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Art Installations Along Fond du Lac Avenue Highlight an Overlooked Corridor

Milwaukee’s art scene is not restricted to hushed galleries. We slip in along the major traffic artery to capture a temporary art installation in progress - Art on Fond du Lac.
Among Milwaukee's less obvious treasures of art, TEMPORARY installations have become more bountiful here, in part, thanks to an organization called IN:SITE.

Starting in 2006 the arts organization has fostered temporary public art installations in unexpected places – first at 35th Street and North – always with the idea of drawing attention to the unique qualities of a specific place – a unique neighborhood.

Now, IN:SITE shifted its focus to a 20 block span - between 17th and 37th Streets - for an installation titled Art on Fond du Lac. It opens with walking tours and a multi-neighborhood art fair.

The sound of traffic is strangely absent on this normally vehicle-clogged intersection of Fond du Lac and Locust.

It’s no fluke. IN:SITE organizers managed to convince the City’s Department of Public Works that it was a good idea to shut down the intersection on this Sunday from 6:30 am to 9 pm.

You have only to LISTEN to IN:SITE’s creator Pegi Christiansen a short time to figure out who did the convincing.

“This is one of the most complex intersection painting that I think has ever been done in the country. One, because it’s such a busy street, and two, because of Regi’s design...” He created this.

She’s talking about Reginald Baylor - accomplished local artist – right now he’s distributing pots of paint and quietly doling out instructions to volunteers...

“He created this incredibly complex design.and he donated this design, so this would have cost us a minimum of $20,000 and that’s low-balling it. This is his first public art project. And there have been so many people who have made donations.”

Baylor is painting a black line on the pavement as I approach. His design inspiration – that went from his head, to huge stencil and the dingy pavement below our feet – was the old railroad trestle/overpass above our heads.

“I thought why not do a train and do content in the cars that are reflective of the community; and not just this community, but any community – which is safety, good food, place to rest, security.”

Watching volunteers filling in his outlined engine and bulging railroad cars in vibrant shades of red and yellow where commuters normally rule, Baylor acknowledges you can’t get much more “fleeting ” than this creation.

“I think there will be remnants of it for a long time. And who knows, maybe everybody loves it enough, everytime it starts disappearing, we do this and repaint it.”

A multi-generational cluster of girls and women take turns with a paint brush – filling in a giant wheel. They say they represent the Jones Johnson family – whose lineage reaches far back into the neighborhood’s history.

“This is great, because our neighborhood needs it; we need to be recognized over here. My family has been here for years, since the 1800s. Our grandfather worked for the railroad. We’re happy to see our community come together to paint. And I prefer if they do the whole Fond du Lac.”

Lena Scheibengraber picked up a paintbrush knowing little about the neighborhood. But the freshly out of university – earning degrees in math, global studies and international affairs from Alverno College – had a day off and thought she would help.

She considers what her take away will be when she turns over her art supplies at the end of the day.

”I’m really interested in economic development, so I’m going to go nerdy on this. It can spark something, I think bringing people to an area that they normally wouldn’t come to, because they think of it as a rundown area or scary, whatever they may think of it. Little pieces like this breathe new life into places and it can bring more people and make it a more happy, “neighborhoody” feel of an area, instead of somewhere where people avoid going.”

I’m willing to wager that if Tony Gibson had heard Scheibengraber’s words, he would have beamed. He’s lived here for 12 years, and chairs the Johnson Park Neighborhood Association. It’s one of the groups that rallied around bringing temporary public art onto Fond du Lac.

“I’ve seen a lot of transformation in the neighborhood. It’s just wonderful what’s going on now with the temporary art project with IN:SITE.”

Gibson gazes at the installation going in at Johnsons Park – located at the southeastern reach of the project. The park has turned upside down – in a good way – since Gibson moved here. The area used to marked by boarded up homes and vacant lots.

“A lot of that came because of the residents that chose to take a chance on a neighborhood and build homes. We have professors, law enforcement, medical professionals and they chose to build in this neighborhood; they could have built in any neighborhood or any suburb in Milwaukee or the outlying areas.”

Artist Annushka Peck felt deeply responsible when she learned more about her assigned “pallet”.

Johnsons Park stands on land once filled with homes and shops. That is, until a freeway plan – that ultimately failed erased a large sweep of the neighborhood. Long before that history, this spot figured prominently into the Underground Railroad.

She latched on to that theme. Her partner and a fellow artist are helping Peck erect seven tall poles of varying heights, each will clusters of birdhouses. Peck painted the 28 structures in brilliant designs reminiscent of quilts.

“Based on quilts that were used during the Underground Railroad; patterns that were used to guide people northward. So a lot of this is about “way finding”; having a sense of being able to look outside of your present circumstance and see a way out of the present circumstance.”

Artist George Jones sees nothing symbolic in what he calls “functional sculpture. He hopes to provide a tangible “action step” for people to consider.

He’s very much mid-construction of his “year round urban farming system” when I stop by. A crew from Milwaukee Community Service Corps is painting window frames and helping with assembly as I arrive.

Jones’ compact design captures rain water and harness heat from the sun.

“I’m going to build a soda can solar system, or frame, to harness heat from the sun a little more efficiently and I’m going to expand my rainwater-catching capacity.”

I have to imagine it for now, but Jones says the captured raindrops will nourish “crops” growing in 5 gallon buckets.

Taking control of your growing – ala George Jones...

“Essentially it’s to highlight alternative ways to grow healthy food using repurposed and found materials.”

Jones has a convert in service corps member Christian Forteaberry. He’s peppering Jones with questions about his design. The 23 year old says he recently completed his GED and is gobbling up all of the certificate and training opportunities he can.

He didn’t know anything about the IN:SITE project coming in, but thinks it’s a good thing. His observation, he hasn’t seen much that’s good happening in the neighborhood.

“My brother stays around the corner, and I’m happy to see something like this around here.”

Forteaberry plans to borrow George Jones’ concept to build a year-round greenhouse for his mom.

Art on Fond du Lac opened this weekend. You can observe George Jones greenhouse and the other installations change through the season. The “exhibit” will be in place through April of 2014.

Unfortunately, there’s not much of Reginald Baylor’s “railroad” art to be seen. Since its completion – Mother Nature had her way with the “mural” during a downpour. In the near future, a vinyl panel depicting the image will be mounted near the intersection.

Baylor’s work can be seen in various indoor locations – including the Milwaukee Art Museum “Wisconsin 30” show.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.