Emerging Curator Leads the Way
|Tiffany Knopow, Lint from Drying (top) and Dye Record series, 2009
They had me at dryer lint.
Tiffany Knopow’s wondrous assemblages of lush lint (yes, lint) and
color catchers exposed the beauty of normally fleeting moments. The
stuff we would normally throw away—the bi-products of textile
art—became art itself. One step into the Emerging Artist’s Gallery at
the Hidden River Arts Festival in Brookfield and I was drawn into
Knopow’s representation of sublime feminine calm, the kind that comes
after hard work.
Then, around the corner of a partition,
Renee Staeck’s mystical meditations with acrylic and enamel on canvas
transferred me into the Neverending Story, deep in my imagination. The
exhibit’s curator, Jena Lee, almost immediately caught the awe in my
face as I dove into the ancient aura of Staeck’s pastel palette. She
whispered that Staeck is a “steady hand surgeon of visual art.” I soon
found that Ms. Lee, bursting with any opportunity to share her love of
the thirteen vibrant Milwaukee artists whose work she brought together
for the show, has a skill no less expert than the craftsmanship
represented in the gallery. Lee’s talent in this exhibit, and in her
full-time job as studio programs coordinator at the Sharon Lynne Wilson
Center for the Arts, is to bring fine art to people who will appreciate
and learn from it.
|Renee Staeck with Death Diamond (left) and Ancient Secrets, both acrylic and enamel on canvas, 2009
Lee, who moved to Milwaukee six
years ago to finish her degree at MIAD, is as inspiring as the art she
shares. While talking about the exhibit as well as her full-time role
in the education department at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the
Arts, Lee’s respect for the artists who were presented and the festival
patrons receiving the work shone through. Fresh Milwaukee art talent
in a suburban Brookfield setting might not seem like a natural fit to
someone with less ability or hope than Lee.
The Emerging Artists
Gallery, now in its second year as part of the Hidden River Art
Festival, was born from the desire to uplift the level of work at
Hidden River by introducing promising Milwaukee artists to traditional
festival patrons, a community who might not otherwise experience their
work. The Hidden River Art Festival, held on the grounds of
Brookfield’s Mitchell Park, is one of the largest juried art festivals
featuring only Wisconsin artists. A criticism of the festival has been
that the work represented at Hidden River is largely decorative and not
deep enough in meaning for the most refined patrons. Part of the
vision of the Emerging Artists Gallery exhibit is to see some
up-and-coming artists featured in Lee’s space juried in as part of the
larger festival in future years. Thus, as curator, Jena Lee had the
formidable task of striking a delicate balance with a show that would
not only resonate with the regular Hidden River crowd, most of whom are
happy with the accessibility of decorative or popular art, but also
ignite the spirits of those more discerning members of the art
community who have been craving something more.
Lee’s eyes lit
up as she described her love for the vibe of the city of Milwaukee and
her experience soaking up the art scene within. Again they lit up as
she explained her goal of serving her Brookfield patrons by providing a
variety of work since her job as educator is to awaken this community
to a larger context of what fine art is and can be. With an intention
to create diversity within the exhibit, Lee realized that the gallery’s
guests might not like every piece, but trusted that everyone would be
able to connect with something.
My favorite part of being at the
gallery was watching other guests connect with the art and then seeing
Lee reach out to them. A collage artist and her mother were enamored
with Dane Haman’s collages of retro-vixens mixed with math problems,
film labels, and bar codes.
|Dane Haman, installation view
“I know those are bar codes. I just love bar codes! And I can tell that’s from Kodak! I’ve collected some of those too!” said the collage artist guest.
Lee asked, “Do you have a Web site or even a blog to record your process and share your work?” Then, she explained that the artist Dane Haman, a professional urban sports photographer, caught her attention with his collages by posting pictures of them on Facebook. His first step to getting a public presentation in the gallery was simply putting himself out there.
“I really should do something like that,” the collage artist agreed as her mother nodded with pride, piping in with details about how many sketchbooks her daughter had in storage.
At Simon Phillips’ interactive media exhibit, which Lee described as a visual Etch-a-Sketch, patrons were able to manipulate highly modern video by turning the dials of a classic AM radio. After reading Phillips’ artist statement in which he described the inspiration for his work as coming from a childhood habit of playing with radio dials, I got to see a bit of magic. A six-year-old boy walked though the space with his father, showing shy curiosity at the sounds and light coming from the Phillips’ piece. Once Lee spotted him, she encouraged the boy to play with the radio dials, and he was suddenly taking control of his artistic experience.
Lee’s gift for helping others appreciate art to the fullest was evident when she explained the challenges of hanging Shane Walsh’s larger oil paintings in such a small space. The love behind her labor poured forth as she encouraged me to keep stepping back to absorb the subtle shifts in color.
“The further back you go, the deeper your experience. His work is inspired by boating and they’re underwater scenes of ship wrecks!” Her voice rose, “But his sense of color, the subtlety is fantastic! These pieces would transfer well to the festival.”
Later that afternoon, Lee was met with a happy surprise. We went outside to the larger festival to visit Karin Haas, the one emerging artist from the inaugural exhibit last year who was now in the big tent as an officially selected member of Hidden River. As I walked in the grass through the festival grounds, I noticed mostly decorative art was represented, but I was happy to see pockets of brilliance all around. As soon as we spotted Haas’ tent, Lee shrieked with joy. “What’s this blank space?” “Did you sell something?” Haas gave a tired grin. “Yes.”
Two of Haas’ intricate steel and copper etchings inspired by woodland creatures had sold. I could see the satisfaction—not just of the artist, but also of the curator.
The work of curator Jena Lee, artist Karin Haas, and the thirteen nascent Milwaukee artists represented in the Emerging Artists Gallery – all mixed together with delighted, traditional festival-goers at the Hidden River Art Festival was joyous. The day was a confirmation of the simple fact that artistic excellence echoes somewhere deep within us, and all people have the glorious ability of making connections to what we hear in those echoes, whether we’re old or young, from Brookfield or Milwaukee, artists or patrons, inside a gallery or outside at a festival. Ms. Lee’s hard work is proving that fine art from Milwaukee can move beyond its city limits. Who knows what this year’s Emerging Artists Gallery exhibit might bring to next year’s Hidden River Art Festival? Keep your eye out for more from Jena Lee and the artists from the 2009 Emerging Artists Gallery.
|View of gallery with Jessica Kaminski's Tina and Frank, digital photograph, 2009