Jenna Wilson

Ck Ledesma visited by Jenna Wilson

Ck Ledesma is an artist working out of VAR Gallery and Studios in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Located in the eclectic Walker’s Point neighborhood, this multi-use studio space and gallery is quickly becoming a hub of activity in the local arts community. Ck’s vibrant abstract work derives from his passion for social connectivity and the color palette of Puerto Rico. By taking major cues from his background in dance and installation, he allows his work to fluctuate seamlessly between mediums and genres. After being shown into his studio, we jumped right in, beginning with some clarification of his involvement with several arts organizations.

JW: What art organizations have you been involved with?

CKL: I am involved with Artists Working in Education - AWE. I interned at the Portrait Society Gallery. I’m also involved with MARN, the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network. I just became a part of MARN.

JW: What does a membership at MARN entail?

CKL:  You sign up and pay a fee, you contact people - they have portfolios and profiles and you do visits and whatnot. Each year they choose and hook you up in a program with established artists – upcoming new artists, kind of like mentors through their program. I just learned about it, that’s why I signed up, it’s a great way to get out there.

JW: That’s great. Did you also work with the Cream City Foundation?

CKL: Yes, I donated a piece to the Cream City Foundation; they are going through some reworking. They have a new president and a friend of mine reached out to me because they were looking for art – the foundation is queer-based organizing and fundraising for queer issues and artists in Milwaukee. I said I’d donate a piece.  It was for an auction, three weeks ago, [the piece] was one of the masks I did for the Pfister [Hotel]. Also, I did one about a month ago for the Victory Garden Initiative in Riverwest; that was an awesome silent auction.

Another project I did was with Beintween, because they did the Artery [outdoor linear exhibition space and park], I did a dance/sculpture and performance piece with them there.

JW: Tell me more about the dance-focused installations.

CKL: That was my second dance and paint installation work, that’s where all the identity-based things came from. The Artery was looking for multicultural integration within the space. My work has always been about identity, especially the color palette - it is so Puerto Rico, to me. When I grew up all of the houses were these vibrant colors – but I didn’t fully realize my work was about identity until I left the college years and the Artery outdoor space was asking for submissions [for art installations]. I submitted a program proposal of dance representing cultures on top of paint that also creates an abstract work. Culture is an abstract thing, identity is an abstract thing – that was my submission, where we would have 3 different performers do contemporary dance, each having their own solos wearing a different mask that represented the community that lives in that area. It was Hmong/Asian, Latino – mostly Puerto Rican, and African American. We did a piece where we threw paint on plywood and each dancer had a turn with their mask. It invoked the integration of their area and their own culture. After that we took the pieces of plywood and turned them into a totem pole, which tied into Native American culture.

JW: It comes naturally to you to push boundaries between 2D art, 3D art and performance/installation. Do you feel that that project was the apex of all those things coming together for you?

CKL: Most definitely. That was the one performance that I feel reflected that. I have a background in theater and the installation-based work is a kind of theater. It’s props and moving people through space. That was the installation that accomplished the goal of uniting everything that I have done into one unit.

JW: How does your upbringing in Puerto Rico influence your style?

CKL: Oh God, a lot, tons. It’s color, one of the main things, and movement. I feel like the landscape of Puerto Rico – not only the natural, but architectural, is an influence. The weather - I still think about that when I’m in Wisconsin. Yikes.

JW: [Laughing]

CKL:  Again, the color palette [is the focus], and now the thematic aspect of my work. I’ve gone into a mask-making idea. It’s a push and pull because Puerto Rico is such a crazy mix of Spanish, White conquerors, Native American Indians - Tainos, and then black African slaves. Puerto Rico was one of the first places that Christopher Columbus came to, and he conquered and colonized it. There’s a crazy different religious thing that manifested in Puerto Rico during that time that my family is still involved with, [the religion] Santeria. It’s something I still have in the back of my psyche for some reason. I was never brought up in any sort of religion, but I did see and experience it firsthand – deities that the African slaves [brought with them] had to hide behind Catholic Saints, like Oshun or Yemaya, or Elegua, or Chango. That is still a part of me that influences my work so much because of the way that I mark-make, the color, and the way that my style is iconic. Puerto Rico is heavy on me. I love it, and it’s not something that I could put aside.

JW: That’s where the masks came from?

CKL: Where the masks came from, that’s another story. I was conflicted with the term “person of color” and what does that title mean for me as a “person of color”. I started doing some investigation of that and person of color just means that you are simply not of white descent. That could be anybody and everybody that is not white. That is unsettling, using a term so loosely. I get the concept but at the same time it negates who you are as a person. If I say I’m a person of color, I am also Puerto Rican. I am also Latino; I am also queer. I am also all of these other things that the term person of color does not encompass; it’s too vague. I’m sure that an Asian female could also say I am of color or an African American person, or Middle Eastern, but it’s something that is just an umbrella term.

What does it mean to be a person of color and for me, it was not the shade of my skin but my experiences. Places where I’ve been, my upbringing, my background, my studies and things that I’ve created. There is this huge mask-making culture of Puerto Rico called vejigantes – they are these masks that originated in the 15th or 16th century to scare people to go back to church. They are demons, and they are kind of self-righteous. The term person of color, it’s just simply a mask that we use.  You are of color – you are ‘the other’ or different. I was weaving myself into the mask making and seeing where it goes, because it can go in any direction.

JW: What is the Self Portraits as Isms series, as a concept?

