find myself in a glass cage confronted by another locked door and another call button. This time when I push it there is no answer. Immediately beyond the glass cage is a vacant reception desk. I tap on the glass, gingerly. To the concern for privacy add security.

The next thing I notice contradicts everything I’ve been seeing. Before long I am admitted and introduced to Craig, co-owner, with his wife Irina, of PPS. Craig’s face lights up with a genuineness that is disarming. His bright smile and warm greeting dispel the cloak and dagger aura evoked by the anonymous, locked-down facility.

Irina and Craig
PPS is a successful and growing business with 40 employees and 180 clients. “We’re experts in collection,” Craig says. “Our clients want to outsource collection activities to the experts.” Their clients include local and national retailers, banks, health care companies and various levels of government. And, yes, I’m told fervently, security is one of the primary concerns. The locked doors—and the surveillance cameras I hadn’t even noticed—are intended to protect the privacy of client businesses and debt-laden consumers alike.

I confess ignorance about the business of collection. Craig, who hears this all the time, is energized. The company makes 35,000 calls a day, he tells me. “We want to help people get out of debt. Our big message is, ‘Communicate with us’.” Clearly relishing the subject, he elaborates, “Some people have an image of us as the collector at the door with a baseball bat. We work hard to change that.” Their primary goal, he says, is to enable people to manage their finances. In a soft, compassionate tone he suggests, “Everyone goes through times that are tough. We want to understand the situation and work with them.”

Debt collection, says Craig, is important to the economy and the local community. “It's the backbone of a credit-based economy. The money we collect helps keep businesses operating, helps owners make payroll and provide benefits, helps to keep people employed. It also helps government avoid tax increases.”

When I ask why they located their business in the Menomonee Valley I am graced with another of Craig’s ingenuous smiles. He and Irina moved the company from the Third Ward to the Valley in 2008. He ticks off the advantages of the new location: its central location, proximity to bus lines, available parking, nearby eateries for lunch. “The Menomonee Valley is a great place for a company like us to start and grow.” In fact, PPS has tripled in size since its move to the Valley and could add 50-100 new employees in the next couple years, he declares confidently.

The Menomonee Valley is also in what is known in the collection industry as a Hub Zone. This is a federal designation that identifies places in need of revitalization. Being in the Valley qualifies PPS to offer its services to the federal government, a distinct advantage. It is one of the reasons that Craig and Irina chose not only to locate here but also to invest in the Valley by purchasing the property with expansion in mind.

Craig’s interest in the Valley goes beyond the material benefits to his business of the location, however. The disparity of our personal experiences begins to resolve into greater harmony as he asserts, “The whole story of the Valley is great. It went from swampland to the manufacturing age and now it’s turning another corner. You can see new businesses…and you see trout and salmon. There are fishermen in the river. Just a few short years ago you wouldn’t have seen that.”

I meet Irina, who is a brisk and businesslike foil to Craig’s gregariousness. “I’m the boss,” she says right off. I glance towards Craig. “He knows I’m the boss,” she adds with a smile. They have an infectious natural affinity as well as a mutual regard for their business. “We’ve been excited about the company for many years,” she says enthusiastically. Then Craig adds something I never expected to hear about a collection agency: “It’s a fun business!” I’m inclined to skepticism but Craig’s enthusiastic demeanor evaporates my doubt.

As I gather up my camera gear and head for the door Craig offers parting advice: “If you should ever get a call from us, talk to us!” He grins as he holds open the door for me.

Let me introduce a few of the PPS staff. Because privacy is in fact a genuine concern I am using only their first names.

