Thursday, January 23, 2014

Down by the riverside: Art and activism in Milwaukee

A local artist holds a water vigil in solidarity with West Virginia following the chemical spill.

Melanie was waiting when I double-parked in the small lot next to the Milwaukee River Bridge in the Third Ward. Her breath came out like a cloud as I approached. But with rosy cheeks and a buoyant spirit she greeted me cheerfully despite her wait in the –11° wind chill. Near the end of Milwaukee’s Riverwalk she had set up a shrine on a small silvery table. The location, where the Menomonee River meets the Milwaukee, was chosen to maximize the symbolism of the vigil for which the shrine was intended.

Because of the frigid conditions, the ceremony was brief and simple. Melanie knelt beside the shrine and stretched out a string of hand-printed prayer flags she had made for the occasion while I composed a few shots to document the vigil. Although no one else joined in, we were not alone on the river. We noted with curiosity the presence of ducks in a patch of open water. A pair of mallards and another of mergansers floated amid the steam rising off the river. Farther upstream a team of four coast guards were practicing winter water rescue from a hole they had cut in the solid ice.

Before I arrived Melanie had witnessed the passing of the barge that delivers coal to the We Energies Menomonee Valley Power Plant, taking note of the irony.

Melanie Ariens had invited me to participate and to document her Water Vigil. Nationally, the vigil was organized by, the global environmental activism organization founded by author Bill McKibben. On Tuesday, January 21 people around the country and the world were invited to “join in solidarity with West Virginians; to honor and protect all water!”

West Virginia, of course, is where a recent chemical spill polluted the Elk River so badly that tap water was shut down for thousands of residents in the capitol city of Charleston. A coal company was responsible for the spill.

Melanie told me, “I felt the need to participate in this vigil to show support from Milwaukee for those affected by the spill into the Elk River. It was the very small thing I could do. Imagine shutting down the water supply to Milwaukee for an extended period due to a chemical spill, then being told the water is ok, with only traces of the chemical in it. How would that make you feel about drinking it or bathing your child in it? It is a real statement of how unregulated and untested the chemical industry is.”

Melanie Ariens is not new to this combination of art and activism. A self-proclaimed “multi media artist, environmental advocate and volunteer community coordinator,” Ariens bills herself as an environmental artist. She has used the water shrine previously as an installation in other local waterways. She has a portfolio of digital images depicting a glass half full (or…?) on the Lake Michigan shoreline and in a variety of streams and other bodies of water. One of her best-known works is a wall-sized rendering of the Great Lakes in denim.

In her own words, “I make shrines, prayer flags, and other artwork as a way to honor the Great Lakes and freshwater. Making the work is a meditation for me, and hopefully an unusual presentation of an idea to get people to reflect on how important water is to life, and importantly to be stewards of this amazing resource.”

Ariens is both passionate and well versed on her issues. About the current vigil she said, “I know from the many years I have worked on pesticide reform that just because a chemical is listed with the EPA—in this case, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol—doesn't mean it has been tested; it just means they know it is out there. If we as individuals don't speak up and fiercely protect our water, abuse and contamination will happen.”

Ariens has a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from UWM, where she specialized in painting, drawing and printmaking. Now her work frequently includes multi media and installations. When not out in the landscape, she can be found at RedLine, Milwaukee where she is among the Artists-in-Residence.  

After about ten minutes at the shrine my gloved fingers were stingingly numb; my face and feet not far behind. Melanie, who had been there a half-hour longer, was holding her prayer flags without gloves. Her enthusiasm never flagged however and her smile was radiant. When we finished and started to disassemble the shrine we discovered that the half-full glasses of water had frozen to the surface. We pried them loose and tossed the remaining water into the river below.

In addition to posting them here and on Facebook, two of our images have been uploaded to a flickr page set up by to demonstrate solidarity and share the spirit of the event. When I checked just before posting this there were 182 images on the site. To see them click here.

For more on Melanie Ariens go to her website.

Triptych: Water Vigil

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

3 Bridges Park is a contender for a MANDI Award

Ribbon cutting for the 3 Bridges Park opening
MANDI stands for The Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Innovation. The annual awards, given out by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), recognize outstanding efforts to revitalize Milwaukee's central city neighborhoods. According to the MANDI page on LISC’s website, the goal of the award “is to lift up the inspiring stories of people and projects working to ensure that Milwaukee's central city is a great place to live, work, play and grow.”