CKL: I went to Paris with a study abroad through MIAD [Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design]. While we were there we had to select a subject and create work based off of our subject and create an extensive 20-page thesis. I choose the Pompidou, it’s the museum of contemporary art in Paris, and its surrounding areas. This museum is gnarly – it is ridiculous. It has all of the piping and inner works that you would need in any building on the exterior. All the water vents and air pipes and electrical stuff is on the outside of the building. It’s ridiculous, and the area around it too – the other buildings are like an epicenter for contemporary youth and rebel ideology. There is a lot of graffiti and the energy around that building, it is extremely contemporary. When I went to the museum the artist JR had an installation there where he had a photo booth that was about 2 stories high. You would go in and take a photo of yourself, like a two by two but they print it as a ginormous size – I think it was 4 foot by 3 foot. Portraits as Isms came from that experience of going into the surrounding areas of Pompidou and being part of JRs installation work, and having these images. I created a collage series that represented my growth and Paris. I made a book with all the images and it starts as black and white, and there is a progression [of color]. It also talks a little about the history of Paris, and being an arts capital of the world. It starts as bland and the norm and progresses into this insane, crazy, contemporary place.

JW: Let’s talk about your newest work, the sculptural paintings.

CKL: Oh, yeah, those little nuggets. They came from the experience of food. Identity is a lot of things aside from what you look like. Food and dance is a part of my identity. There is this thing called limber that is at a little mom-and-pop shop [in Puerto Rico], or maybe your grandmother makes them, and she sells them for a quarter. It’s a dessert, basically fruit juice, frozen. The person selling it makes the juice at home. That is a process of it’s own and most of those fruits are cultivated in the backyard of the person who is selling them. You freeze it and put it in a clear plastic cup and there’s a specific way of eating it. In my upbringing I would ride my bike to doña Anna’s house and it was a quarter to buy a passion fruit limber or coconut limber. I have always been interested in paint as a material not only to make 2D objects, but also as a sculptural entity. I started pouring acrylic into these plastic cups in different colors and layers that represented flavors and tastes. Paint can be empirical, it can be an experiential thing, and that is where the limber process for the sculptures came from. That jumps into my other pieces, where I was interested in the surface as a place to engage senses more than just visual – you could touch it or taste it or eat or smell it. It’s still there, related.

JW: Your new work plays into your interest in communal experiences - in your childhood with your neighbors and now as being a part of various organizations. Additionally, you have a background in teaching.

CKL: Most definitely. My proposal [as a finalist] for the Pfister [Hotel Artist in Residence Program] was based on that.  I wanted to create the studio space to be a place of communication and experiences where people would come in and talk about their background and how they identify as individuals. My proposal talked about using different methods to facilitate that goal - anywhere from a paper survey to dinners – people could come in and have sit-down dinners and talk about their identity with me. It’s definitely all about performance, experience, and sharing too.

JW: What part of your current jobs or activities do you feel has the biggest influence on your work right now?

CKL: To pay the bills, I bartend, and that is an experience in sharing. Not only am I giving you a service, but also we have constant communication. It’s like being a psychologist for a ton of people. They come in and explore what they need and what they want. It’s the same thing as teaching, you go in there and you are going to teach them but at the same time you are going to be involved with their personal lives. As a teacher you might have an influence into what is right, or your own personal “right”, I guess. It’s weird because I feel like my studio space is always with me, my practice is always outside of the studio. When I come in to make something, it’s all of those experiences from when I taught or hung out with a person and I think, “Maybe I can bring this into my 2D or 3D work”.

JW: Social interaction is the huge influence.

CKL: Exactly. That piece specifically [gestures at large painting on the wall] has a lot of that to me. It’s different universes interacting with each other, intertwined. In an interactive way, through mark-making, I try to bring back a survey of all the marks I’ve done through out my life. Spray paint – and there’s crayon and colored pencil and acrylic and all these things that are intertwined and touch each other, abstractly.

JW: Anything up and coming?

CKL: Yes, I’m going to have a show at Riverwest Public House coming up April 11th and then the 30x30x30 show [at VAR Gallery] and then I’m working with Kim Loper doing an installation-based exhibition here [at VAR] January 25, 2016.   

You can find more of Ck’s work at or on Instagram at @ck_ledesmart

Additional Images:

Christian Sis visited by Jenna Wilson

Christian Sis is the first of two artists I interviewed who occupy studio spaces within VAR Gallery and Studios in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood.  The spacious gallery and studio areas are built within a beautiful, previously vacant historic building – now complete with new movable walls, a small stage, a bar and hidden studio cubicles. They regularly host music, comedy acts and drink-and-draw events. Christian’s body of work is a refreshing blend of thoughtful self-reflection, humanity, and modern faith.  


JW: You do many self-portraits, can you tell me what the importance of self is in these works? 

CS: That is what the self-portraits started out as, where you are always there and it’s something to draw. I like spending time doing self-portraits just because you have that time to meditate and think on things. It evolved from there. Now if there’s a figure in a piece it might also represent something going on in my life. It might not even look like me but sometimes I have this connection with the figures in my work where they are sort of avatars with a similar feeling to what I feel.  

A lot of my work, especially a couple years ago, had to do specifically with having disabilities. It’s a big part of who I am, it reflects in the work. 

JW: Aside from the title of your drawing called Knee Brace, it wasn’t totally apparent how disability plays a role in your work. There must be some symbolisms that you use that represents that, or perhaps reoccurring ideas. 

