Arts and Culture

The artists' life

Madison's creatives both struggle and succeed

The art scene in Madison is rich and varied—with a citywide Gallery Night each spring and fall, admission-free art museums, stages for dance, theater and classical music, numerous and unique exhibit spaces and an art fair attended by 200,000 every summer. But in this crowded landscape of ever shifting tastes are local artists trying to make a living while staying true to their visions.

The creatives in our midst piece together income from commissions, grants, sales of their work or land gigs to perform. Some are more successful at the hustle than others. But while the hard work of honing one’s craft is central to the life of every artist, finding an audience for the final product is just as essential. While there may be as many paths to making it as an artist in Madison as there are artists, the ones featured here demonstrate how Madison aids the imaginative among us and benefits from their creations.

Thriving Artists

Starting in early 2016, about half of Jennika Bastian’s income has come from the sale of her own artwork—paintings of human-animal hybrids in mid-transformation and theatrical paper-mâché masks sought by performers and partygoers. The other half she earns as a program specialist at the Madison Children’s Museum.

The museum demanded more of her time recently to work on the second-floor exhibit “From Coops to Cathedrals: Nature, Childhood, and the Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright” which opened in June to coincide with the famed Wisconsin architect’s 150th birthday. Bastian painted two murals for the exhibit. When she’s not doing exhibit work, Bastian runs the art-oriented programs at the museum, inviting visitors of all ages to make art with her.

“I love Madison so much,” she says. “I have my dream job at the Children’s Museum and I have so much creative liberty and flexibility. I can support myself off my work here.”

Bastian, who earned her bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2013, has exhibited her work on campus as well as the Art In gallery, 100state and the Madison Municipal Building. She solicits commissions through her website jennikabastian.com.

“I’m proud I can make a living as an artist without a degree in it,” says Claire Warhus over the buzzing of the needle she presses against a client’s skin.

The walls of her cramped space at Spike-O-Matic Tattoo on South Park Street are covered with overlapping transparencies of her distinctive tattoo designs—intricate line drawings of realistic-looking animals and mythical female heroines, and whimsical integrations of the two.

“My art is pretty much the same as before I was doing it on people,” says Warhus, recounting her seven-year journey from freelance illustrator (often unpaid) of punk rock show flyers, band T-shirts and album covers to an apprenticeship at Spike-O-Matic Tattoo in 2015.

Because of her varied previous work, Warhus brought a loyal clientele to the tattoo parlor. In the annual Isthmus readers poll, Warhus was voted favorite local artist in 2015 and third favorite tattoo artist in 2016.

Where Art Thou, Art?

Warhus has also organized, with Lisa Lauren, the edgy Black Sheep Bazaar six times since 2014, including three times at the High Noon Saloon. The next Black Sheep Bazaar will likely be held in December, Warhus says.

“One guy makes wands and another sells risqué adult coloring books,” Warhus says, listing examples of the more than two dozen exhibitors that typically partake in the bazaar. “People come and say, ‘What? I can find a ouija board, handmade clothing and voodoo dolls? This is marvelous!’”

The more mainstream Dane Arts Buy Local events—another intentional mingling of makers and buyers—is held at the US Bank building on Capitol Square. To date, Dane Arts Buy Local has generated $100,000 in sales and commissions for local artists, according to its website.

These and other art-oriented fairs in Madison provide exposure for different kinds of artists, says Carlos Gacharna, director of 100arts (a position he left in early August to move to Long Beach, California), which is the artistic component of the co-working space 100state on West Washington Avenue. 100arts plays its part, too, he says.

100arts members help each other set up websites and online stores for their work. And besides organizing art shows and curating the art on display at 100state, Gacharna (himself a photographer and sculptor) sets up paying gigs for artists, such as teaching workshops at The Bubbler—a Madison Central Public Library program—and elsewhere.

On Gallery Night, organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which was held last May (and will be held again Oct. 6), 100state alone displayed a couple hundred pieces of art by 49 different artists, including 25 women, 29 artists of color and 16 immigrants. “We’re probably one of the bigger platforms and one of the more accessible ones to artist communities that aren’t normally represented,” says Gacharna, who is originally from Columbia.