Awards are given in six categories. Three Bridges Park is one of three finalists for the Brewers Community Foundation Public Space Award, which recognizes a public space that helps build the community. The other two finalists are the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum and Journey House Packers Football Stadium.

I feel the need to say at the outset that these are all exemplary projects. I don’t envy the job of the volunteers who make the final selection, which might seem a little like choosing the best of your three children. All three will help make Milwaukee’s central city a better place to live, work, play and grow. And yet, I personally find the story of Three Bridges Park the most inspiring. Furthermore, the “story” of the park is more like a compilation of many stories told from many different points of view.

Last week the awards committee visited the Menomonee Valley branch of the Urban Ecology Center, which is adjacent to the park. They were there in order to hear testimony from stakeholders and neighbors about the value of the park, to hear their stories. The hearing is part of the rigorous and thoughtful analysis and discernment process that leads to selection of the award winner from amongst the finalists.

Some of those stories came from people in leadership positions who were instrumental in the creation and development of the park. Laura Bray, Executive Director of the Menomonee Valley Partners, gave an overview of the park. A video allowed us all to quickly experience, vicariously, the joy of people of all ages skiing and snowshoeing in the wintry conditions outside.

Ken Leinbach, Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center, began with the word, “transformation.” Milwaukee’s newest park was created from scratch, “from the ground up,” as its promoters like to say. An abandoned rail yard next to a formerly polluted river is now a welcoming place to experience nature. The Menomonee River has been there all these years, he said, no more than 25 yards from some of the houses in the neighborhood. Any yet it was completely inaccessible until now.

Melissa Cook, the DNR’s Trail Manager for the Hank Aaron State Trail, explained the importance of the connectivity provided by the new park. A section of the Hank Aaron Trail runs through the park. Along with the eponymous 3 bridges and the Valley Passage Tunnel, the trail creates linkages between Mitchell Park, the new Menomonee Valley Branch of the Urban Ecology Center, Miller Park stadium, the entire Valley itself, the surrounding neighborhoods and beyond.

Several business leaders were there because visionary redevelopment plans that included Three Bridges Park had led them to bring their businesses back to a Menomonee Valley that had seen industries and jobs depart for decades previously. The Wisconsin Bike Federation decided that being adjacent to Three Bridges Park was an ideal location for its members, who bike there from all over the Milwaukee region.

Eloquent as many of the leaders were, some of the most inspiring stories came from people who live in the neighborhoods nearby.

Several people who live and work in the Silver City neighborhood that abuts the park to the south described with great passion how important it is to have a safe park, open green space, and a clean river so close for their children to enjoy nature. Three nearby neighborhoods, among the most densely populated in the state, had little parkland before. Now they can bike, explore and fish in Three Bridges Park.

A woman who came in her wheelchair applauded the developers of Three Bridges Park for making it so accessible.

A young father told the story that moved many in the audience to tears, including me. He and his wife moved to the Merrill Park neighborhood just north of the Valley last year and their first child was born at the same time as Three Bridges Park. He took the baby out to the park for her first portrait next to one of the newly planted trees. They plan to repeat the process yearly to mark the growth: of his daughter and the tree and the park.

I myself spoke about the experience of “discovering” the resurgence of feral wildlife in the post industrial brownfields of the Menomonee Valley many years ago during my explorations of what I came to call the urban wilderness. Since then I’ve seen a metamorphosis that seems as miraculous as that which turns a caterpillar into a butterfly. But there is no miracle in the intentionality of this enterprise, which is the result of hard work, dedication to a visionary plan and devotion to the needs of an urban community.

Glenna Holstein, director of the Menomonee Valley branch of the Urban Ecology Center, capped off the session by asserting that the story of Three Bridges Park is story of hope. Three Bridges Park is a good news story for young people growing up in a world of bad news. It is a story about the environment that stands in contrast to the all too common gloom and doom of pollution, global warming and habitat destruction; one that is uplifting about something we are doing right to make a brighter future.

The MANDI Awards are a program of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and sponsored by US Bank. The MANDI Award winners will be announced at the MANDI Award ceremony on April 9, 2014 at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For more information, visit the LISC website.

The images accompanying this post were taken during the Three Bridges Park opening ceremonies in July, 2013. To see more images from the event click here.

To see a video of the opening ceremonies click here. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Clean Rivers, Clean Lake Conference Featured Artist

View of Milwaukee River north from Locust St. Bridge
I am honored to have been selected as the Featured Artist for the 2014 Clean Rivers, Clean Lake Conference sponsored by Sweet Water.

