If there's one thing an artist loves, it's an audience.
Oh, and a party.
More than two dozen Racine artists had both Saturday, as they opened their studios in the old Wheary Wagon Wheel factory building on 16th Street to the public, and to old and new friends.
They had plenty to celebrate, starting with yesterday's love note to the city's art community in The New York Times, which called Racine "a port of call for art," and "a gritty art town, not a cute, generic, you-could-be-anywhere stage set."
While the big city reporter focused on the city's architecture and dozen galleries on Main and 6th Streets, the work of making local art goes on in basements, and in small studios carved out of former factories. The professionals get most of the media ink, but the housewives, retirees and escapees from the corporate world do the bulk of creation. Some full-time, some in their spare time; all with passion.
Saturday was their day to celebrate and show off. With a backdrop of live music, tables of cookies, cheeses and bottles of wine, the artists located in the Racine Business Center -- as the former factory is now known -- held their annual Studio Open House. Before the snow came in mid-afternoon, hundreds of people wandered the old wood factory floors into the well-lit studios, to see painting, sculpture, photography ... and art that defies easy labels: a charming series of mixed-media crows, for example, wall hangings made from recycled cardboard, a large "painting" made from 500,000 tiny beads ...
Some of the artists and their stories included:
Jim Chaplin retired from Racine Federated, where he was a VP, on Dec. 31, 2000 ("You tend to remember those dates," he said.) He recalls doing a couple of paintings when he was 15, and a couple more when he was 30, and 45. But it wasn't until he retired, and started taking classes at Wustum Museum, that his inner artist came out. His teacher at Wustum was John Parsons, who died in 2004; Del is John's widow. Jim, now president of the Racine Art Guild -- which puts on the Starving Artists' Fair each year -- caught up with Del and her family.
David Gaura and silver spoon dinosaur
"This is the fun part of blacksmithing," says David Gaura of Franksville, who takes time from making large garden sculptures, blacksmithing and custom auto-body work to make delightful creatures from old silverware. Candace Hoffman, his Significant Other, said "We saw someone in California working with silverware ... and David's taken it so much farther. People see his work and say, 'Oh, my God, this is silverware! My grandmother had silverware like this.' We find it everywhere."
Many more artists and their stories after the break.
Jana McLaughlin is a photographer who specializes in platinum prints, and darkroom miracles that combine the best of film and digital magic. Like so many artists, she says art merely pays the rent, but gives her an excuse to get "some really good toys" for the darkroom. The picture she's showing is a photograph of boats in Maine, not a painting, printed on canvas.
Linda Somlai was one of the pioneers at the Wagon Wheel factory; she and Sally Miller were among the first to move in, 13 years ago. "The floor was all open space," she remembers, "and the developer said, 'where do you want the walls?' " She and Miller moved in during October and November, and one of them said, "Let's have a party." And they did, after hanging their own and their friends' art. "And the next year," said Miller, "we said, 'And let's put For Sale signs on the art.' Not that this is a great money-maker." The picture Somlai is showing here, 360 Degrees Unknown, is made of tiny beads -- 500,000 of them. It won an International Jurors' Award.
Sally Miller, Linda Somlai's original studio mate, later shared space with Becky Wrucke for a year or so, until Becky decided she preferred to have her studio in her home, ready instantly when inspiration struck. Sally's large studio space now is hung with material and art quilts.
Like so many Racine artists, Greg Helding started painting on his kitchen table. An electrician, he began taking classes "when the kids got a little older and I had some free time." In his early years as an artist, he did just pastels, but after coming to one of the open house events he rented his own studio four years ago. "Now I can do oils too, without smelling up the house."
Brad and Marie Lee have been married just one year, but already have 20 offspring ... a charming series of crows they can't bear to part with. Brad's day job is with WE Energies, and his usual art endeavors involve heavy sculpting. But when he needed a break from that physicality, he started making masks, which devolved into crows that he and Marie create costumes and identities for. And though they've had offers to sell some, for now they prefer to keep their company in their basement studio.
Jerry Cross spent five years working for Case, and then 30 years on his own as a commercial photographer. Now that he's retired, he still carries his camera around looking for images. (The one time he didn't, he came across a beautiful beach scene -- and had to run back to the hotel to retrieve his camera. Lesson learned.) Now his studio work -- a series of chairs, for instance -- is just for his own enjoyment. The photo he's holding is entitled, It's not easy being green.
Maggie Venn has been making art since the 1st grade, and remembers her first piece: colored chalk. "I was in the back of the room. I was the only kid standing. Everybody else quit and I was still working." Chalk has given way to mixed media and found objects, packing material and webbed cardboard. The hanging is called Turbulence, from her Environmental Series.
"I love collage," says Susan Sorenson, who taught drawing for 16 years at Wustum and Parkside. "I like experimenting on layers of canvas, working in acrylic, ink, collages of metal and papers." She finds inspiration in the shape and textures of found objects, and loves having a studio in the old factory: "Before moving here, I always worked out of my basement, which was cold, damp and dark."
Growing up with artistic parents, in a large family -- six siblings -- Marie Skowronski and Celia Schmidt say, "All our lives we've painted. It started at the porcelain kitchen table. And every night, our mother would wash it off. I wish we had all of them." Three brothers, three sisters; all self-taught artists.
OK, we come full circle. Here's Tom White with a self-portrait ... one in which he's taken artistic liberties: "I lengthened my legs, and took off 30 pounds." He's going to need the extra speed such physical changes imply: Our first picture at the top of this post is of Tom holding up a painting by his studio-mate, Dennis Kontra. ("He's gonna kill me," Tom says.) Dennis is an eye surgeon (and a damn good one, as my right eye attests!), so one can only assume Dennis was kidding when he named the picture Tom is holding, Mona Lisa.