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Influential Milwaukee artist Ruth Grotenrath honored in new exhibition

Opening Reception, The Warehouse Art Museum, “Rediscovering Ruth Grotenrath”.
The Warehouse Art Museum
Opening reception at The Warehouse Art Museum of “Rediscovering Ruth Grotenrath."

Ruth Grotenrath was a Milwaukee-based artist, born here in 1912. Over the course of her 50-year career, she excelled across many media formats — during a time when men dominated the arts.

The Warehouse Art Museum (WAM) in Milwaukee has the first major solo Ruth Grotenrath retrospective to highlight her life and artistic practice with over 90 pieces of her work, including some never before seen pieces. The exhibition, called “Rediscovering Ruth Grotenrath: All Things Belong To This Earth,” was curated by Annemarie Sawkins and brings awareness to one of Wisconsin's most influential artists of the 20th century. The exhibit includes some of her paintings, charcoal drawings, leaf images and other examples of her vast artistic interests.

Grotenrath studied at the Milwaukee Teacher's College and worked with skilled artists like Elsa Ulbricht and Gustave Moeller. She quickly developed a fascination with a wide-spanning array of art along with fellow art student Schomer Lichtner. After Grotenrath was introduced to Licther by their instructor, Gustave Moeller, they were married in 1934.

The couple established a policy of working in separate studios and only critiqued the work of the other when invited to do so. This allowed them both to develop as individual artists and pursue their artistic journeys without infringing on one another, notes Sawkins. In 1947, the couple established a gallery press that produced holiday cards that were sought-after across the Milwaukee area. Furthermore, in 1954, Grotenrath was the artist selected to have one of her textile designs reproduced at the Wisconsin State Fair. She also won prizes and awards in juried exhibitions across the country and painted murals across the Midwest.

Though the field and opportunities for advancement were certainly more accessible to men than they were to women at the time of her career, Grotenrath was continually granted opportunities due to her sheer level of talent. "She was talented at every moment, which is what’s so amazing," says Sawkins. "She absorbed the European masters, she was influenced by Japanese art, she often painted on Japanese paper, she used gold leaf in some images. She was just very successful at absorbing what she saw and what she learned."

Sawkins adds that Grotenrath's influence on her field in undeniable. "I'm just convinced that she's one of Milwaukee's, one of Wisconsin's most talented artists, certainly from the 20th century."

"Rediscovering Ruth Grotenrath: All Things Belong To This Earth" at the WAM is open now through March 31. The exhibition is free and open to the public. Along with the exhibit, WAM will publish a catalogue with new research on Grotenrath, feature newly discovered art and share new information on her textile and ceramics as well as a new reading of Grotenrath's experiences in Japan.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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