2007 Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards

by Gary John Gresl

Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achivement Awards
The Regional Art Junkie
This issue of the Junkie offers you the list of the 2007 Awardees of the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards, presented at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend, May 6th.  A name or two will likely surprise you.One recipient is the youngest to receive the award, and another is an internationally known artist who likely should have received the award a few years ago.  There is also a patron of the arts who has done more positive work in her lifetime than most of you can imagine.  Besides these nine worthy individuals, please visit the website, WWW.WVALAA.COM , for those awardees nonored in the first three years of the WVALAA. 


Ruth Grotenrath 1912 – 1988

In a Milwaukee Journal article of October 30th, 1966, Ruth quotes Pablo Picasso as saying, “The World is a marvelous spectacle…I do not seek, I find”. For her own early work she drew upon vital and broad 20th Century modern influences and for later work the sophisticated arts of Japan. Together with her artist husband, Schomer Lichtner, she was part of a generation’s movement away from the influences of the German academies in Wisconsin. Being part of the Social Realist movement of the 1930’s she had studied everyday people and places for her themes, sometimes creating monumental expressions like the mural from the Hudson, Wisconsin Post Office, now exhibited in the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

Ruth attended Milwaukee State Teachers College, today known as the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and also taught at Layton School of Art. A trip to Japan in the 1960’s spurred her to paint images of everyday decorative household objects, employing oil and watermedia, gilt and silver leaf in her work. For decades she exhibited paintings, prints and textiles around the United States, winning many awards from venues ranging from the once important Wisconsin State Fair art building to the buildings of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. A quote from the “Wisconsin Architect Magazine” of January, 1967 states, “Ruth Grotenrath’s theme…is the celebration of sensuous loveliness in life and the world. Her paintings grow from awareness of beauty and readiness to be sculpted into joy…”

Ruth DeYoung Kohler 1941 -

Ruth Kohler has become a living legend in Wisconsin as a result of her several decades’ long participation as patron, volunteer, administrator and moving force at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan. Her visionary goals as Director there since 1972 have raised that institution to an international level, enriching the entire state by its presence. A visit to the Kohler Art Center brings one in contact with the most progressive stimulating art shown anywhere in the US. Its programs include performances, children’s education, conservation of historic artist sites, being champion of Outsider and visionary art around the globe, scholarly research and publication, and a unique “Arts and Industry” program associated with the internationally known Kohler Co.

Following is a partial list of Ruth’s accomplishments: She has served as Chairman and member of the Wisconsin Arts Board, been on the panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, served as Director and member of the Kohler Foundation, been a member of the Wisconsin American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and served on the National Crafts Planning Board. She has received honorary doctorates from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, UW Oshkosh and Lakeland College, been a member of the Board of Curators of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, serves on the Wisconsin Academy’s Council as Vice President for the Arts and is a Fellow of the Academy, a juror and speaker. She is a recipient of a Governors Award in Support of the Arts, and the Visionary Award from the American Craft Museum in New York, the Smith Medal from Smith College of Massachusetts for exceptional achievement in the Arts, and has been a continuing force behind the scenes caring and improving Wisconsin’s regional arts. There may be no one else in the state that has ever compiled a record of this magnitude.

Truman Lowe 1944 –

Truman Lowe has established himself as a unique innovator in contemporary sculpture, employing Native American materials, themes and traditions; blending ancient forms with contemporary art expression. Born at Winnebago Mission, Black River Falls, WI, Truman was raised in a predominantly Ho Chunk community. His interest in art eventually led him to receive a BS in Art Education from the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, and anMFA in sculpture from the UW Madison in 1973.

