Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Day 16 - Milwaukee Art Museum

I have never been to the Milwaukee Art Museum. The reason I addressed that fact today was because of a consistent theme in the "spring" of 2013... terrible, wet weather. For the fifth day in a row, nature gave us the gift of unseasonably cool temperatures and rain on a day my "I have never..." plans required good weather. As a result, I started running through my options for a backup and came upon number 159 on my ongoing list, visiting the Milwaukee Art Museum. I didn't know what to expect for exhibits, but I thought the experience would, at minimum, let me see some amazing architecture given the museum's status as one of the most iconic buildings in the Midwest. Although travel would be involved, a trip to the museum fit around the other obligations I had for the day. So, I grabbed my camera equipment and packed up for a trip to Milwaukee for the second time in three days.

Prior to leaving town, I visited my friend and talented hair stylist, Rebecca, at her new place of employment, Studio Z in Monona. As a bonus "I have never..." for the day, I got my first haircut from Rebecca at this new location. Based on my first experience, Studio Z is a well-run business employing some very talented people in a range of fields. For my fellow Madisonians, I highly recommend checking this place out. The staff is friendly, the services offered are wide ranging, and you walk away with a really good haircut.  Seriously, check it out.

Once my haircut was done, I hopped back in my car and headed straight for Milwaukee. The drive to the museum seemed unusually long as a result of a high volume of terrible drivers traveling highway 94. Although I saw several cars wander onto rumble strips and abruptly switch lanes uncomfortably close to the front of other vehicles, the drive to the museum was rather uneventful. When I arrived to Milwaukee I easily found my way to the museum, but I was, at first, afraid the museum was closed. The surface parking lots were nearly empty and the museum property was void of any foot traffic. The absence of such activity seemed slightly eerie as I slowly pulled my vehicle past the front of the building and made a turn toward the underground parking. Relief washed over me upon noticing a museum employee staffing the parking toll booth. Knowing my trip was not in vain, I entered the underground lot and parked my car very near the entrance of the building and readied myself for a trip through the museum. Although it was obvious it was a slow day for the museum, the thought of unoccupied museum space was a welcomed thought.

This alone was worth it...
I entered the building and climbed a set of stairs toward the museum's front desks. When I reached the top, the beauty of the main hall's white stone floor and arched glass ceiling stopped me in my tracks. I had seen photos of the museum's interior in the past, but the grandeur of the physical building before me caught me off guard. I was already enamored with the museum and I had yet to buy an admission ticket.

My fixation on the architecture around me made the museum employee chuckle a bit as she helped me purchase my admission ticket. Shortly thereafter, I had my pass to amble through the building, but I chose to spend a few more minutes taking in the sight of the awe inspiring sloped walls at the heart of the building. In time, I realized I had to get moving if I was to experience all of the exhibits in the museum. So, I took a quick look at the map the employee at the front desk handed me earlier and made my way down the long, spacious hallway separating the museum's entrance from the main exhibition spaces.

The first exhibit I encountered at the end of the hallway was a broad collection of antiquities from various eras of Western and Middle Eastern history. An Egyptian sarcophagus, Greek sculptures and pottery, and late medieval metal work lined the walls and shelves in the space around me. Passage into the next room revealed intricate metalwork, tapestries, and rudimentary, yet highly complex, pieces of clockwork. A table stacked with crystal glass served as the centerpiece for the room. The whole of the glass collection appeared illuminated from within as light poured through the transparent curved and linear forms of each piece. After taking in the various displays around me, I noticed a doorway to the left and right of the room. On the left I saw rows of paintings with Victorian themes.  On the right I noticed more modern works including paintings, sculptures, and mixed media. As a fan of the more classic forms of art, I veered left and began walking around the gallery.

