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Artist's Yearlong Subject: Milwaukee's Evolving Menomonee Valley

Inside a former gasification plant in the Menomonee Valley, people will have a year to view Eddee Daniel’s evolving images of the valley – where years of neglect and today’s rebirth intertwine.
Menomonee Valley's artist in residence program is the latest phase in a gargantuan effort to bring new business and green space into what was, until recently, a largely abandoned post-industrial eye sore.

Credit K O'Donnell
Restored 1903 structure in snowy sunlight. (On right, machine shop during coal gasification plant era.)

Close up, the long red brick building that has Daniel's work on display resembles a grand European railway station. President of Zimmerman Architectural Studios Dave Stroik learned that one of Milwaukee’s most famous architects, Alexander Eschweiler designed the building. After completion on 1903, the plant had fueled the city’s street lamps.

“The police officers would light the gaslights and extinguish them in the morning,” Stroik says.

When Stroik and company took on the neglected building a few years ago, they extracted the brick and boards the blocked its tall arched windows and careful restoration work began. When it ended, 115 architects, engineers and interior designers moved in.

Stroik didn’t want the public to remain in the dark about repurposed building’s grandeur, so he jumped at the chance to host the Valley’s artist in residence, for a year.

Dave Stroik (second from right facing camera) is eager to share the building his firm helped save and the images artist in residence Eddee Daniel creates.

“On a Friday night, what could be better than have people coming in and looking at Eddee’s photographs. We have space for him to sit; we’ve got plenty of lobby space for him to display his work,” Stroik says.

Artist Eddee Daniel has settled in at a workstation, sandwiched among piles of prints. He’s spent years capturing images of the valley, as the basin has reinvented itself. Some are anchored to walls; a projector shows off others.

“The vine growing up the grain elevator, that’s from here in the Menomonee Valley. It’s one of my favorite subjects; I’ve shot it many times,” Daniel says.

Daniel says his eye is drawn to places where nature and industry collide.

“I’ve had people say, how do I put this, well isn’t it horrible what’s happening to the environment... but that’s not what I’m telling. I try to hold the opposites in balance. There’s this contradiction , which is embodied in the term urban wilderness. So you have this urban park, Three Bridges Park, that we’re looking at right now, this spectacular new place that once upon a time was a rice marsh and then was a railroad and now is a park... and this is a hopeful story,” Daniel says.

The story didn’t start as one of hope.

Daniel recalls being up in arms, in 1997, over talk that Milwaukee might sell off some of the county grounds. He reacted by picking up his camera.

“After that point I saw a way to combine my interest in photography and my concern for the environment and for my community,” Daniel says.

The fine art photographer eventually began pointing his lens at the east end of the watershed, the Menomonee River Valley. He invested six years trudging around hard-to-reach spaces there; to explore, photograph and to write.

“Back then, it was urban wilderness with an emphasis on wilderness, because a lot of the industries had moved out and nothing had replaced it yet, expect wildlife – there was all this vegetation growing up where there were industries before, there were wild grasses and flowers growing up in the middle of fields,” Daniel says.

Eddee Daniel in his new residence

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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