Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Look Here! project: An interview with Madeline Martin

This is the fourth installment in our interview series with artists participating in the Look Here! project. Madeline Martin, an MFA candidate at UW-Milwaukee, is a watercolor, paper, and embroidery artist. Her work honors everyday people by commemorating their intimate and familial moments through rich and layered details. Her work has been exhibited across the United States. In addition to raising her three young children, she was an art teacher at the Boys & Girls Club in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park for five years, an artist-in-residence at RedLine Milwaukee, and a teacher for disabled adults in the Twin Cities.

Why were you interested in participating in the Look Here! project?

I was initially interested in participating in the Look Here! Project because of the blend of RedLine Milwaukee artists and UWM faculty. I was an artist-in-residence at RedLine from 2011-2013, and I am currently an MFA candidate at UWM. The union of both groups felt like a welcome congruence in the beginning of my grad program. I also was confident that I could make something based on the library’s cache of knowledge; an artist could truly spend an entire career working with the UWM Library’s materials.

What collections are you using or did you begin to use for your work?

I initially planned to make work related to the library’s watercolor period paintings found in the Work Progress Administration Collection. Since a lot of my work has focused on embroidered and watercolor portraits, I was intrigued by the different names applied to pieces in the library’s collection, such as "EuropeanPeasant," or "Civil War Child."  I thought I could apply those same titles to Milwaukee community members in a contemporary context.  As I delved deeper into this project, though, I concluded that those titles were applicable to theater characters but somewhat reductive for actual people. That collection was a fruitful origin point, however, and it served as a stepping stone for later research.

How did what you found in the collections influence your work?

In the American Geographical Society Library, I was impressed/overwhelmed by the vast amount of information, but I was most amazed by the fact that the AGSL staff will print images onto fabric and a variety of paper for a reasonable price. The AGSL is a treasure for artists and researchers, and I will be utilizing some of its topographical maps and aerial imagery in this project as a way to connect the people whom I am featuring with ancestral lands.

I also spent time with the UWM Archive's Vel Phillips collection, which features some of her personal family photo albums alongside content related to her career and civil rights history.  While I may not use any of the archived images directly in my work, Vel Phillips’ professionalism and commitment to her family and community inspired me during this project.  The archives contain a photo of Judge Phillips tying her son’s shoes, and a scanned image of that photo hangs above my desk. That image has kept me company while I work, reminding me that mothering and parenting, although a common activity, is still profoundly sacred. Despite its endless minutiae, parenting has effects we can never fully understand. I am grateful for the role model of Vel Phillips, a mother who still maintained her commitment to justice and community. Her work towards equality could arguably be considered an extension of her role as a mother, ensuring a better life for her children and grandchildren, simultaneously weaving together the past and the future.   

How does having so much content available digitally affect the work you're creating? 

Digital images have immense power and provide a way to continually revisit a piece, but I still appreciate the physical nature of touching books, maps, and archives in the library.  For me, material interactions usually inspire greater reflection than online viewing.  In my research, I especially found the books related to family in the Special Collections helpful as I navigate the creation of work that is often very private but offered to the public sphere. Those included Argentine artist Silvia Guigon's 2011 homage to her grandmother, Amanda (La mujer amada), Roberta Lavadour's 2008 glass book Relative Memory II, and Milwaukee artist and UWM BFA grad Taylor Easton’s 2011 one-of-a-kind fiber and mixed-media piece A Self Portrait.

What more can you tell us about your experience with the Look Here! project?

The location of our show at the Villa Terrace helped solidify my ideas.  When we toured the space and I learned that the room with the Madonna niche is called "The Family Room," I instantly knew that my work would have good company, and I became committed to further exploration of the theme of mothering and parenting.  

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Look Here! Project: An Interview with Nirmal Raja

This is the third installment in our interview series with artists participating in the Look Here! project. Nirmal Raja is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Milwaukee. She received her Master of Fine Arts degree in painting and drawing at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She was a mentoring resident at RedLine Milwaukee, an urban arts incubator, for over 6 years. Currently, she works out of her studio at Material Studios and Gallery in downtown Milwaukee.

Why are you interested in participating in the Look Here! project?

