For more than four decades, Woodland Pattern Book Center in Riverwest has been a hub for poets and artists to display their work. Woodland Pattern’s notable history is now the focus of a comprehensive new exhibition at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
“Then as Now: Woodland Pattern 1980-2022” is an extensive display that highlights the poet- and artist-run nonprofit bookstore, gallery and performance space, which presents more than 350 programs and events annually that encourage collaboration and exchange across the visual, performing and literary arts.
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“The exhibition is a truly massive undertaking,” said Jenny Gropp, who along with Laura Solomon serve as Woodland Pattern’s executive directors. “What feels extremely important to me is that it not only shows the strong ties in the Milwaukee community but also really highlights the fact that Woodland Pattern has a very intergenerational reach and a very national and international reach as well.”
More than 250 pieces from more than 100 artists are featured in the exhibition, an undertaking that could feel disparate due to its size if not curated appropriately, Gropp said.
“But people keep coming in and saying that it feels like it is pulling together what it means to have a full life in the arts and the interrelationships between pieces are very visible,” she said.
The excitement around the exhibition is palpable, Gropp added.
“Everybody has been so enthusiastic to come back,” she said. “Whether its the supporters of the founders of Woodland Pattern for what they’ve done the past four decades or an entirely other generation of people who are nationally and internationally based who are still interested in what started as this small, underground, grassroots thing that has really just stayed healthy and great.”
Founded by Anne Kingsbury, Karl Gartung and Karl Young, Woodland Pattern opened its doors in 1980 and grew out of the cultural happenings of the 1970s at Milwaukee’s Water Street Arts Center, an unconventional space that housed two experimental troupes – Friends of Mime Theater and Theater X.
“Then as Now” traces four decades of gallery curation that has consistently emphasized interdisciplinary practices. With diverse themes, the exhibition “pursues intergenerational and interregional lineages and affinities, with domestic, ecological and social justice issues often predominating,” according to the exhibition description.
“I think people are thrilled with this for several reasons,” Gropp said. “One is because there are new artists that are being pulled into the fold along with those who have been their mentors and those who they have admired. It also shows the people who were involved a long time ago that Woodland Pattern [are] still here pushing forward and blooming. It feels incredibly beautiful.”
A focus on the interdisciplinary practices in the arts has been crucial to Woodland Pattern’s staying power, Gropp said.
“It feels really homey when you come into Woodland Pattern,” she said. “Whether you are a visual artist, a poet, a musician or a filmmaker, you come in and meet each other and keep the family going.”
Woodland Pattern also has an internationally recognized list of small press titles and its reach extends beyond working artists, Gropp noted.
“We have a lot of youth programs in Milwaukee Public Schools,” she said. “Woodland Pattern is multifaceted. It’s often hard to describe.”
Taking the work of more than 100 artists and arranging it in a way that makes sense created a challenge for Kingsbury and visual artist Jill Sebastian, the lead curators.
“The gallery looks full of stuff but it’s done in a way that really makes sense,” said Leslie Fedorchuk, professor of writing and humanities at MIAD and faculty liaison to the exhibition. “We really encourage the public to come and see this. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit in terms of the number of artists who are part of it. A lot of really substantial folks. I’m not sure you are going to see anything like this again. It’s special for Milwaukee and it’s a really special thing nationally, too.”
A goal of the exhibit is to create a dialogue across generations and purpose, said Sebastian, a professor emerita at MIAD.
“Every single artist was enthusiastic about participating, generous and most grateful to be part of this celebration,” she said. “The most difficult aspect of the curating was keeping everything straight – communication, shipping, minute details. The general flow of the installation was worked out in a scale model and though it was challenging, it tended to flow together fairly naturally due to the exhaustive advance work by the team.”
She described Woodland Pattern as a “hidden gem.”
“A very common response upon entering the exhibition has been: ‘I am overwhelmed, I hadn’t realized how important Woodland Pattern has been and is to the cultural life of Milwaukee.’ Bringing this attention means a lot,” Sebastian said.
Sebastian said she’s grateful for the role Woodland Pattern has had in her career.
“In 1980, when I was eight months pregnant, Woodland Pattern gave me my first solo show which truly launched my career but more importantly allowed me to realize a context for what I was pursuing in my work,” she said. “Many, many of the other artists say the same thing.”
The exhibition is also an expression of gratitude for Woodland Pattern’s founders, Sebastian said.
“In a recent conversation I had with another creator of my generation, they were bemoaning the fact that Milwaukee lacks the interdisciplinary cross fertilization that approximates the action that New York or Los Angeles provides,” Sebastian said. “I countered with the thought that they have ignored or overlooked the global reach of this modest storefront arts and literary center. Diversity and interdisciplinary programing are brought to Milwaukee here and one only has to attend a music, film or reading there to consider how the zeitgeist of our time is articulated in different voices.”
Woodland Pattern is unique in terms of not only its longevity but also the vast number of artists who have come through the center, many when they were just beginning their careers, Fedorchuk said.
“There’s been just an incredible number of poets, musicians and visual artists who have come through there and it’s always been rooted in the community,” she said. “To still provide these wonderful opportunities for folks to get in there and hone their craft or share their craft with others has been an incredible thing to watch. You’ve had somebody like (performance artist) Laurie Anderson, who came in the early ’80s before most people had ever heard of her, up to recently when they’ve had Venessa German, a Milwaukee-born community artist. Woodland Pattern really focuses on the artists, poets and musicians from Milwaukee, as well.”
Gropp is excited, and relieved, to finally see the exhibition come to fruition after a two-year delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve been looking forward to this for some time,” she said. “We got slowed down not only on the retrospective but on our capital campaign. We are looking to do some major renovations to the building and so we are about to kick off that campaign again and this exhibition is going to help us to do that.”
The exhibition is spread over multiple sites on MIAD’s campus at 273 E. Erie St. in the Historic Third Ward, including the Frederick Layton Gallery, the institution’s largest gallery. The exhibition also extends to MIAD’s community gallery, while a miniature Woodland Pattern installation is housed in the college’s reading room.
“It feels like the whole college has been pulled into this,” Gropp said.
The exhibition runs through Dec. 3.