Roberto, Account Representative

Ann, Account Representative

Dan, operations manager, with Craig

Jenaya, Account Representative

Josh, Account Representative

Jeff, Assistant Collection Manager

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.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Light from lives lived: photography at the Jazz Gallery

A young girl gazes intently at the camera, as if trying to dare the viewer to look away. Her T-shirt bears the photograph of another young girl, this one with a bright smile. Hand drawn in bold purple above the black and white image are the letters RIP. A smudge of purple runs across the shirt. The somber girl’s name is Alexis. The wall text quotes her saying, “This is a t-shirt in memory of my cousin, who was killed in a shooting."

courtesy Barbara Miner
Photographer and journalist Barbara Miner spent time with fifth graders at La Escuela Fratney where she posed the question, “What’s important to me?” The answers to that penetrating question stare out from a series of portraits. Some, like Alexis, have sobering stories to tell. Others, like Xavier, who proudly frames a subtle smile with his Mad Hot Ballroom dance shoes, are more cheerful. All present themselves with a potent intensity that I find profoundly moving.

Few subjects are as timeless and universal as the human condition. Miner is one of four Milwaukee photographers who narrow down that subject in a gem of an exhibit at the Jazz Gallery in Riverwest.

Despite being the middle of a holiday weekend the small gallery space was packed at the opening on Sunday. I’d like to think this testifies to the dedication of the Milwaukee art community. It may also indicate that these four veteran artists have devoted followers. I for one was familiar with all four and eager to see them brought together in one gallery. I was not disappointed.

The contributors weren’t asked to hold to a specific theme; nor were they all acquainted beforehand. But curator Mark Lawson clearly and insightfully saw coherence amongst them. They share an interest in the human family in general and the lives of individuals in our community in particular.

courtesy John Ruebartsch
Since 2009 John Ruebartsch has been documenting a wave of recent immigrants to Milwaukee. His sympathetic eye often catches them in domestic surroundings where they feel comfortable. Some of the portraits are posed, some appear candid, but all bear a sense of intimacy and companionship.

An exhibition of related work called “Here, There and Elsewhere: Refugee Families in Milwaukee” has traveled outside of Wisconsin as well as being shown in several local venues. However, the newly printed work at the Jazz Gallery has not been shown before.  

courtesy John Ruebartsch
I was struck in this one by the contrast between the colorful African clothing and the ordinary setting of a typically American kitchen.

Lois Bielefeld describes herself as a “conceptual photographer,” though she supplements her fine art practice with commercial and fashion photography. The work in this show is from her “Weeknight Dinners” series. If the work seems familiar it may be because Bielefeld was a recent Mary Nohl Fellowship award winner and selections from this series were displayed at Inova.

courtesy Lois Bielefeld
The series depicts individuals, couples and entire families eating dinner. To Bielefeld’s eye this common activity manages to appear simultaneously mundane and monumental. Details provide glimpses into private lives and suggest narratives that remain mysterious. In one composition more than the intervening living room space divides a couple. The man eats his dinner off a TV tray but a wall of pharmaceutical bottles obscures the food.

courtesy Lois Bielefeld
In another a man’s solitude is accentuated by the dark interior of his kitchen and also, curiously, by twin busts of president Kennedy that stand before him like sentinels as he sits before his simple fare staring into the gloom.

courtesy Paul Calhoun
In addition to his social justice oriented art practice, Paul Calhoun teaches at both MIAD and Mount Mary University. The work in this show travels more widely across Wisconsin than that of his colleagues. Travel is clearly not the point here, however. Each image packs an emotional punch. He takes us to a funeral for a veteran in Milwaukee and to the famous protests against Governor Walker in Madison.

courtesy Paul Calhoun
Most poignantly, to me at least, we see very young migrant laborers pausing from their work picking cucumbers on some undisclosed Wisconsin farm. Like children anywhere, they stand before the camera in a casually formal pose that is belied by their grimy faces and clothes. They hold each other’s hands. I am brought back abruptly to Barbara Miner’s question: What’s important to me?

courtesy Barbara Miner
Alejandro, according the the text panel next to this portrait, says, "My younger brother. We're best friends."