We don’t look at history enough and libraries are repositories of histories among other things– our relationship with libraries in general has changed so much because information is available seemingly so easily. But it’s wonderful being able to wander in an actual physical library and being able to find things you wouldn’t necessarily find with keywords.

Additionally, to have some guidance is great! I’ve always noticed that once I start digging into a concept or subject matter for my artwork it seems to divide its self, as if it’s this never-ending tunnel that you get into. It’s exhausting in some ways, because then you think that you don’t have a resolution. But also just incredibly fascinating to see how much information there is to absorb.

I really started to think of my artwork as a process of research in graduate school; it’s great to tie that aspect of making with research in knowledge bases and how those can be intertwined. With this project, I am referencing or in conversation with the past, and figuring out how to bring the past to light somehow; processed through my own lens. It seems like any material can be reframed by who is speaking to it, and we could use that framing power as an artist to create a space for examination and contemplation.

What collections are you using or did you begin to use for your project?

Initially I was really taken by the Jeypore Portfolio in the Special Collections library. I was amazed by the pains someone took to record architectural details, and the beauty that existed in India at the time; and the pains that the actual mason or architect took in creating those details in the first place. This portfolio was my starting point but the project has expanded since then.

There are certain things that I have tucked away in my mental notebook to expand on. This project has given me an opportunity to address a couple of those. One of them is the trope of the screen. In South Asian architecture, it is called the “Jaali” – it’s been used in South Asian cultures for many, many centuries as a device for gender segregation, a device for power; so how do you take something so beautiful and so intricate and decorative and infuse it with meaning that is relevant to the present, and investigate what’s going on around us now – that’s what interests me. The screen is also a filtering mechanism. The person who is surrounded by the screen is looking out on the world, but also the world is wondering what must be inside. And so I initially thought that’s what I would be making work about, but it’s expanded. Which is the condition of research, I guess. Beauty is very much present in my work and Jaalis are wonderfully intricate and beautiful, but I also seek depth and meaning in my work. Beauty can be a tool to bring the viewer into the work, but also to bring the viewer to a different plane, making them think and question.

We’re living in a time of anxiety. It took me a long time to feel like I belong in this country, only to doubt that again this past year. I’m trying to figure out how I fit into this dynamic of power, but also what is my role as an immigrant artist who considers herself American but also from elsewhere. I think as a culture, we’re becoming very unidimensional. But art can be a place where we can find richness and complexity, and also where we can possibly place the viewer in a situation where they have a choice to look reality in the face or to look past it. I want to use the screen as a place where the viewer is confronted with this choice.

I will be printing a list of recent hate crimes on vinyl and having patterns sourced from the Jeypore portfolio cut into this vinyl and this will be pasted onto the glass panes at the Villa Terrace around one of the sleeping porches. When the viewer enters this space they are surrounded by a beautifully intricate screen; with light streaming through it, shadows being cast. But when they look closely they can read a whole list of recent hate crimes on the vinyl. This screen will become a frame for some of the artifacts that I will be curating from the AGSL and the Special Collections library. (note: the Look Here! project will culminate in an exhibit at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, opening June 28, 2018)

Max Yela, (Head of Special Collections) has been pulling out early books by travelers in the 16th century, to the Far East and South Asia. They are mostly travelogues, but also children’s books – from the turn of the century to 1930s. It’s interesting to see what kids were being taught about the rest of the world. The things you are taught as a kid before you know how to be critical.

Marcy Bidney at AGSL (American Geographical Society Library) has been pulling maps of South
Asia from as early as the 1500s and into the 19th century; in addition to travelogues by early explorers of the East. The commentary and the
images in these books are fascinating peeks into what caught the eye of Western explorers. There is a first edition travelogue by American painter Edwin Lord Weeks who focused on painting the people and places of Afghanistan and India. All the material I’ve been looking at so far is what we would now call “Orientalist.”

I’ve been interested lately in the gaze and how that could possibly be expressed or represented. Orientalism in a sense is an expression of the gaze, so you’re looking at the East and this certain notion that it’s exotic or savage and there is an implied power play that cannot be ignored. Representation or even looking is an act of power, and if a certain way of representing becomes the only way, then the subject loses their power to represent themselves. My effort to dig into some of these older publications and objects is to understand how the East has been represented and understood in the West over the centuries and how that might influence perceptions of those cultures now.

