Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why I am here: On beauty in the Menomonee Valley

A constant, rhythmic thunder reverberates from the steel underside of the wide freeway overhead. Below, the Menomonee River slides silently between tilted flanks of concrete. Colorful graffiti decorates floodwalls on both sides of the channel; a skull motif interspersed with a surprisingly aesthetic tagging style.

Two young women walk slowing along the canted concrete. They stop now and then to photograph, one with a digital SLR, the other with a cell phone. They seem like students. When I reach them I ask. One says yes, they have come all the way into Milwaukee from UW-Waukesha.

When I explain my own presence as artist in residence their expressions brighten with curiosity. One of them asks if there are any other places they can go to get good pictures. I hesitate, not knowing where to begin. Before I can formulate an answer, misinterpreting my gesture, she responds: “I guess not, huh?”

“On the contrary,” I reply quickly. “There are too many choices to describe them all. That’s why I’m here.”

To allay her sudden bewilderment I mention a couple of locations nearby that I revisit regularly. Then we part, setting off in opposite directions along the railroad tracks, seeking—each in our own fashion—to capture a fragment of this remarkable and complex place in the warmth of an Indian summer afternoon.

Myriad questions follow me down the tracks: I wonder what drew them to the Menomonee Valley, these two students from suburban Waukesha County? What will it mean to them? What essence of this place will they express in their photographs? Does it speak to them, as it does to me, in a cacophony of overlapping voices?

The Menomonee Valley is a model for economic redevelopment that integrates business and industry with restoration of natural processes. The post-industrial landscape still bears scars from decades of neglect and abuse and yet the new industrial landscape rising among them includes attractive parks and recreational venues. Here is a symbol of new urbanism, a contrary voice of hope in a world we are constantly told is facing imminent environmental collapse. Its story is one of transformation, not merely or even primarily the transformation of the land itself, as significant as that has been. There is a deeper narrative, one rooted in how we as humans relate to the land, how we have changed.

Rebecca Solnit says, “If environmental problems are really cultural problems—about the nature of our desires and perceptions—then a crucial territory to explore or transform is the territory of the mind.”1

What we have learned, here in the Menomonee Valley as elsewhere, is that our actions have consequences that often we cannot foresee. The destruction of a wild rice marsh once seemed so insignificant a price to pay for the growth of an industrial economy that no portion of it was spared. But, slowly, like an alcoholic trying with erratic success to stay on the wagon, we are learning how to live on the earth without destroying it. We are reintroducing natural features into a landscape thoroughly altered by human activity. In the process we are reintroducing ourselves to nature and learning to value its many manifestations, even and perhaps especially in the heart of the city.

As a counterpoint to common scenarios of environmental disaster, the transformation of the Menomonee Valley can resound as one of the success stories that symbolize the more important changes in the territory of the mind.

“Many…artists have been driven by a moral imperative” to play a role in this transformation, says Solnit. Like many rust-belt regions, the Menomonee Valley has been a magnet for artists. The two student photographers from Waukesha are just the latest to come here for inspiration. Are they here to mine the decaying past or celebrate the possibility of a brighter future?

I concur with Robert Adams who said, “The job of the photographer, in my view, is not to catalogue indisputable fact but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope.”2 Photography has a long tradition of aligning itself with concerns for nature and conservation of wilderness, as exemplified by an earlier Adams named Ansel. But in the late 20th Century Robert Adams and other photographers of the “New Topographics” school began to question the popular wilderness aesthetic. Pointing their cameras at human-altered landscapes, they rejected “longstanding landscape paradigms of the picturesque, pastoral, and sublime.”3 Instead they championed a clear-eyed examination of the land and our often troubling relationships with it.

Their efforts, arguably, have contributed a great deal to the still nascent transformation of the mind that is necessary to creating new, healthier and more sustainable relationships with the land. Today, of course, many things have changed, including photography, which is more democratic than ever. New technologies enable more people to photograph anything and everything, everywhere. Like the cacophony of voices that must be deciphered to hear the story of the Menomonee Valley, a multiplicity of overlapping paradigms now prevails in how we perceive our place on the land and in the world.

The romantic view is alive and well, sitting, somewhat uncomfortably perhaps, alongside dispassionate critique. New paradigms have joined the mix. Some of the voices are passionate advocates for change. Some speak of the need for community; others for a resurgence of spiritual perspectives.

Many of these paradigms are playing out in the Menomonee Valley. Part of my role as artist in residence, I believe, is to try to untangle the various threads of the story and “to be coherent about intuition and hope.” Post-industrial decay is so Twentieth Century. The challenge today is to discover and to reveal the surprising beauty of nature married with progress toward a sustainable future in unexpected places like this.

Forty years ago Robert Adams wrote, “Scenic grandeur is today sometimes painful. The beautiful places to which we journey for inspiration surprise us by the melancholy they produce.” He attributed that sense of melancholy to “the way we have damaged the country.”2 Although by many measures things have worsened since then, I believe there is reason for hope. That hope will be manifested most clearly when young people from the suburbs journey to places like the Menomonee Valley to be inspired, not by graffiti and residual blight but by the burgeoning beauty in the formerly damaged country of the inner city.

