Abundant & Diverse: An Overview of Visual Arts at Riverwest FemFest

Featured image: Drawings on notebook paper that depict characters and text are displayed hanging by clothespins at artist-run space Facilitating Situations. Artwork by Cynthia Ho. Photo by Cristina Ossers.

Featured image: Drawings on notebook paper that depict characters and text are displayed hanging by clothespins at artist-run space Facilitating Situations. Artwork by Cynthia Ho. Photo by Cristina Ossers.

Since 2015, Milwaukee’s Riverwest FemFest has become a popular and important festival within the city’s creative community, one that supports artists and musicians across multiple venues through concerts, performances, exhibitions, and workshops. As a platform for femme, gender non-conforming, non-binary, trans, POC, and womyn creators, FemFest acts as a fundraiser for various non-profits and donates all proceeds from the week-long event to local organizations that support womyn, LGBTQIA+ individuals, families, and marginalized groups in the city.

…Beyond the many local bands, singers, and performers that take part in the festival, FemFest provides an opportunity for emerging and established artists to exhibit work at gallery spaces around the city. Ranging from DIY and artist-run spaces to live-work spaces and established galleries, eight venues showed over 20 artists’ works this year. Gluon GalleryYours TrulyTerry McCormick Contemporary Fine and Folk Art GalleryThe Real TinselWalker’s Point Center for the ArtsFacilitating SituationsGenesis, and Leenhouts Gallery were among the participating spaces. FemFest increases with momentum each year and the range and diversity of the artwork presented over the weekend did not disappoint.

Image: Work on view at Real Tinsel. A beige, color-blocked, fabric painting is embroidered with the words “can i guess your nationality?” Work by Melissa K. Mursch. Photo by Cristina Ossers.

Image: Work on view at Real Tinsel. A beige, color-blocked, fabric painting is embroidered with the words “can i guess your nationality?” Work by Melissa K. Mursch. Photo by Cristina Ossers.

…Fibers, sculptures, and paintings from Ella Anderson, Nicole Naudi, Malia Spellman, and FemFest Gallery Day organizer Melissa K. Mursch were on view at Real Tinsel, a storefront space on the Historic Mitchell Street. Made up of neutral blocks of color that resemble skin tones, Mursch’s fabric painting was embroidered with the phrase, “can i guess your nationality?” An artist and poet, Mursch’s work shares her identities and vulnerabilities in hopes to create deeper understanding and accessibility of topics like race and intimacy.

…Leenhouts Gallery on Milwaukee’s east side also exhibited work that focused on race and identity. The gallery showcased work from local artist collective LUNA (Latinas Unidas En Las Artes), a group that empowers and supports LatinX artists in the Milwaukee community. LUNA also hosted artist workshops the previous week led by members of the collective. Making a splash in the community by organizing engaging and thoughtful programming, members of LUNA are making sure their work is seen and voices are heard. Co-Founder Katie Avila Loughmiller recently published an article addressing white gallery owners and racial inclusion in the Milwaukee art scene.

…Riverwest FemFest is an important platform in the Milwaukee community for underrepresented artists and makers. For some artists, it may be the first time they get to experience their work in a gallery setting. For others, it may be an opportunity to welcome visitors into their home studio/gallery space. For all taking part, FemFest acts as a reminder that Milwaukee has an incredible network of diverse and noteworthy femme, womyn, non-binary, gender non-conforming, trans, and POC artists who have earned the community’s recognition as important cultural producers.  


Peter Barrickman & John Riepenhoff in Conversation on a Chilly December Night at the Haggerty

Before we all escaped our daily routine and went into hibernation for a much-needed winter break, one of my last experiences of 2018 was visiting the Haggerty Museum on a Thursday evening in December to listen to Peter Barrickman and John Riepenhoff in conversation. They were surrounded by works from the exhibition Nohl Fellowship @ 15, which is still on view through January 27, 2019. Hung salon style, the exhibition features work from a great majority of the previous 96 artist awardees who have received the esteemed Nohl Fellowship over the last 15 years - Peter and John included in that group.

The two-for-one talk was lightly attended, however, John and Peter did not disappoint. Both shared a variety of past experiences as artists in Milwaukee and beyond, in a back and forth style conversation. As they thumbed through slides of their studios, reference images, shots from travel experiences, and gallery installation images, they also touched on themes that can be pulled from both of their practices - architecture, public spaces, collaboration, and labor.

John Riepenhoff & Peter Barrickman at the Haggerty

John Riepenhoff & Peter Barrickman at the Haggerty

John discussed how he started a career as a curator and gallery co-owner by starting an “illegal” gallery space in his apartment before eventually opening The Green Gallery, which he now co-owns and operates. He explained that he wanted to show his friends’ work, because they were making and doing great things and at the time and to him, it felt like there weren’t many (non-commercial) venues in Milwaukee where young, emerging artists could show their work. This notion of platforming others’ creative works also manifests into John’s studio practice as an artist. With works like the John Riepenhoff Experience (a small wooden box attached to a wall 8-9 ft. off the ground that viewers insert their head into in order to see a miniature gallery space with miniature artwork) and the Handler Series (sculptures of legs that hold artwork), John invents and organizes spaces to exhibit other artists’ work, and in turn challenges the inner systems and architecture of the art world.

Peter has exhibited work with John, both through The Green Gallery as well as in John’s Handler series. During the talk, Peter discussed a series of paintings that are depictions of lobbies. He described the lobby as a transitional space, one that takes you from public to private. According to Peter, lobbies are often themed and can be oddly curated with aged decor, carpet, and artwork selected by a landlord. Peter also shared a handful of everyday images that he pulls artistic interest and inspiration from. After watching a video of repairman painting over some graffiti on a wall (you know the type of paint that is mixed in effort to match the rest of the wall, but no matter what, is always slightly off), it’s clear that Peter utilizes familiar spaces and experiences to create new modes of abstraction in his work.