But then what do I do with this information? This knowledge base is so large, so much has been written about it; there is the sheer number of books that have been written about the East, but also scholarly works about Orientalism.

I decided to facilitate an experience through an installation of curated objects framed by the screen in a specific way. I am using the screen as a tool for gazing and placing the curated objects in the context of the present. The viewers are left to decide for themselves what they want to look at. That’s my idea… so let’s hope it succeeds! You never know with artwork – but in general it seems like once I have a direction, the work seems to make itself.

How does having so much content available digitally affect the work you're creating? Or does it?

I’ve been browsing photographs in the digital collections, especially the AGSL photo portals; and some of the maps are digitized as well. I think for me this project itself has a lot of potential digitally. You’ll be creating a digital database based on this exhibition and that’s kind of fascinating to see how my work will eventually exist in a digital space.

Having the Jeypore portfolio digitized makes it possible for me to create the screen, create the vinyl; it’s not possible otherwise to make this work. Some of this almost seems like a given now; the digital lies underneath the work, it enables the work but it’s sort of the unseen labor maybe. And the archiving capacity – for example, the whole content of the hate crime list that I am using is on That would not have been possible before the digital – the network enables this kind of sourcing and documentation.

The other thing that’s digital is the music – converting my great uncle’s records from the 1940s to the digital was an interesting process to watch. Because the music has to be played on its original medium, it has to be captured in a way where the digital is forced back into the analog world. Sticking the digital microphone right in the horn is the perfect juxtaposition.

A: Would you say that what you're doing is an act of curation as opposed to an act of hand-making, perhaps?

The work is very much in process, in a research stage. I haven’t really made anything yet. The making will really just be a culmination of this whole project. This is the first project where I am not really creating with my own hands  – Which is really strange for me. I’m working from a digital copy of the portfolio, a machine does the printing, and the cutting is done by yet another machine. It’s like being the director/producer. It’s interesting...

More about Nirmal Raja's work can be found at her site, and at her Instagram site:

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Look Here! Project: An Interview with Melissa Wagner-Lawler

This is the second installment in our interview series with artists participating in the Look Here! project. Melissa Wagner-Lawler is an interdisciplinary artist and Associate Lecturer in the Print & Narrative Forms department and the First Year Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Peck School of the Arts.

Why were you interested in participating in this Look Here! pilot project? 

I was introduced to the project by Max Yela and was curious about creating an artist book project that relied heavily on research from existing digitized collections. After I applied to be a part of the project, I realized that I didn't have a strong connection to the collection that I chose. Through conversations with Max and discussing my prior work, he brought out several books in Special Collections to help get me back on track. The current text that I'm using was introduced to me through this conversation.

What collections are using or did you begin to use for your project?

For my project, I am using a work held in UWM's Special Collections entitled The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones published in 1856 and the AGSL Digital Map collections. By researching map images of the land boundaries of the areas and ornamentation covered in The Grammar of Ornament, I will be constructing new visual landscapes using the decorative ornaments from the book. The artist book will take a small sampling of ornaments from each of the 20 sections of the text and place them into a landscape created out of the reinterpreted boundaries of each country or region. This artist book will then be letterpress printed, hand-bound and editioned.

How did what you found in the collections influence your work?

My more recent work has been investigating abstract landscapes using found imagery so finding a historical work that I can manipulate and that serves as a starting point for investigation is always of interest to me. Also, the ornaments that are presented in the text are unlike anything I have used in my work before, so this will be a welcomed challenge to integrate it into the visual landscapes that I've already been exploring.

How does having so much content available digitally affect the work you're creating? Or does it?

The accessibility of the content is great, but also overwhelming. There are so many great collections to use! This is part of the reason it took me so long to decide and finalize my work for this project. Once I decide on the main text, I limited myself to plate page per section to give myself parameters to keep me focused.

At this stage, I'm still planning and designing the book pages. Although the pages are digitized, I still need to manipulate them heavily in design programs to get the images and designs 'press-ready'. Once the page designs are completed, I will be having plates of some of the pages made and hand carving others. The pages are scheduled to be printed in the next few months to allow enough time to bind the books before the exhibition.

What more can you tell us about your experience in this project?