100state artist-in-residence Ashley Robertson took up painting in acrylics and watercolors less than three years ago, but soon found her niche painting portraits of black women and creating cityscapes in shadow boxes.

In 2015, her work was first shown at 100state and at Café Zoma, a coffeehouse on Atwood Avenue. In April 2016, she had a solo show at Strivers Garden Gallery in New York. She created West Label Art, through which she sells her original work and prints online.

“More than anywhere else I’ve been, Madison is attractive and growing, has innovative ideas, supports entrepreneurship, there’s a lack of pretension and leaders in the community are approachable,” Robertson says.

Robertson says she feels so empowered as an artist that she’s leaving her job as a city planner at Vandewalle & Associates—and her seat on the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission—to pursue life as an artist full-time, starting back in her home state of Maryland.

“I have nothing to lose and only experience to gain. So why not try it? Now is the time, if any time is, to be a traveling artist,” she says.

Fair Trade Offs

Gallery Night and Make Music Madison are intended to keep focused attention on the local arts scene. Both are annual citywide events that turn many nontraditional spaces—included storefronts, parks and even front porches—into impromptu exhibit spaces and stages. While musicians who participate in the latter are not compensated, they’re seen by hundreds if not thousands of people.

“Art is in every arena. We need to show the economic power of the arts,” says Mark Fraire, director of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, or Dane Arts.

Fraire says artists deserve more support than they get because of how much they benefit the entire Madison area. But making that case is challenging, he says. While Dane Arts turns 40 this year, it remains a small office (Fraire, the only full-time employee, has an assistant and two interns) shepherding limited public and private dollars in the form of grants to public art projects, performing arts groups and individual artists.

“I’ve been at this for 35 years,” including four years in his current position, Fraire says, “and I don’t see a lot of money being made [by local artists]. We have a long way to go to support the arts.”

Performing artists—particularly dancers, both individuals and troupes—have their own bills to pay. Finding places to rehearse choreography, let alone perform it, is a significant obstacle for them.

“I do come in contact with dance artists who have nowhere to perform or present since they are not part of an ensemble or founder of an ensemble,” Fraire says.

Dane Arts has given small grants to Li Chiao-Ping Dance, Kanopy Dance and Madison Ballet, to name a few. Dancer and choreographer Liz Sexe received $400 from the organization to conceive a production for a duo to be staged at Olin Park.

While local and national grants have fostered the artistry of Li Chiao-Ping, she says you need not be, like her, the head of a dance company and professor in the UW–Madison dance department to qualify for financial assistance.

Patrons who are apt to support ballet should also be encouraged to back talented modern dancers, too, she says.

“We don’t have, I believe—for professional level or emerging dancers—enough support in terms of classes and grants so that (dancers) can build their work,” Li says.

Laura Schwendinger, a professor of composition at the UW–Madison since 2005, has received a steady stream of commissions to compose music over the past decade. She released a CD of chamber music in 2013 titled “High Wire Acts” with grants from UW–Madison and the Columbia University Ditson Fund.

“Teaching helps you get the music out there,” she says.

But her faculty position came only after a jury comprised of multiple Pulitzer Prize winners (including Madison’s own John Harbison) named Schwendinger the winner of the 1995 Alea III International Composition Competition. Her songs impressed then-superstar soprano Dawn Upshaw so much that she performed Schwendinger’s music for years, including at Carnegie Hall.

In contrast, Paul Dietrich is still in the earlier stages of his career. He came to Madison via Chicago, and it appears that every moment he’s not composing is spent performing (he plays in five, sometimes more, groups, including two he leads), and teaching trumpet. The UW Jazz Orchestra premiered his composition “Scenes from Lake Mendota” at the 30th-annual Isthmus Jazz Festival in May. In November, Dietrich is set to debut new music supported by a grant from the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium.