For the next 45 minutes I walked through room after room of painted and sculpted works from the 13th century on. Subject matter ranged from people working, to religious scenes, to portraits and scenes from the wilderness. Each work told a unique story, which kept my mind occupied as I glanced around the room. I continued on, reading several of the placards next to the paintings to learn more about their background until I encountered a massive painting laden with religious symbolism dated to the 15th century. I walked as close as I could to the towering canvass and took note of the vibrant colors that remained after all those years. I was surprised at the smoothness of the paint, but I took note of my periodic observation of narrow lines moving through the paint and across the canvass. "Those brush strokes are 600 years old" I thought as I realized what I was seeing. I don't know why, but that moment hit me and stayed locked in my mind as I continued through the remaining rooms filled with Renaissance era works.

Eventually, I found my way back to the room containing the table of crystal glass and walked toward the modern art fixtures opposite the galleries I had just left. Minimalism, Expressionism, and Abstract styles could be seen in the majority of the works, with classic Pop Art and Surrealist pieces making periodic appearances. The exhibit almost seemed a contest between simplicity and complexity, which made me think of the breadth of art and creativity in our lives. With that in mind, I found my way back to the first room I entered after leaving the room with the crystal glass and decided to to dabble with creativity myself. I received some awkward glances from passing security guards as I manipulated my museum map and camera lens to serve as a temporary prop for my camera. After checking a few settings and lining up the shot, I took the below photo.

Fun with art!

After taking my self-portrait, I continued to the second story of the museum galleries, which included art from around the world. Room after room was filled with African art, ancient Chinese art, more European art, and modern and American folk art. The variety delighted me as the theme of each room provided an entirely new form of visual stimuli. The gallery space was surprisely empty, which gave me free reign over the rooms full of African relics, mid-century American photographs, Abstract European art, Chinese pottery, African paintings, handcrafted American folk art pieces, and deconstructed modern art pieces. I walked deeper into the second floor exhibition space accompanied only by the clicks of my foot steps on the smooth stone floow. Eventually, I rounded a corner to find several rooms of Georgia O'keefe paintings that reeled me in for the better part of 20 minutes. After my stay among O'keefe's works, I continued on to a room seemingly designated to a theme of struggle, which contained my favorite painting of the day, "War."

"...What is it good for?"

I wandered around the museum awhile longer looking at yet undiscovered works and revisiting some of my favorites from the day. Soon I was approached by a security officer who greeted me with a casual smile and the customary whispered message, "the museum is closing in 15 minutes." I politely said thank you and started walking back toward the room of antiquities that had greeted me when I arrived in the gallery space earlier that day. I was about to start walking back down the long hallway to the museum lobby when I noticed a small room tucked in one of the corners. I entered and was moved by what I saw. The room was designated solely to an ongoing "Veterans Book Project" seeking to gather the thoughts and accounts from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Somber quotes were printed on the walls, and books containing the stories and words of veterans from both wars laid in stacks on the tables. I rounded the table to find a piece of plastic holding notes from museum visitors offering encouraging words, gratitude, and individual thoughts on the contributions and sacrifices made by the members of our Armed Forces. After yesterday's "I have never..." event, I was happy to see someone trying to acknowledge our veterans much the same way I had the previous day... but on a much, much larger scale.

Good stuff
I spent the rest of my time in the museum looking through the materials in the "Veterans Book Project" room. With notice the museum was officially closing, I made my way back to the museum entrance to find the dreary weather had turned from rain to mist and fog. I knew my chances to get a good photo of the museum's exterior at "full sail" were dashed. As a result, I made my way back to my car and started the drive home.

My experience today was unexpected, but it was a great way to spend an afternoon. Although I feel the Milwaukee Art Museum could stand to gain a little more exhibition space, the art contained in the museum was wide ranging and interesting. Today I encountered several works I had always wanted to see in person and was exposed to many more with which I had never been familiar. The only consistent theme between them all was fascinating beauty and boundless creativity. After my first visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum, it is safe to say I will find myself visiting again. The creative feeling that comes from spending an afternoon with art is always welcome, but the architecture alone is enough to lure me back for another visit.

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