The experience has been rewarding! Hearing everyone's different approaches to the project and seeing how those ideas evolve has been quite interesting. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the final works turn out and also relating them back to their original digital collections.

More about Melissa Wagner-Lawler's work can be found at her site,

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Look Here! Project: An Interview with Marc Tasman and Clayton Haggarty

The Look Here!project is an experiment initiated by the UWM Libraries and aimed at encouraging artists from the community and the UWM Peck School of the Arts to work with and create art from our digitized cultural heritage holdings – archival materials, photographs, maps, prints, rare books and other objects. Look Here! asks artists to propose projects that reimagine, transform, and engage with these objects in ways that were unimagined before the digital turn. The project will culminate in a panel discussion at UWM Libraries in spring 2018, and an exhibit at Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in summer 2018.

Marc Tasman and Clayton Haggarty are working together on a piece for Look Here! Theirs is the first in a series of interviews with the artists participating in Look Here!

What collections are you using or did you begin to use for your project?

We visited the archives shortly after the project began, and then had a visit with Abbi Nye, Head of Archives, at the DH Lab. We were really taken by some of the images in the online Polonia collection – the crash images specifically.

How did what you found in the collections influence your work?

We agreed that those crash photos are captivating – seeing the city the way it was and the crazy
Undated street view of truck crashed into building
situation of the wreck and its documentation. It’s an opportunity to rubberneck, to slow down and see the accident. But there are also the wounded, battered people, who were also probably in car accidents, because these images were taken/collected for insurance purposes. 

So we want to look at what it means to be wrecked, and then to be documented. It’s also fairly personal – I don’t know if they are still dressed from the accident or dressed up for the insurance photograph. But it’s an airing of personal, intimate, vulnerable moments.

And then this ends up in an Archive where others can find you years later.

The project is in part about society today and how civilized or uncivilized we’ve become; we’re looking at issues of immigration and acceptance and community. Part of what we’re interested in is the trauma of the journey of the immigrant. In Oscar Handlin’s book, The Uprooted, he details how bad life must have been in the old country to endure the really unpleasant voyage here; people taking advantage of you, seasickness – we see it today with the Syrian refugees risking everything to get here. And then they get here and have these new traumas happen.

We’d like to connect the experience to the neighborhood itself, too. We went back to see the actual building and location where this car crashed. It hasn’t really recovered – there is still some kind of wreckage, coming undone there, even for the current occupants it seems.  We’re also potentially interested in mapping connections between the Polonia crash images and other parts of the city, and institutions – to here at RedLine, the UWM connection, to Villa Terrace. The March on Milwaukee collection is another collection to potentially explore now, given the marchers relationship to the south side, over the 16th Street Bridge, to Kosciusko Park (note: these are the neighborhoods documented in the Milwaukee Polonia collection).

How does having so much content available digitally affect the work you're creating? 

Having access to the digital image lowers the bar for creating art with it – there are a lot of steps that are already taken. It’s an interpretation thing, too – in this case, working with negatives. There is some work of interpretation done already through the digitization process – it’s like translation when it’s converted to positive digitally. It was an opaque object before and you can’t read expressions as well in negative as positive.

Also, the crashes aren’t something we might have discovered by going and searching through the boxes of glass plates. It’s not just that it was easier, but it *is* about access – these insurance photos are not a form of documentation we might otherwise have encountered or known we were interested in. The documentation itself, that it occurred, allows us to access this. You know, the invention of photography got a boost from the French government who wanted to use it for mugshots, for surveillance – so another kind of archive; another database to do with wreckage, incidents, and pummeled faces.

And now that we know there are insurance photographs – can we track down the files, the insurance company? It raises new questions, or possible paths.

And materially, these images are glass plate negatives, so coming in off the street to see them could be a big deal. The entire collection weighs 1.5 tons, we’re told. So I could only look at what I could carry. Using both hands. It really wouldn’t have otherwise occurred to us to look at these if they hadn’t been digitized.

It also deformalizes the relationship to the object and takes away some of that preciousness. It’s easy to get the image, so the work becomes locating the actual physical place where the event in the image took place. Having the digital image encouraged industriousness because it meant we could put the legwork elsewhere. We can feel free to remix the digital files because it’s reproducible by its nature. Being digital has to encourage reuse and transformation. It’s part of the nature of the digital medium.