CS: Specifically in that piece – it’s funny that you mention that because it’s a piece that I’ve never talked about before. [the knee brace] is a thing that is always on me and it’s always part of me. It started out as a superficial beginning to that series, where before I was thinking about the deeper emotional aspect about being a person with a disability – how you deal with your self-image and things like that, I was thinking what are different parts of my disability. I thought about my knee brace and I decided I would just show the action of it and look at all the different facets of the knee brace and try to put them into a drawing that shows some kind of motion. It ends up being an interesting drawing in the way that it relates to me, because my knee itself doesn’t move, it’s always stuck straight. That drawing with the knee brace is active, and you can see a lot of movement, that dynamic is interesting. 

JW: Many of your figures lean towards static poses or portraiture so that one might have jumped out at me as being a bit different.  That one started out with the actual physicality of the knee brace itself, then you went on to the other aspects of it. 

CS: That was the starting point for my senior show and getting into some other areas. 

JW: What role does faith play in your work? 

CS:  It’s huge. I feel like there’s a part of my faith in every piece I do. Finding myself as an artist came towards the end of college. I was kind of given permission to make art about my disability. When I was around 16 [years old] my disability became a lot more serious and it was from that point that I started thinking about God and Jesus more. That was the way I grew up, but it didn’t become a real thing in my life until towards the end of high school. It’s still what motivates my work, even when I’m getting up in the morning it’s the first thing I’m thinking about, that this is Gods day, and it’s a big influence in the work – looking at scripture and thinking about the ways that Jesus has worked in my own life. When I was doing the work for my senior show, there were figures with different disabilities, it was to bring honor to people. When we think of these things as being ugly, there’s a disfigurement here, I was thinking of Jesus being the one who gave the most honor to those who are completely forgotten. That was huge to me, and I was inspired by that. I was reading a story about Jesus healing a leper when no one else wanted to even make eye contact with this person and it just stuck with me.

Getting into the work now, there are people in these specific narratives. I don’t want to be labeled as a quote-unquote Christian artist, I want my work to be assessable to everyone, but the things I’m reading in scripture or the things that inspire me are coming through in the work. There might be certain things like hope, or kindness. There are a lot of positive interactions between my figures.

JW: That’s very powerful. Aside from scripture, what else do you read that contributes to your work?

CS: I don’t know that there is that much. It’s weird how inspiration can come to you; if you are just sitting you might get an idea. Obviously, I’m an artist who is interested in people and the human body. Just today there was this guy walking down the street and he walked in an unusual way and he had super high-waisted pants on and seeing that, I was like, “wow that guy is just really cool.” The actual mechanics of the way he walks and his style, there are a lot of things that inspire me. Books that I go to, one is hand-drawn patterns. I look through this book [Over and Over by Mike Perry], and it gets me excited, gets my heart beating. There are many cool drawings in here, and I’m fascinated by patterns and textures. 

JW: Do you think there is a tie between the patterns in your drawings, the rituals that come with religion, and the rituals that come with creating a body of work? I see a similarity in the way you relate to rituals and practices. 

CS: I don’t know. That is such a good question, I will have to write that one down and think about that. In my pieces, I like a lot of contrast. There are different contrasts between- there’s a still figure and maybe just a mark of pastel that seems to have some kind of action. There are organic sections, but also geometric sections. Something may be rendered in colored pencil, like a face, where I spend hours trying to get the color just right. When I’m doing the hand, it’s a goofy almost childish drawing. I like that contrast a lot. What you specifically asked, I will have to think about that, but those contrasts are what I’m thinking about. 

There’s something exciting about repetition, where you’ve got a task and you are working towards a goal and you say, “OK this section will be filled with a texture or pattern and it may take a really long time but it’s exciting to get there.” It’s a small goal within your large goal of a finished drawing.

JW: What sort of moments do you gravitate towards capturing?

CS: The positive ones.  I like work that is uplifting and hits your heart. Something that will make you smile. People, helping and kindness - but that’s not to say that my work always has super cheery, happy qualities. 

JW: You say you are interested in people and humanity.  I’m trying to get more specific about why you choose to draw the images you draw.

CS: There are times when figures are placed in a drawing and I have to find my way of making a narrative in it. That’s something that’s engaging to me too, where I’m starting a drawing with marks and lines. They start out as things on a page and I don’t even like the way it looks but I like putting something down that I can react to. It always makes it a little more exciting when I see figures in a piece. I would consider myself a figurative artist, and when you see a person in a piece, we are going to reflect that back on ourselves. It can be a challenge to figure out how the figures are going to interact – it’s a recent thing I’ve been doing where I’m making only the faces. They end up getting collaged into the piece. It’s the added challenge of – you have a piece going and you have to make it all work. 

JW: One event I saw that you were a part of was the Monster Drawing Rally. I’m always interested in artists collaborating towards a greater good; tell me about that event and how you contributed. 

CS: That was fun. It was 18 artists and 6 artists would draw at a time, for one hour.  This was at Present Works Gallery, the goal was to quickly turn out work. We were drawing like crazy. That was primarily a fundraiser for Present Works to bring in exhibition artists but it was also a pretty big challenge.

JW: I read you classify it as a performance, why?

CS: The drawings were about the people that came to see that show and all the artists working at the same time. I didn’t completely like the drawings I did and I know some other artists felt similarly, but it was an exciting venue where people got to watch artists work and see what they do under pressure. 

