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Emerging Curator Leads the Way


Marisa Wall.

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

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