Kerry looking out at Lake Michigan from the Milwaukee Art Museum
I like to organize and conduct art tours. It’s a good way to make sure I get out and see what’s around in the art world. I offer the tours as a class to my painting students, artists and friends. I spend time going over gallery and museum schedules and calendars, and map out itineraries of exciting work in Chicago and environs. Ssometimes we visit artists’ studios and invite them to be our guest for lunch. This offers a great opportunity for discussion of practical and creative issues. We get to to see where and how artists work; ask what problems arise and how they solve them; and get an inside view to their creative process where it happens.
Desk Chair by Charles Rohlfs, 1898
Recently, I took five artists (including Talia, an insanely talented sophomore at the Art Institute of Chicago) and an art fan to the Milwaukee Art Museum. We watched the sailboats on Lake Michigan from the wonderful outdoor cafe at the museum.. We viewed American Modernisms, two shows featuring the paintings of The Eight (a group of early 20th century American artists, including Robert Henri and John Sloan) and a fantastic exhibit of the eccentric, idiosyncratic wood furniture of Charles Rohlfs.
Portrait of Talia, by Ruti Modlin (her mother), acrylic on canvas
Afterwards, we traveled south to Kenosha and visited the Niemi Gallery.
Bruce Niemi with one of his sculptures; Ruti (artist in group)
Artists tour Niemi Sculpture Gallery
Bruce is a successful sculptor with works in many public and private collections. He lives just over the state line within spitting distance of I-94,which is convenient for clients to visit from the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. He represents a varied group of artists, most of whom have works installed in the beautiful outdoor grounds of the sculpture garden. Suzi (Bruce’s business partner and wife) mows the garden paths, being careful not to knock over any of the sculptures or take out the teeming beds of wildflowers surrounding them. While we were there, a blue heron took off from the pond at the edge of the property.
Suzi handles the business end of running a gallery, while Bruce produces his own work and selects their stable of artists. He finds that representing other artists doesn’t compete with sales of his own work, and that all the artists benefit from increased exposure and traffic at the property. He participates in SOFA annually. A graduate of NIU, he was chosen to create a memorial for the five students who were slain at the NIU campus in 2008 in a campus shooting that also wounded 18 others. As an alumnus, he is donating a substantial part of his time to the memorial.
Bruce varies his work to suit the demands of his clientele and also his weathered body, which feels the effects of his work. He has to pace himself to prevent the onset of numbness resulting from prolonged use of the grinder, which he uses to refine the edges of his welds. He finds that there is a preference these days for stainless steel over steel that rusts, due to the misuse of Cor-Ten steel by artists in the sixties who didn’t weld their sculptures properly, resulting in monumental failures that have given rusted steel a bad name.
floor of Bruce Niemi's welding studio
In addition to the sturdy works outdoors, the Niemis feature more fragile works in a small indoor gallery. Vivian Visser, whose delicate constructions containing natural materials are shown at the indoor gallery, connected us with Bruce and accompanied us on the art tour. Her work was seen at the Niemi Gallery by curator and botanical artist Derek Norman, who invited her to exhibit in a group show of botanical art at The Art Center, Highland Park.
Vivian Visser discusses her work (center) at Niemi Gallery
I always come back from these trips with inspiration, ideas and insights into how artists make it work.