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'Patterns of Meaning' at Grohmann Museum elevates hand built craftsmanship through wood casting patterns

Audrey Nowakowski
"Monument to Industry" by Cory Bonnet, the founder of the “Patterns of Meaning: The Art of Industry” exhibit at MSOE's Grohmann Museum.

The Milwaukee School of Engineering's Grohmann Museum specializes in merging art and industry, and its latest exhibit fully embodies this principle.

Patterns of Meaning: The Art of Industry features salvaged enormous wooden casting patterns from old steel mills used in the late-1800s and early-1900s. The patterns were replicas of various steel objects to be cast — the wooden objects are pressed into sand to form the mould cavity that molten metal was then poured into. The casting patterns used in the exhibit were acquired by Pittsburg artist and preservationist Cory Bonnet.

Bonnet combines these historic artifacts with art — whether it’s painting on the castings, using them as sculptures, or as forms to create new pieces in glass, ceramic, and more.

"Originally, my interest in preservation surrounded abandoned buildings and buildings that were in danger of being demolished in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a very similar town to Milwaukee... lots of beautiful buildings that were utilitarian, that produced everything that built the United States," says Bonnet.

"I saw that all those stories were somehow wrapped up in those structures and that each time one of them was demolished, those stories were one step away from being lost and forgotten too."

This became Bonnet's motivation to preserve these stories of industry through art. He says, "I think what is remarkable to me is how many of these pieces are already works of art in and of themselves... It is a very high form craftsmanship."

Bonnet adds, "There’s a grandeur to it all that I think steel and the steel industry encompasses, this scale that’s just beyond anything that I was ever exposed to. But there’s also, with all these patterns, you can feel the human touch."

There’s a grandeur to it all that I think steel and the steel industry encompasses... But there’s also, with all these patterns, you can feel the human touch.
Cory Bonnet

Bonnet's collection for this exhibit is so large he ultimately brought together other artists of different disciplines to help show the different ways patterns can be used in art. The creative team behind "Patterns of Meaning" also includes Angela Neira, Nate Lucas, Brian Engel, AJ Collins, Mia Tarducci, and Andrew Moschetta. Their range of specialities include wood, furniture, design, abstract painting, glass, ceramics, and light. Bonnet notes that all of the different art forms elevate the patterns, and vice versa.

"Artists are kind of a last refuge for hand built craftsmanship, where you can really take your time at what you're producing and keep those traditions alive," he says.

Cory Bonnet is
Audrey Nowakowski
Cory Bonnet is the founder of the exhibit, "Patterns of Meaning: The Art of Industry." Bonnet is a Pittsburg artist and preservationist who combines historic artifacts with art.

The Milwaukee School of Engineering's Grohmann Museum is an ideal space for Bonnet to display his collection outside of Pittsburgh for the very first time. "As soon as I saw [the Grohmann Museum] it's like, 'I can't believe I didn't know about this.' And the fact that it's inside a Milwaukee School of Engineering, it's this multi layer connection that I love," he says. "It is absolutely amazing. I could not have asked for a better venue or better people to work with."

Bonnet notes how eye-opening it is to see and touch this technology that was made more than a hundred years ago. For him, these wooden casting patterns embody the human spirit and ingenuity that is still the driving force of today.

"I really hope that the images inspire," he says. "I hope that they can help unlock an understanding of how essential the work that was done to build all the infrastructure that we take for granted today."

Bonnet adds, "When you see what they accomplished and you look at where we sit today at the starting point, I think a lot of the problems seem much more manageable and that there's opportunities for people to solve them."

Patterns of Meaning: The Art of Industry is on display at the Grohmann Museum until April 28th.


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