Truman continues to be widely exhibited across the United States in galleries and museums that concentrate on both Native American traditions and the most contemporary of contemporary art. He has been a professor of art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and served as the Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Museum of the American Indian. Citing influences like Brancusi, Henry Moore, Michelangelo, David Smith and Julio Gonzales, he has translated into contemporary forms the traditional materials used by his Native American ancestors. His sculptures capture the essence, beauty, and spirit of ancient Native arts and materials, shaping them into elegant, sometimes monumental sculptures, blending the record of humankind in new ways. Cornell University art professor, Kay Walkingstick, has stated Truman is “the preeminent native sculptor of his generation”.

George Niedecken 1878 – 1945

In his lifetime, George Niedecken was the indispensable ally of, and collaborator with, fellow Wisconsinite, Frank Lloyd Wright. But he was much more than that. His contributions to American art laid largely dormant until the 1970s when his name kept surfacing in studies of Twentieth Century interior and architectural design. Increased collecting, awareness and scholarship of American art, especially of the Prairie School Style, brought George’s name to the fore, leading to many exhibitions and publications that included his work. Today one cannot open a book that deals with the Prairie School, or Craftsman and Mission Art Movements, without encountering his name. His close collaboration with Frank Lloyd Wright during the period of 1904 to 1917 obscured his own talent, but it is clear that as partner he amended Wright’s designs and took full responsibility for certain aspects of Wright’s residential commissions. Over decades he also had his own many individual projects.

As early as twelve years old he was studying with artist Richard Lorenz and then at the Wisconsin Art Institute. Along with Edward Steichen he helped found the Milwaukee Art Student’s League where he also taught. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago, and was for awhile in Paris, where he had Alphonse Mucha as a teacher. While there he exhibited at the Paris Solon of 1901. In 1907, in Milwaukee, he founded his own design firm, Niedecken – Walbridge Co., and soon he was producing custom furnishings including furniture, carpets and other textiles, stained glass, lighting fixtures, acting as architect, muralist, interior designer, craftsman and employer. His early broad experiences, the influences gathered in Europe, and his personal observation of American culture, manifested in his unique and successful work as artist and businessman.

Georgia O’Keefe 1887 - 1986

One of the best known artists of the twentieth century, Georgia’s association in New York City with Alfred Steiglitz, who she was to marry, and with fellow Wisconsin native, Edward Steichen, placed her at the forefront of progressive American painting. Despite the world wide recognition and heady acclaim she was to receive in her lifetime, her roots and youthful experiences were in rural Wisconsin soil. She was born in a farmhouse on a large dairy farm outside of Sun Prairie on November 15, 1887.
From the book “FULL BLOOM, The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe” we find this quote:

“She could stroll the dirt lanes for hours and not see a building or a field that didn’t belong to her family. In the spring and summer, wildflowers bloomed against the wire and wood-post fence beyond which plains rolled out to an unbroken horizon…This land left an impression of spatial grandeur on young Georgia and she would ever credit it as being integral to, even crucial in, her development as an artist… ‘Where I come from, the earth means everything,’ she once said. ‘Life depends on it.’”

In May of 1942 O’Keeffe traveled to Madison to receive an honorary degree from the University. During this trip, she also visited Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin. In 1962 she made her last journey to Wisconsin to see her sister, Catherine, in Portage. They visited their childhood home in Sun Prairie and a few of their many cousins still living in the area. In 1966 she received the Wisconsin Governor’s Award for Creativity in the Arts, and In May of 1968 she received the Distinguished Service Citation in the Arts from the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

Panorama Painters, late 19th Century

At a time in the world before film, television and radio, when entertainment came largely in the form of stage productions, readings, lectures, and musical performances, , there was a role for gigantic paintings known as panoramas and cycloramas. These enormous canvases were sometimes created in an industrial manner employing dozens of men and women artists in their execution. Audiences either stood while a huge painted canvas was unrolled before them, or the viewers were placed in the center of a rotunda to view the paintings that completely encircled them. These canvases were often educational, showing scenes from classic history, the Civil War and religious themes.