JW: Although you didn’t necessarily like the end result of the drawings, what were your hopes and intentions before you began?

CS: Going into it was exiting because it’s the opposite of the way I work; I like to be alone. I put on my big headphones and get in the zone. I’ve also always felt a little bit uncomfortable when people are watching me draw. It’s like that moment in art school where the teacher is coming around and they are going to look at you for a minute, and your armpits get kind of sweaty. 

I liked going out of my comfort zone. When I was there I got an idea for my first drawing and everything else after that was shooting from the hip and that’s the way I wanted it to be. There were many people, and they had a DJ sounding like (club beat noises) and they were blasting music. You feel like, well this better be good.  I would do that again in a heartbeat, it was so much fun. 

JW: You also teach art that the Milwaukee Modern Chinese School.  What is that like?

CS: It’s a small school and they are in the Lumiere building at Marquette. It’s a program that offers classes to the Chinese community at a low cost. I teach art there to kids ages 5 to 8. I’ve gotten involved in the Chinese community. I go to a Chinese church; I’ve been going there since I was 18 a lot of my friends have been Chinese. The dad of a girl in my youth group asked if I’d be interested in teaching art, he had heard I was an artist. I work at Villa Terrance and Charles Allis Museums. I also work for a company called Kumon, doing math and reading tutoring, and I do private tutoring with kids through our church who are Chinese foreign exchange students. Then, in the summer, I work at the zoo as a face painter. Lot’s of stuff. 

More of Christian’s artwork can be found at  |  Instagram: @christiansis

Additional Images:

Rachel Sanders visited by Jenna Wilson

Rachel Sanders is a visual artist living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She graduated from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) with a BFA in Drawing in 2012. She is an instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and the Milwaukee Art Museum. She has an energetic and playful spirit that shines through her work and illuminates her role as an avid local arts supporter. Unpretentious and unrelenting, Rachel’s adventurous nature is the catalyst to the creation of a bevy of evolving drawings and paintings.

Rachel shares a studio space with her father in an industrial district of Milwaukee’s Walkers Point neighborhood. Situated across from the Kinnickinnic River, the large unassuming-looking warehouse affords views of the boat marinas and Horny Goat Brewery. It’s a cavernous labyrinth of huge doors and wide hallways housing everything from glassblowers to recording studios, web start-ups to small batch food and beverage, and just about every other creative venture you can think of. After sliding across the black ice of the parking lot I was greeted by Rachel, and we promptly ascended to her 3rd floor studio.

Jenna Wilson: Is there a standout piece in here that you are proud of right now? And if there is one could you explain how it exemplifies you as an artist?

Rachel Sanders: Yes. Actually, I know what I will show you. I biked to Madison in the fall. I’ve done it before but this time I did it alone and I remembered seeing these cows along the way - you are going through farmland the whole time. I wanted to make so many drawings on this trip and I only made two or three, but this was one of them. 

I had been riding all day. I was picturing a certain place in my mind, but I couldn’t remember where along it was. Then I saw all of [the cows]. They were back at the barn and there was just one standing right there. I said to myself all right, this is it, this is it! I got out my shit - I think maybe this guy was the first one and then all of them started coming by. It was wonderful. It felt good and I got a little teary eyed. [Gesturing at cows] …What was the question? [Laughing]

JW: Getting out and doing [drawings] in an outdoor space, is that something you would say that you do?

RS: I’m always drawing. I was thinking about that. I always have to be [drawing], and I love to be outside. Adventures like that feel good and I like the challenge. 

JW: Do you work in a series? Along with the adventures - do you just work as ideas come to you? Is it random?

RS: That’s a good question. If you keep making things you end up with a pile, and if you keep going you get into a good rhythm. That’s how a series can happen. With these drawings, if I felt stuck I’d say - if I just keep drawing something good is going to come out of it. 

JW: What intrigues you about interior spaces? The skewed perspective you have in those drawings is visually interesting. 

RS: For me, it is nice to draw what is in front of you. I’m surrounded by this shit all the time and the possibilities are kind of endless. I enjoy seeing that if I make a squiggle it ends up being that bottle there. Observation – that’s my biggest thing, observational drawings. I  think I have a bad imagination sometimes. If you said draw a dinosaur it would be terrible unless there’s a dinosaur in front of me. [Laughing] Does that make sense? Which is funny, too, because these [drawings] aren’t photo-realistic. 

in progress

in progress

JW: How do you know when a piece is finished?

RS: It just kind of feels right. It may not be. Some of these paintings I didn’t work on for about a year and then I went back to them. I just get in a rhythm and then when that stops, it’s done. 

JW: The interior spaces paintings with the faces imposed on top, it seems like they are extensions of the drawings you were doing. How did that come about? What is the progression that happened there?

RS: They were really playful. Those have a lot of variations of marks. The faces were an interesting addition because each of them is so different. I used a bunch of different colors and different materials and eventually it kind of happened. 

JW: Do you do sculptures? I saw the chess sets that you had made. That’s a cool project. 

RS: Thanks. Well, I have all this clay over here that I need to recycle if you know somebody that is into that. I do. I like clay but I don’t have the means right now to do it. I did in college, with figure sculptures, which was fun. But right now it’s Sculpey and the oven. [Laughing]

JW: Did the idea for chess pieces come from figural work you had done in college? They are little torsos, little people. 