The digital image is also not in the real world in the same way that a monument (for example) is – it needs to be excavated in a different way. We could have a more visceral reaction to the image and begin to create a body of work that inhabits a physical space. The image provides evidence that this thing really happened.

One question the digital raises for us as artists is, why hasn’t a new form of art emerged from this? In the 60s and 70s the new thing was experience – that the experience was the form of expression, and it was tangible but ephemeral. We’re in a shift from the previous information epoch – what are the new codes that will transform the way we make art? We’re in an age of distraction – one image leads to another and another; what kind of discipline does an artist need…?

And ultimately, when will creative media and art – work that encourages remix – when will that stop being just an analogue of the old art – rectangular, in a frame – and when will we truly transform that work the same way the digital has transformed these cultural objects?

Our project is ultimately transformative – we’re converting the digital to experience by bringing it into the Villa Terrace space, where we’re also reusing and reimagining that space. And in it, looking at how things have and haven’t changed over time. As artists, we’re still stuck to some extent on this idea that art is objects, but we’ll get to that point where artists will be curators of experience because we can’t keep making stuff. That’s what digitization has taught us to do – we can let go of some of these things. Not that we’re happy to give away all of our books or records. But what’s meaningful isn’t the paper, it’s the experience. But that includes the smells, the way you have to place the stylus on the record. So those kinds of things are different. But with the wreck, we want to say, “look!” – these are the things we cared about 20, 30, 80 and more years ago. These are familiar concerns. Let’s not remake human civilization by not being empathetic, being callous to the way people feel when you tear down buildings or push people out. So it’s not anachronistic, because we can have that empathy across time. Is it really out of place – that wrecked car in this beautiful mansion? It will be interesting to work out how to make the piece so the wreck isn’t just jarring and strange, but to say that we’ve all been in wrecks and we’ve all been wrecked, so it’s a shared experience across time. We aren’t alone in being alone.

Marc Tasman is an Intermedia artist focusing his research on the strength of social technologies to create meaning in culture. He is currently director of the Digital Arts and Culture Program and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Tasman is also  co-director of the Jewish Artists’ Lab, a consortium of six Midwestern cities founded in Milwaukee, and senior artist member of the residency program at RedLine Milwaukee. Tasman has screened work at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and published photographs in the New York Times Digital Edition, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, and Tablet Magazine. The first edition of his electronic, interactive book, Internet Culture was published by Great River Learning press in 2017.

Clayton Haggarty is a Milwaukee-based interdisciplinary artist who earned his BFA in Painting and Drawing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2015. His work, which ranges from painting on canvas, to non-traditional forms of printmaking and public art, focuses on issues of social justice, climate change and the relationship between human beings and technology. Haggarty was the recipient of both the Laurence Rathsack Art Scholarship as well as the Elsa Ulbricht Memorial Scholarship for his work in the field of painting and drawing. His paintings have been included in multiple group exhibitions in the Milwaukee area at venues such as The UWM Union Art Gallery and Kenilworth Square East. Additionally, he briefly studied in Florence, Italy at the Santa Reparata International School for Art where his work was exhibited at the SRISA Gallery of Contemporary Art.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Announcing The New Photography Studio!

After months of hard work, collecting resources, and trial and error we are happy to finally announce that our new photography studio is in full swing! Taking advantage of space near our offices, which offered a little more room and controllable light, we slowly began to piece together a studio equipped for our growing digitization needs.

 Camera set-up for oversize newspaper digitization
A student employee labeling slides before digitization
With a range of different set-ups and accessories including macro lenses, softbox lights, anti-reflective glass, and a rail mount we are now able to digitize just about anything! In the past few months, during which we have been working to streamline our photography process, we have already digitized an oversized newspaper collection, a set of almost 200 artist books, and over 6,000 slides from AGSL's Harrison Forman and Eugene Harris Collections. Utilizing our 50 megapixel camera, a camera-to-computer tethering system, and real time live view controls we are now able to digitize collections with better quality and speed than ever before. The number of possibilities this studio can offer have just begun to be explored.

Digitizing a slide using a light box and our rail mount system

Backdrop set-up for digitizing artist book