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Dispatch From Sheboygan: On Memory

I’ve just completed my first week of a “Connecting Communities” residency at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin where I am working on a social drawing project until August 4th.  I was invited two years ago to participate in Hiding Places: Memory in the Arts, an institution-wide exhibition on memory. I’ll be sending some dispatches from Sheboygan during my residency here.

This morning I stood frozen in private terror facing a room full of smiling senior citizens with various stages of memory loss, feeling ill-prepared to ask them to draw someone who they had never actually met. That is the conceit of my memory-based drawing project, here on the sunny shores of Lake Michigan north of Milwaukee: to get as many people as I can to draw a person or character relying only on their memories and imagination.

Standing there, I felt like the “city slicker” yuppie, in a story the program organizer had read to the group, who inquires with a farmer about buying the timber from his aging barn to decorate his new home. Facing them, I introduced myself and launched into the simplest description of the project I could offer and waited for the seniors to volunteer a name from their past. One care-giver in the back said “Elvis Presley,” and before I could respond another elderly woman exclaimed “You look like him!” You can take that any way you want; Vegas Elvis or movie star Elvis, I look nothing like the King. However, everyone laughed and the ice was broken.

William Powhida, "Everyone I’ve Ever Met from Memory (that I can remember)", detail (2005) (photo via John Michael Kohler Arts Center)

The senior citizens talked about Judy Garland, Lawrence Welk (who one sweet woman wanted to marry), Abraham Lincoln, Georgia O’Keefe and John Wayne. They discussed movies, presidents, and times in their life that memory loss had not robbed them of. The room was filled with conversation and laughter over the drawings, both awkward and wonderful, based on their descriptions. “Broad forehead, slicked back hair, a good dancer, smiling, always smiling.”

If you’re at all familiar with my art, then you’re probably wondering “What the fuck are you doing in a senior center?” You might also have an idea of how profoundly strange my experience was this morning. I am used to engaging in satire, parody and critique of art world social hierarchies. I am also used to teaching high school art in Brooklyn, where I am called “Mister” and “Pow-eee-Gee.” Here in Sheboygan, only the teaching experience matters and maybe an irreverence for convention. For me, an ability for drawing is welcome, but not necessary. Talent is for “real artists.” “Are you a real artist?” a young girl asked me with some skepticism as we worked on drawings of Selena Gomez, Tinkerbell and Taylor Swift. “Depends on who you ask,” I tell her.

In fact, back in New York, I’m not sure I’d qualify as a real artist. I know there are some people who’d argue that point. “Of course he is,” Yvonne, the connecting communities director offered. “Yes, I am a real artist,” I told the young girl who seemed content after validating my credentials. I also have two large-scale drawings in the exhibition section “From Memory,” drawings of people that I’ve met throughout my life.  The first drawing was an attempt to remember everyone I’ve met from birth through 2005 without relying on any cyborg memory like Facebook. People laugh when they read it. They point and say “That’s you!” or “I know that dude.” I guess we all have similar people in our lives.

Disarmed and charmed by the children, parents, teens, adults and senior citizens here in Sheboygan, we have completed hundreds of small pencil and watercolor drawings of a wide range of people from our shared cultural memory. I also met a metal sculptor, also in his late 30’s, who longs to move to Brooklyn or go to graduate school, but commutes daily to Milwaukee to weld iron railings.

We attended a barbeque at the farm of another artist transplanted from Brooklyn with residents from the Arts Industry residency. We ate brats on these hard rolls that are perhaps the most peculiar thing to Shebogan. “They don’t use them anywhere else,” her husband said. He’d worked at the Kohler factory for 27 years. I also met a painter from Illinois in the pottery residence at the factory. We are both in unfamiliar territory, which is also perfectly fine with both of us. This isn’t about making things that are comfortable. It’s about making things that expand the possibility of art, for own practice and others.

Beneath the good times, smiles, and high-fives with seven year olds, there are moments where the problems and tensions surface. Some of the children and parents are from domestic abuse shelters, foster homes, programs for at-risk youth and some people long for the wider world. “These aren’t all happy memories,” one mentor from the at-risk youth program said looking at my drawing of everyone. “No, they aren’t. Life isn’t that simple,” I offered. “Sometimes it’s the painful ones that really stick.”

One of the kids, headphones planted firmly in his ear, spent the first 45 minutes of our workshop ignoring us, until finally he broke down and drew a “ghost” (who he never wants to meet) and then something called a “day tracker” that looked like a bullet with teeth. We talked about a show on the SyFy network, Haunted Collector, and a fight he got in at the skate park as we drew our pictures. Another girl with bright red hair discussed her temper and her “anger management” classes, but I didn’t get any of that. The kids were alright for an afternoon.

Now, it’s evening and I’m sequestered back in a small cabin in a township called Wilson a few blocks from the beach surrounded by woods. There is nothing to do but draw and write. It’s incredibly quiet, this place. In the guest book another artist from a different metropolis wrote how absolutely terrified he was to be isolated in the woods without the closeness of others, without the constant thrum of city life. I find myself pleased with the quiet, the coffee machine, some Wisconsin beers and the cool air. One could get used to living like this somewhere in America.

Despite the solitude here, I am tethered to the Internet watching the cycle of comments and responses over #Twitterart, which isn’t generating much discussion in Sheboygan. The sculptor I met said by the fire at dusk “I’ve got to get on the Twitter, I’m not up on the social media as much as I should be.” I wanted to tell him, “Fuck that,” but then I thought, maybe he should spend some time on “the Twitter” before moving to Bushwick or applying to graduate programs.

It’s a strange sense of place, to be here and there, alone and crowded by words and opinions.

What I know is, when this residency ends, I get to go back to Brooklyn while my new friend will still be driving to Milwaukee to weld those gates. That’s real, and social media can’t shorten his commute. It’s the reality of geography for an artist, but maybe expanding his artistic community beyond Sheboygan and Milwaukee will help him make a decision about his future as an artist. I’ll end tonight with a question, “Would you pursue an MFA right now or relocate to a metropolitan area with greater opportunities for artists? No matter what your decision, you have to give up a job with benefits.”

All images courtesy the author

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