RS: I wish I had it here but I made this little guy out of clay that looks like the pawns, just bigger. After that I started to make these types of little things. I was making weird jewelry stuff and then they kind of developed into – I don’t know if you saw the pins or necklaces I made but they look like that, that’s a painting of all of them.

JW: The falling, chaotic people.

RS: Yes and now I make chess sets. 

JW: Nice. In my research of your work and other projects I discovered a fundraising event called “The Fastest Painter in Milwaukee”. What was that all about?

RS: Yeah. [Laughing] Do you know Waldek Dynerman? He was one of my teachers at MIAD [Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design], and he posted something on Facebook - he was being a little shit, being cocky but on purpose. He posted a picture of all these paintings he made and he’s like, “I must be the fastest painter in the world, I just made all these in like a half an hour” or something.  I was like, “Oh yeah? Let’s bet on that”. Then somehow that turned into us actually having a battle and dueling to be the fastest painter in Milwaukee. The space [for the event] was next to his studio in Bay View, and the girl running it at the time, Jenie Gao, she let us use her space, which doubled as a gallery – a gallery and living spot. Then we raised money for the Pancreatic Cancer [Action Network], and we made five hundred or six hundred dollars. It was cool because at the end we just auctioned off the pieces starting at two dollars. It was totally fun. [Laughing]

JW: On top of volunteering you are an instructor at several art institutions - Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design [MIAD], Milwaukee Art Museum, and also the Charles Allis Museum. 

RS: Yes and the Villa Terrace, they’re connected. 

JW: Can you describe your roles at those jobs?

RS: CAVT – Charles Allis Villa Terrace, there I’m visitor service staff so I open and close the museum and it’s pretty boring - but I get to be around art, so that’s good. At the Art Museum I do the Kohl’s Color Wheels. We go around Wisconsin to different schools and events and make art with kids, and teach them about the museum. Then at MIAD I teach continuing education classes. 

JW: How does being an instructor to what I assume is a wide range of ages and kinds of students inform your work?

RS: It is fun; I love it. I keep saying that’s the best job, at MIAD, because it’s what I’m most excited about – to work with people and get them excited about working, too. It feels good. 

JW: What courses do you teach?

RS: Drawing. Observational drawing. The one right now is called Improvisational Drawing.

JW: Is that music-influenced?

RS: That’s where it stems from, yes. Actually, I always tell my class that the way a read artwork is kind of how you would read sheet music. But I guess that’s because I play music.

JW: What do you play?

RS: I play the saxophone. That’s the main thing.

JW: Do you play with any bands or ensembles?

RS: Sometimes. [Laughing] Sat. Night Duets had me play with them. 

JW: With all this stuff going on how do you make time to paint?

RS: I’m not that busy. It sounds like it but I’m here [in the studio] everyday, or I try to be. And you have to make time. It feels good, and I like to do it so I just do. 

JW: Are there any particular experiences that you’ve done that stand out as motivating or energizing to you? 

RS: School was helpful. I was thinking of [when I] started college. I thought I was bad at drawing and I would always get embarrassed to show my stuff because it didn’t look like anybody else’s. I cried a lot. [Laughing]

JW: I did too sometimes. [Laughing]

RS: Oh God, I always think about this time we had to draw a self-portrait. I don’t know – mine was like Mr. Potato Head meets… it was really fucking ugly. I don’t know where I’m going with this. But school was helpful. [Laughing]

JW: You got past the crying. 

RS: Yes. Because I was like, well, I want to be good at this. I came here to learn so I have to learn as much as I can - and be good at drawing and like what I make. Now, teaching is fun and it’s nice to see what people are capable of doing and making. It’s amazing actually. 

JW: Throwing around ideas and doing projects with the students probably generates a lot of energy. 

RS: I look at a lot of different artists, a lot of different stuff. I think it’s helpful to see tricks other people are using. That happens when teaching too.  I just went to that space Art is for Lovers. That was refreshing, it wasn’t stuffy, sometimes you go somewhere and it feels awkward. But it was cool in there. Everyone should get over there and check it out! It was great. People were excited about it, and that’s important. You’ve got to be like “Yeah, I made this!” If you aren’t excited about it, I don’t know how the hell you’re going to get somebody else to be. 

JW: You mentioned bike riding to Madison earlier. Traveling outside of the city, that’s refreshing to you, or traveling to other places.

RS: Even just exploring weird little pockets in Milwaukee is fun, places that my pals and I would go on weird hikes all the time. Kind of on the outskirts where the hobos have their camps. People are fishing. [Laughing] 

JW: [Laughing] Since you mentioned fishing let’s talk about the boat paintings. 

RS: That came about when I got [into this studio]. We were trying to pick, because we could have been on the other side [of the building], but that view is of the interstate. Maybe I would have made better paintings. [Laughing] It’s good because it’s right there for me. That’s what I’m going to do, I love to make and you can just make something – make a drawing right now, you know?

JW: How long does it typically take you to work a progression of the boat paintings?

RS: Usually I will have about three at a time; for me I have to take a step back. I don’t like to be working on one piece. Sometimes it happens fast, like the one in the window – that was just a day. That was fast. That was with acrylic and these [others] have been with oil mostly, so these are taking a little bit longer, and they are not done yet. 

I work with whatever I can find. That’s the improvisational part, and it’s gratifying. That’s where the challenge is. You have this bag of tricks and you have to throw them out there, and make little ditties with them. I work with house paint a lot. It’s great – I get the “oops” paint, the colors that some dummies don’t want anymore. 

in progress

in progress

JW: What other hobbies do you have? I know you like to DJ parties sometimes. 