Sweet Water is shorthand for Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust, Inc., which promotes collaborations to secure healthy and sustainable water resources in our region. The 10th annual conference will take place this year at the Harley Davidson Museum on May 1, 2014.

The conference brings together a wide variety of water professionals, organizations, businesses, elected officials and ordinary citizens for a day of presentations, panel discussions and workshops related to rivers, lakes and water issues.

An annual State of the Lakes address is an important part of the day. The address will be given this year by Dean David Garman and Dr. Sandra McLellan of the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences.

For more information about Sweet Water, visit their website. To learn more about the conference, go to Clean Rivers, Clean Lake Conference.

Lake Michigan after a storm

Monday, January 13, 2014

Open House for Menomonee Valley Artist Residency

You're invited!

Zimmerman Architectural Studios has cordially offered to open their building so that you can meet their new resident artist on gallery night. I am grateful to them and I'd like to invite you to come visit with me.


Menomonee Valley Artist Residency
Zimmerman Architectural Studios
2122 W. Mount Vernon St.

Friday, January 17
5:00 - 8:00 p.m.

There is a retrospective of my work 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.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why have an Artist in Residence in the Menomonee Valley?

I read a news article recently about a guy named Jesse Welter who has started a tourist business in Detroit. He guides clients through abandoned buildings because, apparently, there is a great demand to see the devastation and decay of a once great city. (Welter works surreptitiously because what he’s doing is both illegal and risky.) Detroit also has become a mecca for photographers attracted to the opportunities it provides for producing images of ruin and social upheaval. There is a book by two French photographers called, “The Ruins of Detroit.”

Using ruins as an artistic motif has historical roots tracing back at least to the Italian Renaissance, of course, when ancient civilizations were unearthed and used as a springboard for modern transformations of a medieval society. But what is being done in Detroit has been dubbed “ruin porn” by residents who see it as exploiting the decay without offering any solutions to the problems facing their community.

When I first began photographing the Menomonee Valley about 15 years ago, Milwaukee was often compared to Detroit and many thought our city to be on the verge of slipping into a similar abyss. The Menomonee Valley, the geographical center of the city, was also the epicenter of urban decay. We had ruins, too, particularly at the west end of the Valley where the Milwaukee Road once was the city’s largest employer. For a while, until they became unstable and had to be torn down, the chimneys that were the last vestiges of those ruins acquired value as monuments.

Chimneys, 2009

Although Milwaukee still has work to do, we have not suffered Detroit’s fate. The story of Milwaukee diverged from that of Detroit and one of the most important chapters in that story is the one about the Menomonee Valley. Ever since white settlers drove out the indigenous inhabitants, the history of the Valley has been one of repeated transformations.

The verdant wild rice marsh became the locus of urban expansion as the surrounding bluffs were torn down to fill it in. The Valley became Milwaukee’s industrial core—“machine shop to the world.” By the late Twentieth Century industry had moved on. The Valley had been abandoned, blighted with pollution, and hollowed out, much like Detroit.

The Valley is now seeing its fourth major period of transformation. This new transformation has been led, in no small measure, by Menomonee Valley Partners (MVP), a non-profit organization created for the purpose. While the revitalization of Milwaukee is part of a global trend of urbanization, the story of the Menomonee Valley diverges, again, in important ways. As in most cities, jobs and economic development are appropriately a primary concern. But from its inception MVP has had a larger vision.  

What first attracted me to the Valley weren’t the ruins. It was the resurgent wildness that had grown up around them. Neglect, contamination and blight had driven out the people and, ironically, made the valley once again attractive to wildlife. In contrast to the first transformation of the Valley, which filled the marshes, channeled the river and drove out wildlife, the new vision for redevelopment has included restoration of the river and natural areas along with business development.

Spiderwort, ca. 2001
Instead of destroying natural habitats in the name of progress, there is a new understanding that a sustainable future involves the integration of the natural environment with human activity. The vision for the Valley layers on a third component to economic development and ecological rehabilitation: cultural revitalization. After all, what distinguish great cities from merely dense population centers are their cultural assets. They are places made vibrant by their histories, their recreational opportunities and by the arts.

If Detroit is to be saved it won’t be because Jesse Welter saw in it a business opportunity. It won’t be due to a flock of photographers who descend on the city for a day or a week and leave with images, however poignant and metaphorical. It will be the result of community efforts, including the many artists who have taken up residence there and whose work is about transformation and hope rather than decay and despair.