Dietrich raised a few thousand dollars via the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to produce the first Paul Dietrich Quintet CD “We Always Get There,” but didn’t go back to the online site to raise funds for “Focus,” the CD his group released in May.

“I play a lot of gigs for pitiful money with my own band, but I wouldn’t do that with bands that aren’t artistically interesting to me,” he says. “For every handful of low paying gigs, we’ll get an offer for a nice one … so you just have to stay on your toes. But most of the commissions I’ve done have been for people who are familiar with the work I’ve written for my own bands.”

Playing to the Gallery

The Art Fair on the Square, another fundraiser for MMoCA, brings some 500 participating artists from across the country to the attention of 200,000 people and generates nearly $3 million in sales one weekend every July. In conjunction, another 140 Wisconsin-based artists display their work at Art Fair Off the Square between the Capitol and Monona Terrace.

That can be a daunting scene for artists without experience on the summer art fair circuit—or who can ill afford the $530- to nearly $1,100-entry fee to set up a booth on the square. Recognizing this, the organizers for the past two years have set aside the 100 block of State Street as the “Emerging Artist Block.” The dozen artists selected receive guidance in setting up a booth at a reduced price.

A new event, the Madison Night Market on Gilman and State streets, was held on three Thursday nights this summer. It had a strong art component and several thousand people attended each one, prompting many area storefronts to stay open well into the evening.

Yet the exhibiting artists at the Madison Night Markets “had their own tables, lighting, insurance,” Robertson notes. “For something like that, I’d need training to know how to approach it.”

Robertson, the painter quitting her day job, says she took a free seminar through the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. on how to present herself and her work at expos. Between that opportunity, American Family Insurance’s DreamBank presentations and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s Upstart Program, she says “there are resources galore” for artists and others trying to figure out the nuts and bolts of fashioning a livelihood from their passions.

The work of other artists—and, in some individual cases, their sensibilities—don’t fit (or sell well) at art fairs.

Reed Michael Jones did sell one of his large oil paintings at the Dane Arts Buy Local event last October. But he was challenged by the need to come up with a booth to display his large works. Jones sells his paintings for much more than most people are willing to spend for art on an impulse. So he knows displaying his work at art fairs or coffeeshops isn’t likely to elicit buyers for his work.

Jones would sooner have his paintings hung on the walls of a gallery—such as the Bee and Laurel Gallery in Edgerton, which is currently displaying several of his paintings and agreed to do so for a year.

This first gallery showing for Jones was secured with a piece he titled “The Abandoned Orchard”—a painting he now sees “as a metaphor for my art career.” He says the scene is of a 19th century apple orchard taken over by birch trees. Yet one lone and untrimmed apple tree remains bearing fruit.

“It reminds me of my art career; one of those things I started with a lot of desire and promise and then had to let it go” to start a career to support a young family, he says. “It’s the resilience of that passion.”

That piece struck a chord with the Edgerton gallery owners, too, he says. “It got their attention.”

Jones’ long-term plan was to start seriously pursuing painting only after he retired from his career as a broker in the commercial printing industry. But about four years ago, in his early 50s, he had an opportunity to scale back his day job and, with his wife’s support, “fired the money cannon” to build, next to their house, his dream studio with north-facing skylights. He now spends several hours a day, at least three days a week, painting in natural sunlight.

Jones knows he’s fortunate he has his own studio and a gallery to exhibit what he’s produced there. He’s aware of the catch-22 galleries present, however, especially for new, unschooled artists: “You have to have an established collector base or a hell of a great resume. In which case you should have been in a gallery already, so they ask, ‘Why aren’t you?’ Or you have to produce something that just jazzes the living daylights out of them.”

Local artists—be they painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers or actors—are moved to share their creations because they feel emotionally compelled to do so, to pay the bills or both. Some of that creativity is spent looking for ways to share their view of the world, in all its ugliness and beauty. The result is a Madison in which you can turn in any direction and find expressions of profound artistic insight. Their art is for all to see and behold.

Joel Patenaude is the associate editor of Madison Magazine. Madison writers Tamira Madsen and Greg Hettmansberger contributed to this story.


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