RS: Yeah, Anna Deisinger and myself are the hottest DJs in town. [Laughing] No. I like music a lot. We both, all of a sudden, had a lot of vinyl and we thought, “Hey, let’s play this for our pals, we can make money and drink for free!” I also like to go camping and ride my bike. A couple weeks ago my pals and I went down past Sheridan Park and snuck into the woods and set up some tents above Lake Michigan. Stuff like that. We made a fire and it was freezing. Oh, and I just got into football! All my life I hated football. I just ugh - I don’t like it. One day I was in New Orleans and my pals are like, “We have to watch the Packers play, we can’t miss it”, and I said, “Fine, I’ll just drink some whiskey and watch the game”. We ended up at a Packers bar in New Orleans and the Packers won in the last 3 seconds of the game. It was so good. The whole bar went crazy and we were hugging strangers and it felt like we were lifted up into the air. Seriously, and that moment I was like whoa. [Laughing] My friends think it’s so funny because two months ago I’m like, “I’m not watching football with you”. I do love sports – I love basketball so much. That’s a good hobby.

JW: To play?

RS: Yeah it’s fun. And going to Bucks games. It’s cheap too, nobody’s going to those games. 


Rachel Sanders is an enthusiastic maker that strives to let creativity run into the full structure of her life.  Her jokey buoyancy when speaking perfectly mirrors the demeanor of her work. Her drawings laugh at the sky while her paintings are spin a record at the bar.  It’s evident from the presence of a basketball in her studio that one must periodically remember  - underneath all the passion is a person who is “always wanting to shoot hoops but her pals never want to play”. Perhaps they are too busy enjoying her paintings. 

Additional Images:

Embracing the Void: A Conversation with Anthony Mikkelson

Anthony Mikkelson is a painter, animator, and purveyor of “cartoon realism” living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University in Boston until 2005 and graduated in 2008 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a BFA in Fine Arts. His work is a blend of provocative references to his personal history, political culture, and Midwest vernacular laced with pervasive sexuality. Emotional rawness and humor contend for your attention by crossing hyper-masculinity with deep sentimentality. 

I met with Anthony in a run-down neighborhood just off the free way, as the sun began to wane with Miller Park visible in the distance. His home, where he lives with his canine sidekick Crash, functions as a trifecta of living space, studio, and personal museum. Slanted floors abounded and heat was scarce. Pre-interview I was led up and down the narrow halls to several upstairs rooms, which in some cases were empty and in others perhaps a lone sculpture was on display. 

Jenna Wilson: After walking around your house it’s evident that you use a lot of different source material for inspiration and memory can you talk a little bit about that?

Anthony Mikkelson: Well, we live by a car lot, which is my uncle’s used car lot, IP Motors, I did that sign for if you noticed, which I think is funny because it’s two different colors and it bothers him. And, you know, I think we need more color to be honest, but I don’t know - that’s a spot that I consider like a home base, because it’s always been there for as long as I’ve been in Milwaukee. It’s like the one place that hasn’t changed in the sense of where I consider a place I belong.

JW: Do you  look to things that remind you of comfort and home?

AM: The idea of home is a big thing, my family has been gone for awhile now – moved to Texas 6 years ago and I have been here and then I’ve been rambling in other spots, Texas included. 

There’s this idea that I felt reading about Frank Lloyd Wright, who has made homes here [in Wisconsin] using materials that come from the surrounding areas [as inspiration] to make art. Part of my thing was about identity as well now - what is my identity? Working at a car lot for a while – the grease becomes something, you know? For years I was using cars, I used motor oil from my first car to mix into paint and stuff like that. Eventually I started using car hoods as an emblematic canvas, because of the shape, the 80’s cars I was using  - Volvos primarily, whatever was in my uncles car lot basement to paint on to make these emblematic things - paintings, which were mainly my “coyotes”. One I did of a girl, my old girl, like the sexualized Madonna pose that Edvard Munch started, but it had flames going around it. Anyways, the car stuff was part of my surroundings, therefore I wanted to use that. Now I have gone away from that and I use lake water for my watercolors. I’m doing watercolors of the Lake [Michigan] lately because when I was in Texas in 2013 that’s all I thought about was the lake, that horizon line and it was fucking hot there and I needed something. I came back up and I’m doing these watercolors.

JW: With the watercolors do you miss the texturized medium or the sculptural aspects of the things you were doing before? Recently you’ve gone into more of a drawing mode.

AM: Yeah. Well the thing is, watercolors were always a thing of meditation for me. Immediacy - you can get this color down, you can get this image real quick and it can travel well. I can go to the lakefront or go anywhere and do something. Whereas, with painting it’s a little bit more difficult, especially if you are working with oil, it gets on your hands, gets on your car, gets everywhere. Which can be alright but you know when you are battling the wind and shit, with an easel…

JW: Beside the practical reasons for not using those materials anymore, do you feel you are trying to capture more of the immediacy of a moment?

AM: I just want to capture the color of the lake, it changes so much and yet it’s like this minimal thing, and for me the lake is this place of comfort. I was born right on Lake Michigan at St. Mary’s [Hospital] which is right by Bradford Beach where I paint I am drawn to that spot, mainly because I had so many memories - like my mom taking me and my brothers there so many times.

