Beyond Beer Steins
by Judy Moriarty
It amuses me when curators, gallery owners, or (horrors!) artists chatter on about "Wisconsin" art. I react with a chuckle, for years of working in the arts, I have determined there is no such thing as a style of art which defines Wisconsin--or any other state for that matter. Certainly there are painters who produce rolling landscapes dotted with animals of the bovine persuasion, but these could have been painted China, France, or East Elbow as far as I can tell. One does not have to be sitting in front of a cow in Wisconsin to capture the "essence of cow."
Nor are artists of Wisconsin overly concerned with images of cheese, foaming steins of beer, or woodland critters scampering through shady glades. Or ducks, geese, and deer. If a painter who lives in California describes lush pies and cakes in his work, does that mean that California is about pies and cakes? Does it mean the artist is a "pie or cake" artist? I would trust that Charles Wickler, a local artist who has long been a recorder of the many moods of cows would agree with this. It's true, he does produce pastels of cows, but if you pay attention to his work, he extends his talents in many directions. He is not a "cow" artist. Nor is he a "Wisconsin" artist. Mr. Wickler is an artist and art educator who happens to live and work in this state. I hope this clears things up for this fine educator who I assume has long suffered from the "label" syndrome.
When I began buying art thirty years ago, I liked everything I saw. Yes, even the stuff which I now realize is (and will always be) bad art. There is such a thing as bad art, though few admit recognizing it, perhaps out of fear of not being hip. Bad art (a kinder label is immature art) is that which is poorly crafted. However, not all well-crafted work moves me. The best of art anywhere on planet earth is both well-crafted and brimming with the spirit of adventure. No chisel, brush, camera, or other tool of the trade can endow the artist with this spirit, and certainly the spirit I describe does not descend from art heaven when you pick up an art degree. Ask any artist worth their salt. Preferably one who has reached four decades of living and has spent at least twenty of those years pursuing the "art of making art." You might want to tack on another decade just to be on the safe side. I believe that much admired artist, Professor Willis Guthrie, would agree.
As a middle-aged art education student at Carroll College in the mid 1970s, I looked at a variety of art throughout the state. The professors in the art department were, first and foremost, educators, but they also produced art and much of it was either hung or stashed in their classrooms. One of the early pieces I fell for was Professor Marceil Pultorak's enormous welded steel sculpture of a female, aptly titled Prometheus. I bought it and she delivered it by truck to my home. Professor John Tyson's aluminum Disc came to live with me at about the same time. When I moved from one domicile to another, they came along to enliven my new space. I've hauled rooms of art around in my time, and I have to say that there is something wonderful about Professor Pultorak being on the truck that picked up Prometheus in the early 1990s and carted it back to Carroll College where it is now part of this collection. Disc is here too, sharing space with many of the other pieces that have been part and parcel of my life, and it lives with pieces from other donors.
I bought these works because they are too well crafted and embody the adventurous spirit of the artists who produced them. They were within my price range and in no way smacked of "name brand" art, i.e., another form of labeling which places art in league with BMW's, Fruit-Of-The-Loom underwear, and Nike's. Frankly, I was pleased to support artists who live and work in the same state where I live and work. Someone once told me that I was the only person they knew who consistently bought work from artists living in Wisconsin. This is a brazenly bold observation, but I do think that artists who live here are often undervalued--even the best of their work. In this collection is an outstanding early work by photographer Tom Bamberger, who is currently the adjunct curator of photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum. When I purchased his photograph, Young Man, a decade ago, the elements of craftsmanship and spirit were already in place. His talent is recognized nationally (I cannot resist saying that this in no way diminishes my respect for him), and I feel privileged to have lived with his work for many years. I feel much the same about the works of my fellow artists and friends who are represented in the art here at Carroll College.
Over the long stretch of time my art inventory grew (without any particular focus) and evolved into a cherished mélange of paintings, sculptures, photographs, carved bowls, ceramics, prints, and mixed-media pieces. I say "inventory" as I am inclined to cringe at the word "collector." It is enough to be identified as a lover of art (or the "art chase" if you will), who happens to prefer art to, say, Hummels, glass swans, salt shakers, or odd hats.
Buying the work of artists whom you also know has some distinct benefits, such as the joy of living with their products on a daily basis. This is of no small comfort in an increasingly impersonal world where a commercial print over matching end tables is defined as art. What a shame. With just a little effort, you could have a Kwint, a Thurston-Farrell, a Uttech. A Francis Ford, a Marian Vieux. A Schmidt, a Schultz, a Schwanke, a Schoczek, a Stamsta.
Art has long been part of my extended family, and I value it as one values reliable friends. The flip side of this is, what to do (when one reaches a certain age) with those who are near and dear? Toss them aside? Sell them? Of course not. I prefer knowing my friends are safe and secure in a place where others can enjoy them as I have. I was their privileged caretaker for many years, and at the heart of it, they were never really "mine." Yes, it is a wildly romantic notion to imagine that art will always belong to those who create it, and to that moment in time when they gave it life--but that's what I believe. I hope you agree. For now at least, Carroll College is their designated caretaker. It is a big responsibility and not to be taken lightly.
As a final thought, may I add that this essay would have been a snap if I'd limited myself to compiling a laundry list of titles and thrown in some heavy duty "artspeak adjectives." Here are some I chose not to use: outstanding...beautiful...lush...lyrical...stunning. While all are appropriate descriptives, they say nothing about the artists who work long hours in studios both on and off campus. In thinking about these makers-of-art, my writer's "eye" looks over their shoulders as they educate and encourage young artists; as they unpack their work at art fairs, exhibits, seminars, and juried events. It watches again as they pack up their work and head home to develop new concepts, refine ideas, and sharpen their craftsmanship.
And so it is appropriate that my best "friends" have come home to Carroll College in 1998. For this writer, it signifies a closure of sorts. I note that my friends are in fine company, and on behalf of artists everywhere, I warmly thank those of you who made this possible.
Judith Ann Moriarty
Ms. Moriarty is a Wisconsin painter and former eeditor of Art Muscle Magazine.