Both artists also discussed their interest in organizing collaborative projects, events, and experiences as a way to continue informing their studio practices, like a participatory drawing event (Peter), The Oven located at The Open, the Beer Endowment, and The Great Poor Farm Experience (John). After a fulfilling conversation and trying to jampack my brain full of the possibilities for art to exist in many forms, I was able to reflect on John and Peter’s words over our Winter Break and enter into 2019 with a fresh batch of energy to create, respond, observe, and write.


Real. Vulnerable. Honest. Three things that are true of Fragile Not Found, an exhibition at Woodland Pattern which featured works from three emerging Milwaukee artists: Molly Hassler, Anika Kowalik, and LaNia Sproles. They each approach themes like identity, queerness, vulnerability, and nostalgia through fibers, printmaking, painting, paper-cutting, installation, and sculpture. A series of public events were programmed in conjunction with the exhibition to engage the surrounding community: an Artist Talk with Molly Hassler and a workshop with Anika Kowalik. Unquestionably, these are three artists to keep your eye on; Hassler was recently named a finalist for the Mary L. Nohl Fellowship in the Emerging Artist category and coordinates a Student Artist in Residence Program for PSOA students in addition to maintaining a studio practice. Like Hassler, Sproles and Kowalik are constantly in the studio and exhibiting work around Milwaukee. Sproles has a series of new drawings in an exhibition at the Portrait Society Gallery that opens on Friday, December 7th, 6-8pm. Kowalik has work in Var Gallery’s 5th Anniversary show which opened Friday, November 30th. If you can’t catch them on the opening nights at these exhibitions, be sure to check out their work during gallery hours. That’s how I explored Fragile Not Found; which was on view November 1-25 at Woodland Pattern.

Anika Kowalik,  Somewhere Warm

Anika Kowalik, Somewhere Warm

Entering the space, I was immediately impressed by the size and presence of Kowalik’s Somewhere Warm. A large-scale multimedia piece on un-stretched canvas covered in acrylic, glitter, barrettes, and kanekalon (fake hair); the piece connected me back to the innocence of childhood at the moment it collides with adolescence. Scribbled outlines of flowers function as a background to the sections of hanging hair which are adorned with barrettes and glitter. I thought of the first time a child is given the opportunity to dress themselves - to pick out their very own outfit/accessories; how our tastes change with age but we never lose our sense of identity and originality.

Anika Kowalik,  Somewhere Warm  (detail)

Anika Kowalik, Somewhere Warm (detail)

The sheer size of the piece requires the viewer to dedicate time investigating the details and if they commit, they will be rewarded. The materials felt satisfying to me as a viewer, thinking of them as both accessories and as tools to create a painting. Kowalik’s large pieces in this exhibition were supported by a series of 5 painted mirrors displayed on a shelf nearby Hassler’s large quilted painting, Out to Dry. Thick with globs of paint and etched marks - Kowalik’s series has a limited color palette of only black, white, and the occasional gray tone. Loosely resembling landscape, I was again reminded of painting and Kowalik’s ability to create a unique voice through their use of materials, which feels closely related to the development of one’s ever-shaping identity.

Anika Kowalik,  Studies (1-5)

Anika Kowalik, Studies (1-5)

Hassler’s sculptures Dangerous Objects Made Safe are fabric cocoons that house personal items from a past relationship. They aren’t easily recognized at first, being concealed in fabric, but one is left to guess that perhaps they could be a small diary, a book, a bracelet, a compact mirror or a framed picture.

Molly Hassler,  Dangerous Objects Made Safe

Molly Hassler, Dangerous Objects Made Safe

Molly Hassler,  Dangerous Objects Made Safe

Molly Hassler, Dangerous Objects Made Safe

The personal, nostalgic objects are sewn into their very own individual pouches and then displayed within vitrines. As I sorted out the mention of vulnerability in the exhibition statement, Hassler’s pieces from this series were ones I understood instantly as emotional artifacts put on display. They really made me reflect on past relationships, either romantic or platonic; and I found myself searching through pleasant memories and also memories I wished I could fight away and forget. Daily objects and keepsakes become catalysts to navigating these emotions that we as humans all have to face. Hassler tasks herself with “making the objects safe again” by covering them in fabric and using the materials literally to create a sense of closure. I’ve always admired artists who can make work that resonate with universal emotions and experiences. Hassler knows how to do just that.

Sproles’ pieces are reminiscent of our ever shaping identities. A character floats in space as it juggles a cluster of faces. Another character’s head and hands sprout out of a group of houses that are threaded together on fabric. Her characters feel familiar, they become representative of human emotions.

LaNia Sproles,  Homebody

LaNia Sproles, Homebody

Being close to home or searching to find our true selves in the world that surrounds us. Grasping on to shreds of our experiences, memories and friends that we don't want to lose. Balancing those feelings as we navigate future relationships. We’ve all felt these things.

LaNia Sproles,  The Gatherer 2

LaNia Sproles, The Gatherer 2

The works in this exhibition challenge the viewer to consider their own identity and personal histories while interacting with three artists who are tackling the very same feat. Sproles, Kowalik, and Hassler are exploring gender, race, and identity politics; as referenced in their statements and through their artistic practices. They have opened up an opportunity in the gallery for others to explore states of vulnerability by putting themselves out there as black, queer, and femme artists. Kowalik is unafraid to confront painting through installation and assemblage, Sproles opens up the world of printmaking through collage, drawing, and patterning. Hassler shows us that fiber work has a place in the gallery and should be welcomed with open arms. All three remind us that we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about the things that really matter; and explore our own ever-changing identities.