JW: That would be the current version of the used car lot, being the home sort of feeling.

AM: Yeah, in a way I’m trying to seek out this landscape. When I lived above the car lot I could look out to the north and see all the cars that looked like a flock of sheep or like a crop, a field, a fallow field or whatever, especially during winter - and things would change and I would do watercolors of that sometimes, or oil paintings too. None of them great.

JW: You were using sort of a static subject through the seasons and capturing different moods? 

AM: In a way. Embracing the void is what my doctor said today, it’s something I’m afraid of. The existential plane of the horizon line is something amazing to me, like you can build everything from that point where you started out. When I did my animation of Ignition, it starts out with the line, and then it starts out with the road - you are building everything from this moment forward. It ends with a guy driving down the road and eventually coming into this car crash – and that one dealt with my dad. I built all these canvases here, or frames, more of these canvases, 6 by 9 [inches], and I’m going to be doing these studies with the lake in this climate and trying to get color. This is what keeps me going is trying to get color, because it’s trying to get an exactness – like how do you paint a wave without taking a still photo of it? But just through observation, how do you capture that color which can change quickly? I’m mixing colors for 20 minutes and look up and the sun is fucking shifted and shit’s changed and what does that mean? In Texas I wanted a lake, a big body of water, and there’s this fucking Monet in the art museum in Fort Worth that I loved and I was like holy fuck, it was a shoreline, and I was like “I want to do that. I took down the dimensions and I’m going to make a masterpiece. Because to me, coming back to “embrace the void” - I always was doing paintings for a long time and was like, well if I don’t fucking paint this, if I don’t do this glorious piece, then I can off myself.

[Both Laughing]

AM: Or no, I have to do this glorious piece, and then I can fucking do it, you know, then I can jump off the Hone Bridge.

JW: You had to put that pressure on yourself to get the work done? 

AM: Yeah, I mean I was unfortunately…there was a lot of depression involved in it, but I can get this image, you know, sometimes it’s like I’ve got to do that fucking image and sometimes it keeps me from finishing a piece because what was my initial impetus? It was like “alright, this is my masterpiece”. Now, I’m not so fucking cutthroat with myself – even though last night - I won’t blame a woman…I had fucking too much shit going on in my head and it bummed me out and I was up all night and then I thought, you know what? I’m going to paint that fucking Monet-sized painting of the lakefront now, but I’m going to do it here, and it’s going to get me through the winter. I don’t like winters…I love winter, because I feel like nobody’s working and then I’m working and I feel like I’m doing something, you know, not unique but…

JW: Important. 

AM: Yeah. Important for myself. You need something to come home to in winter. I mean it’s fucking dark here. The next time you come here there’s going to be the Monet-sized painting, maybe two. For me, it’s still about the meditation.  It’s about seeking objectivity because I feel like a lot of my work came from subjectivity – the narratives and animationsand stuff, dealing with my past, my father, and alcohol or whatever.

JW: There are a lot of background stories happening.

AM: A lot of stories, yeah it’s like - I’m tired of it, which is part of why I’m not online anymore because I’m sick of myself, you know, and sick of the narrative. 

JW: About trying to get offline. I know that you are taking a break from doing shows now as well. Are you making work for yourself right now - or what do you feel is the venue for your work in the future?

AM: Initially, I’ve always made work for myself. When I went to school in Boston I thought about [doing] a show in Milwaukee where it’s just - you go around town and find things in the woods. I have put pieces in the woods a lot lately. Or, I’ve been doing it over the years. I don’t know if I ever cared about galleries so much until it became an opportunity or something that I can do myself, and I’ve been doing it for years. 

JW: When you put work out in the woods or in public, do you ever document it or come back to those sites?

AM: Sometimes I take photos for myself but sometimes I just a leave it. A lot of stuff was shit I was dealing with, some abstract shit I was dealing with, with my old man or something with alcohol or whatever. It’s like here’s a piece, it’s not meant for anybody. Then with my ex, shit what am I going to do with all these fucking paintings, so I just put them out in the woods, or a spot that we used to go to, not everything, but a lot of it because I was like fuck it - I don’t even care so sell this shit. 

But the concept of shows, it never materialized into what I envisioned – I wanted people to come that were from the [part of the] city where I live now, but you are always running into this culture that is primarily from an educated field or affluent or it’s the same – you are not reaching any different crowd or anything like that. It never got to the point that I felt like OK, this is legit. 

JW: So do you feel disappointed by the feedback you get about your work? [Your work] is clearly coming from a more blue-collar perspective, working-class hero.  

AM: I mean, I like you saying that I want blue-collar people coming…

JW: Yeah, that you want them to be there and the absence of them is disappointing, or the feedback that you get from people who aren’t part of that community doesn’t mean as much.

AM: I don’t know if I can answer this question at this point because I’ve just kind of – it doesn’t matter to me anymore. 

JW: Right, but when you were doing the shows or making a push for that – that was a goal and you don’t feel it was being met. 

AM: In 2012 when I was making shows, I applied for the Peace Corps and I was thinking about leaving so I wanted to do shows with my friends. I wanted to do shows with the art environment and I always wanted to push us to reach our potential in terms of expression and creation. It wasn’t about creating an avant-garde, it was just about doing it and letting it be. I mean promotion, yeah, we could have done a better promotion or things like that but it was more about the production, building the walls and having legitimate work. The authenticity of the work it what matters to me the most, it’s not about the sales, it’s not about who is in there per se, it’s like, is this work valid? That’s where it comes to with me, is my work valid, is what I’m doing valid. With an art dealer like I had for awhile, still have technically, sometimes he would like a shit drawing and it gets in your head like “Oh man”, and you find yourself doing shittier drawings sometimes…

[Both Laughing]

…and conversely, it’s like “Oh my watercolors sell”. Well, I’m not going to do a watercolor, fuck that shit. You know? I’m not going to do it for anybody. 