More than one Milwaukee business was formed to participate in this form of entertainment production. Among them was the Milwaukee Panorama Company, started by William Wehner, who recruited about twenty academically trained painters, many from Germany and Europe, to come to Milwaukee to paint these enormous canvases between the years 1885 to 1889. Some of Wisconsin’s most notable early painters participated in producing these wonders, including Richard Lorenz, F.W. Heine, Franz Biberstein, and even Carl Von Marr, plus dozens more.

The lifetime of these Panoramas was not long for they largely ceased being produced by 1890. Their influence lived on due to the many artist employees brought to Wisconsin, and for having helped secure Milwaukee’s place as a culturally and artistically literate city. Today there is a strong surge of interest in, and study of, in these extraordinary works of art and the men and women who created them.

Alfred Sessler 1909 – 1963

Alfred was another Milwaukee Teachers College graduate, after which he gained an advanced degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He joined the faculty there in 1945, and founded the graphic workshop…establishing a tradition in print making that continues in Madison today. He was a dedicated teacher and prolific painter/printmaker, using a variety of means to achieve overlays of tone and color, both in physical and psychological terms.

He became recognized for creating images that were sometimes disturbing, even grotesque, presenting less than beautiful humans in sad human conditions. He was quoted in the Milwaukee Sentinel on May 15th, 1965, “My main interest is in commentary concerning the human life around me.” He continued to work in a movement of social awareness and during drastic changes within the mid twentieth century art culture. In the previously quoted Milwaukee Sentinel article Alfred was said to be “…a man of consistency in a time of change.” With highly developed skills as draftsman and printmaker, his visual expressions focused on subject matter that was unflattering and imperfect. In this he displayed his compassion for the human condition by stirring compassion in others.

Fred Stonehouse 1960 -

Fred Stonehouse emerged as an important figure in the Milwaukee community almost immediately after graduating from UW Milwaukee in 1982. His extraordinary subject matter and technique caught the eye of local dealers and museum personnel. He soon built support and patronage from around the United States. He has been part of hundreds of exhibits and dozens of solo shows from Los Angeles to New York, entering notable collections. To emphasize his perceived importance, he was part of a show at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design that bore as part of the title, “Wisconsin Masters”.

Fred’s work has evolved over the years, but it remains on the cutting edge of peculiar figuration, a kind of Magic Realism or personal surrealism derived from many sources, including Hispanic and alternative pop cultures. From his first deliberately crude painting style the work has developed into technically proficient work, eye catching in itself, and when blended with his sometimes seemingly oddball subject matter, it may sometimes be disturbing; but it is always arresting. His unique visions and influence have even brought a Milwaukee art dealer to say that there is a “School of Stonehouse”, exemplified by artists who have joined him in choice of subjects and techniques. He creates idiosyncratic icons, pseudo moralistic presentments, updated Bosch-like visions, and as one of his art dealers has put it, he has maintains a “delicate balance of humor, beauty and derangement.” And this is said of a fellow who is known to be down to earth, open and honest, always approachable…and as far as we know, imperfectly normal as the next man.

Robert von Neumann 1888- 1976

Robert was born in Germany in 1888 and came to Milwaukee in 1926, where he immediately gained employment with the Milwaukee Journal and Perry-Gugler Engraving Corp. He taught at Layton School of Art, the Chicago Art Institute, Ox-Bow Summer School of Painting, and UW Milwaukee where his skills and example served to produce countless students who revered him, and who carried with them into the world some of his philosophy and work ethic. He believed that the best art was a direct product of the artist’s hands, an art that included the human figure and one which imparted a message.

There is no doubt he was a true “American Scene” painter though the persons he depicted could have resided in almost any country on earth. His many energetic paintings and masterful prints are usually images of rural scenes showing solid, hard-working people engaged in their daily tasks. His execution and brush technique were bold, the paintings thoughtfully planned and colored, and to our eyes today, representative of a fading time and physical place. Robert’s art was part of the Regionalist movement, with his personal imagery being populated by the hard working common folk with whom he identified.