Light from lives lived runs through June 21. The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts is run by the Riverwest Artist’s Association. It’s located at 926 East Center Street. 

An installation shot of a portion of Miner's display.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Portraits of Cyclists: Biking to Work

“Do you know each other?” I asked after taking this shot of Bernadette and Jim on the Hank Aaron State Trail. No, they assured me cheerfully. She was traveling west to her job at Melk Music in West Allis. He was on his way downtown to MATC where he taught mechanical design. The chance encounter came about because they’d both stopped for coffee and a bite of pastry at the commuter station set up next to the Trail for Bike to Work Week.

I’d been asking people who were biking to work if they would mind being part of my effort to document the weeklong event. While only a single person shyly declined my request, Bernadette and Jim were the two strangers who symbolized for me the remarkable collegiality amongst the cyclists. For two hours each morning the station buzzed with lively chatter about workplaces, distances traveled, cycling, and of course the (generally bad) weather.

There were regulars, like Kevin (above), who said that he rides 26 miles round trip at least four days a week. And others like Joel (below) who told me that he was “just getting back into” riding to work. In fact, the timing of the annual Bike to Work Week is meant to inspire people to drag their bicycles out of the garage, where they’ve been stored for the (brutal) winter.

Please go to Urban Wilderness for the rest of this story and photos.

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.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Nature and Community: Reviving the Spirit

A Menomonee Valley essay

On a trip through the high Sierras John Muir came upon a particularly lovely glen with a river running through it. He climbed a large boulder in the river, which he likened to an altar. After musing upon the power of spring floods to move boulders he rhapsodized about moss, the clear pool, blossoming lilies and light coming through overarching leaves. “The place seemed Holy,” he concluded, “where one might hope to see God.”1

Muir was hardly the first to equate nature with holiness. His descriptions of wilderness experiences often bordered on spiritual ecstasy and yet they were paired with keen phenomenological observations and precise taxonomic identification of plants and animals he encountered. Muir clearly was comfortable blending empirical science with personal theology. His rigorously analytical mind was open to mysticism.

I recently picked up a volume of Muir’s writing, thinking it was time for me to revisit his perspective on nature. I’d been asked to talk about the spiritual component of my urban wilderness escapades. It was not the first such request I’d received and, like Muir, I recognize and welcome the spiritual dimension of my own examinations of nature, urban and otherwise.

When I first began to explore the Menomonee River for my book, Urban Wilderness, my impulse was analytical and documentary. My episodic travels would take me nowhere that hadn’t been thoroughly mapped as well as completely altered by hundreds of years of human activity. Nevertheless, in a very real sense it was a journey of discovery. Among the many surprises of that endeavor was the spiritual presence I felt in undeniably compromised remnants of nature.

Please go to Urban Wilderness for the rest of this story and additional photos.

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, May 5, 2014

Menomonee Valley Artist Residency: Taking a chance on 3 Bridges Park

As familiar as I am with Three Bridges Park I can still be surprised. This time it was neither something recently added to the unfinished landscape nor a flower newly sprouted, our recalcitrant spring being slow to unfold. No, I was surprised and delighted by a new perspective, a way of seeing what has been there all along.

The day was overcast but mild for a change. An unusual number of people were enjoying the park. An intermittent parade of individuals, couples and families cycled or strolled along the trail. Walking west from Mitchell Park the land rolled on ahead towards the 35th St. Viaduct; the hills still brown and bare, only a hint of green softening their edges.

I imagined how beautiful it will be when the grasses and trees mature.

Just across the fenced park boundary a string of rail cars sat idle on the tracks. I briefly registered a frieze of colorful graffiti, then scanned the debris-strewn slope beyond. The tangle of twisted trees and brush was just beginning to bud. In summer it was a lush screen of vibrant greenery. Now the feral shrubbery hid none of the degradation exacted upon it by years of abuse and neglect. I turned away.

Please go to Urban Wilderness for the rest of this story and additional photos.

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.