That may or may not have happened today but it is why I am here.


1. Solnit, Rebecca. As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. The University of Georgia Press. Athens. 2003.

2. Adams, Robert. Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. Aperture. Millerton, N.Y. 1981.

3. Foster-Rice, Greg and Rohrbach, John. Reframing the New Topographics. Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago. 2010.

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, October 13, 2014

Zimmerman is open for gallery night

You're invited!
Menomonee Valley 2014

Menomonee Valley Artist Residency
Open House

Along with my hosts at Zimmerman Architectural Studios I invite you to visit with me on gallery night. Come see my latest artworks.

Zimmerman Architectural Studios
2122 W. Mount Vernon St.

Friday, October 17
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.

If you can't make it on gallery night, feel free to contact me to make an appointment for a visit:

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


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Growing with the Menomonee Valley


Even now, 24 years later, Kymme vividly remembers her first day in the Menomonee Valley. A sandblasting company had just hired her and she was looking for the building. She chuckles about it today, but back then it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

“I lived on the south side and was going to MATC at the time,” she told me.  “I had gone back and forth across the 16th Street Viaduct plenty of times and never paid attention to the Valley. It was an area that nobody went to. I saw railroad tracks and it was dirty and I thought there would be trouble down there. It looked scary!”
16th Street Viaduct
Then came the fateful day that the temp agency she worked for to help pay for college assigned her to the sandblasting company. She reminisced: “I had to find my way into the Valley. I don’t remember the address—probably it was Canal Street. The road didn’t even seem like a road. I had no idea where to go.”

She finally found the business in a non-descript building at the end of a dusty path lined with used tires. She recalls working there for a couple of months. For about a year after that she again gave little thought to the Valley. Then she was surprised to learn about a bingo hall that was under construction at the very location where the sandblasting company had been. “You couldn’t see the bingo hall from the viaduct,” she said with a smile.

As we spoke finishing touches were being added to the new 19-story hotel now looming over that viaduct. But even before the new addition it’s been many years since anyone could cross the 16th Street Viaduct without noticing the presence of Potawatomi Bingo & Casino (recently renamed Potawatomi Hotel & Casino). Kymme’s personal story is closely tied with the continual transformation that began with that first bingo hall, a transformation that extends from Potawatomi’s periods of expansion to revitalization of the surrounding Menomonee Valley, the place she had once shunned as scary.

The hotel opened in August
“I was hired February 28, 1991 and we opened in March. I was here from the beginning,” she said proudly. Kymme started as a pull-tab clerk. This meant walking up and down the bingo aisles selling tabs or tickets with combinations of symbols, some of which would be winning combinations that could be turned in for a cash prize. For several years after that she worked as the paper clerk who sold bingo sheets. Because of her qualifications and skills, she steadily worked her way up in the organization, becoming a supervisor, a payroll specialist, and eventually executive assistant to the General Manager.

After seven years at Potawatomi Kymme, who is Oneida, decided to take a break and return to her home in northern Wisconsin. The hiatus lasted two years before she returned. “I was bored up there,” she freely admits. Back in Milwaukee she studied bioscience at UWM, her sights aimed on a career as a crime scene investigator. She also went back to Potawatomi, working part time to support her studies. She remembers it as a busy time when she also became “a full time mom.”

After Potawatomi opened a poker room in 2001 Kymme dealt poker for a couple years. One day a friend suggested she apply to the public relations department. They needed a community relations specialist, she was told. “I didn’t know anything about PR,” she confesses, “but I knew a lot of people in the Native American community. I had the connections and resources.” This led to the Community Relations position she’s held ever since.

One of Kymme’s favorite duties has been to coordinate the annual Powwow, which is held in the Casino’s Expo Center. Although not widely advertised, the Powwow, with its traditional dances and singing, is open to the public. “It’s also the one time you can bring children to the casino,” Kymme tells me.

Before long, as the Menomonee Valley itself began to change, Kymme found herself the go-to person for people newly interested in the Native American heritage of the vicinity. She muses, “It was kind of funny because they were calling a casino to learn stuff about Native Americans.” But it seems natural enough for two reasons. First, as Kymme puts it, “We were here before it was Milwaukee.” But more to the point, perhaps, it was the return of the Potawatomi to this degraded landscape that helped inspire Milwaukee to turn things around.

“We were the first to see the potential,” Kymme says. When the tribe began investing in the valley and cleaning up the river “there was a domino effect” as other businesses saw the value of locating there. “Slowly it became a safe place and a beautiful place.”

Kymme is particularly happy to have the opportunity to work with the Urban Ecology Center as a cultural outreach and education specialist. The Center, which opened its Menomonee Valley Branch in July, 2013, has assumed stewardship of the new Three Bridges Park and has begun to introduce the natural world to children in nearby South Side neighborhoods.

With obvious emotion Kymme concludes, “I think the ancestors who lived here before it was Milwaukee are happy now.” 

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.