The latest chapter in the on-going story of the Menomonee Valley is one of transformation and hope. It is a story worth telling. Stay tuned.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Considering Thoreau in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley

The news for the past few days has been dominated by dire predictions of breaking records for cold. Today’s Journal Sentinel calls the predicted temperatures “life-threatening.” I’m certainly not going to go out photographing until things improve a bit. It’s a good day to stay indoors, with a fire preferably, and to reflect on warmer times and places. A good day to reprise another of my stories from my book, Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed

The watershed in the book is my own, the Menomonee River. One of its chapters is about the Menomonee Valley. The book is a series of experiential short stories, accompanied by photographs, about my exploration of the watershed. One of my favorite stories in the whole book is from the chapter on the Industrial Valley. The photograph that relates best to this story, which was featured on the title page, is also one of my favorites. Perhaps that's not a coincidence!

Faint-Hearted Crusader

At the bottom of the bluff, near the river's edge, it is possible to imagine being in a distant wilderness rather than in a narrow corridor between landfills and brownfields in the industrial core of a major city. It is especially invigorating to touch the wild spirit of the river that lies at its heart, feeling the vitality of it, tried but unbroken.
In warm weather, the wear on this trail indicates regular traffic. But snow cover makes clear how rarely used it is in winter. Two, maybe three, people and one dog have preceded me this week. The infrequency of human visitation likely explains the enormous number of ducks and geese taking advantage of this refuge between the stadium and the 27th Street viaduct. Away from the edge of the bluff, out of sight of the waterfowl below, their constant murmur can be heard like a softly chanted litany. When my form appears at the rim it is as if a shot had been fired. Pandemonium ensues and the entire congregation rises. Within a minute, they are gone. All is silent but for the trickling of the current and the low rumble of a single truck high and far away on the viaduct.
In his essay Walking, Thoreau claims to "speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness." I wish to speak for relative freedom and wildness. They are virtues that can coexist within society and culture while providing a contrast made poignant by the intimacy of their juxtaposition. Thoreau wants to "regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature, rather than a member of society," but it need not be an either-or proposition. Rather we must reconcile our social and natural selves as intertwining facets of a single whole. Indeed, until we can see them as one and the same, society ignores nature at its peril.
Thoreau chastises all who are "faint-hearted crusaders" unwilling to commit to true walking. This would require, he says, leaving family and friends, settling all one's affairs, and setting out without thought of returning. That is a journey Thoreau himself made only briefly and symbolically. I, too, am content to retrace my footprints in the snow, back to my parked car, my family, and the life I've made in a city graced by a measure of wildness.

From Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, 2008, Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago.

To read additional excerpts, click here.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Menomonee Valley has an Artist in Residence!

Exciting news from the Menomonee Valley, which, as many followers of Urban Wilderness know, is one of my regular beats. I posted the following yesterday on Arts Without Borders (my other blog). But I think it will interest you folks who follow this blog, too.

Menomonee Valley Partners, in association with Zimmerman Architectural Studios, has established an Artist in Residency program that begins today. It is my honor to have been selected as their inaugural resident. Official announcements will be sent out shortly.

Menomonee Valley Partners has been a leader in Valley revitalization since 1998 and Zimmerman is one of the oldest and most successful architectural firms in Wisconsin. The residency program is intended to stimulate an exchange of ideas about the Valley, its history, its future, its place as a dynamic and vital part of the fabric of Milwaukee, a place where economic and community development is integrated with parks and natural areas. The exact nature of the work that I will be doing will develop over time as the year progresses.

Zimmerman Architectural Studios is hosting and I’ve begun to move into their beautifully renovated space on the north side of the Menomonee Valley. The Derse Company, another Valley business, has graciously donated a pair of display panels. These are installed in Zimmerman’s atrium and an introductory display of my prints is already in place.

Zimmerman is hosting an open house on January 17, in conjunction with gallery night. I hope you’ll stop in for a visit. Although it’s easily visible from I-94, their building can be a little hard to find. It’s located at 2122 W. Mount Vernon Avenue with access from 25th. Street. It’s just beyond the octagonal brick tower.

I am no stranger to the Valley since I’ve been photographing there since I began work on my book Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed in 1999. However, I felt the urge to get out this morning right away. I also love the falling snow. And so here are two initial offerings from my first day as Artist in Residence in the Menomonee Valley. I invite you to follow my progress throughout the year on this blog or on my facebook page