But getting offline, OK. What I tried to do on Facebook – because it was free, I think it bought into my idea of talking about blue-collar and commonality. My name for painting and drawing is Acme, which is my initials, which is kind of a joke, but it’s also about generic conceptualism or something, I don’t fucking know. I like the common shit because it is kind of what Milwaukee is in terms of how we present ourselves somehow, or used to. I thought Facebook was a good concept because you could get people to look at your art, everybody, without having to pay for it or it being too difficult – here, you have a web page, you have an artist page. I put a lot of stuff out there that was particular and very personal, some of it, some too personal and I had it out there for awhile and then I just didn’t want to have it out there anymore. 

JW: Was that a feeling of being overexposed? 

AM: That’s part of it but I just think there’s so much self indulgence on the web that it became like masturbation, here I made this art piece and now I’m going to write about it, and I want you all to look at it. Please love me. I think that we are trying to build some sort of fucking, “this is our history, we are trying to build something for people to look at when we are gone”, or something. It’s just not alive to me; it seems like self-adulation. I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like an experience being online looking at other people’s art. Although, it is cool to see some stuff you like, but still it is like so temporary and so you just throw it away, consume and discard, along with a lot of things in our culture. 

JW: Now you are doing the small-scale paintings of the lake.

AM: Yeah I’m doing the studies of the lake. Because I don’t like when you take a photo it just changes everything. There’s a bit of land I’m incorporating into… 

JW: You always go to the same spot?

AM: I always go to the same spot, yeah, I try to. There’s this little man-hole, I think it’s actually a pot hole, that I try to park by.  Then I’m going to bring the Monet- sized canvas and paint the lake here – 

JW: What is Monet-size? Give me some dimensions here.

[Both gesturing at a wall]

AM: I mean a huge fucking painting, like up here, to there, to there.

JW: Like a 5 by 5? 

AM: 5 by…well, it’s a rectangle. [Looks at me like I’m an idiot]

JW: Okay.

AM: So, 5 by I don’t know, 4 1/2. I’m always kind of skipping around in things though too. That’s going to be me [gestures at large blank canvas] because I want to do portraits of all my friends, my guy friends that I grew up with.

JW: Oh, I see how it is. 

[Both Laughing]

AM: Well…well you are going to be on one of those ones! [points at smaller stretched canvas] You are going to be on a smaller one, don’t be jealous. But I have to make all these frames for it and I want these fuckers to pose but I don’t even think they are going to pose for me, those fuckers, speaking of blue-collar mentality those fuckers will not do shit when it comes to art, you know?

JW: [Laughing] That is what your challenge is, otherwise it’s not fun.

AM: I know. We were going to some fucking class thing in high school, it was an assembly and we were all going there and they were like, “Are you fucking wearing a dress?” and I’m like “Yep.”

[Both Laughing]

I played football with them, all these guys. I’m going to wait until I paint them to paint me, so once that’s done…this will be the future project. [Points to blank canvas] This is a Mona-Lisa-sized canvas and I’m going to do this with a girl, a lady friend. Not you.

JW: Fine.

AM: And we are going to paint each other and…but here’s an animation that I didn’t show you from Texas. The left hand is kind of like my old mans hand, smokes or whatever. That’s the problem, how do you deal with death, you know? I had a hard fucking time – he died when I was 18, I mourned for like 3 years. Just every day, and it was shitty, wow. I didn’t tell anybody in Boston that for the first year that my dad had just died and that, blah blah blah. I don’t know why, but now I tell everybody everything. 

JW: You would have had to deal with a lot of questions and unwanted opinions and advice.

AM: It probably could have got me laid out there.

JW: Well, you missed that opportunity. I’m sorry for you. [Laughing]

AM: Well I wasn’t as extroverted, I was outgoing - but about my internal feelings, I wasn’t as extroverted as I am now.  My girl for the longest time, we shared letters and I could tell her anything. I think she helped me push my art forward, just writing letters to her. It helped me express myself and then I would do these crazy drawings that – I don’t know. That’s why you need somebody to fucking talk with while you are in the studio. You can’t just be doing it all on your own, or you go crazy. God, Frankie you fucking stink. [a visiting dog-in-residence is demanding attention] And then she’ll sleep right on your neck.

JW: [Laughing] And then she does yoga. [Frankie does downward-facing dog pose] Cute. The end. 


[Post-Script: This interview, although fairly long, doesn’t even begin to unwrap Anthony’s body of work in the 9 years we have been friends and art school colleagues. His near-constant reaction to and interpretation of his surrounding environment, paired with his ability to connect and create with other artists has resulted in a prolific and diverse body of work tied securely together with recognizable and evolving themes. Post-interview topics included: getting a fish fry, going to the gym, trying not to drink, dead animals, and burned drawings. Anthony’s most succinct philosophy for going forward in life was wisely revealed to be, “Grow up, put your dick away, drop the bottle”.] 

Additional Images:

Boot Sculpture

Boot Sculpture