In 2011, during the infamous Act 10 protests in Madison’s State Capitol building, Susan Simensky Bietila, 69, a former union Milwaukee Public Schools nurse, showed solidarity by designing greeting cards depicting a packed house of public tension that included bagpipers, megaphones and a sea of red sweatshirts. In support of the “No Penokee Mine” campaign – a fight to stop an iron-mining bill from snaking through the state Legislature – Bietila created poster-size prints, working with a scratchboard technique (etching into a black-ink layer). Making art is her own brand of liberal activism, one she thinks is more effective than anger or rage, and it’s something she’s done since the rise in student activism in the late 1960s. “I grew up going to museums and played among Ancient Egyptian bas reliefs, Chinese scrolls,” as well as American Regionalist paintings about the poverty of the Dust Bowl era, she says. “I have always been drawn to narrative art – art that has a story to tell. It seemed natural to do artwork about the big issues of the day.”
Bietila also deploys brush and ink, hand-colored silkscreen, mono-prints and block prints to express her views. A Brooklyn, N.Y., native who’s lived in Milwaukee since 1986, she spends her post-retirement days illustrating comics and graphic nonfiction on commission. Her work has been included in the 37-year-old political comic zine World War 3 Illustrated, and she’s exhibited her highly detailed creations in New York and Australia.
Most recently she created an eight-foot heron for a Citizens Acting for Rail Safety demonstration to mark the anniversary of the 2013 Lac-Mégantic crude-oil disaster in Quebec. The early August* protest was held at the confluence of Milwaukee’s three rivers, where trains carrying crude oil currently pass over. One of the three windsocks she designed – depicting a black freight train with its signature 1267 placard indicating crude oil – waved above boats and kayaks at the confluence, its presence a silent reminder that art can occupy a three-dimensional space in civic conversation.
*The date of the protest has been updated.