Public art project gives voice to historic Mitchell Street

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Milwaukee’s Mitchell Street. — Photo: Kat Murrell

A few years ago, visual artist Sonja Thomson and storyteller Adam Carr teamed up for a temporary public art piece called Here, Mothers Are, which relayed in words and installations the stories of families in the neighborhood around 24th and Locust streets. The project was a precursor to their latest endeavor, Listening to Mitchell. This time, they recount the memories and testimonials of historic Mitchell Street.

Beginning in October 2012, Thomson and Carr approached neighborhood organizations, receiving particular assistance from the neighborhood business improvement district. They forged connections with area residents to uncover the often hidden experiences of the street and its surroundings. The result is a project that begins with a storefront at 723 W. Mitchell, where 18 channels of recorded audio mix the voices of interviewees with a display of pictures that reappear throughout the installation on Mitchell between Fifth and 12th streets. Though the sound installation in the storefront is currently only open by appointment, it will be part of Doors Open Milwaukee on Sept. 21.

The most significant parts of Listening to Mitchell are viewable on the street in the form of printed photographic images. Some are the size of large posters, others are small pieces approaching postcard size. By calling 414-921-2622, the visitor can listen to the 20 audio clips drawn from numerous interviews with area residents. This brings a virtual media component to the physicality of place. A printed brochure, with succinct descriptions of the participating locations and businesses, is like a conversational guide, placing the visitor between art viewer and local tourist. 

Carr enthusiastically described the responses elicited from visitors. Some adults noted the subtle insertion of the pictures into the urban street scene, but children proved to be the most observant. Perhaps this reflects the way that grown-ups view the thoroughfare in utilitarian terms, a way of moving from point A to B. The project encourages a slower pace in order to consider the lives lived among those points.

Placemaking is a term that has been popping up in the vernacular of art-speak lately, and this project is one that is inseparable from its physical place. The cultural background of the neighborhood is a mix of Latino, Asian, African, Native American, European and American influences, woven together. The highlighting of personalities and personal stories is a move toward mindfulness that applies not only to Mitchell Street but to any locale. The practice of living and looking is a complex one, and while most stories of the people and places around us will never be fully known, the project is a gesture one that broadens awareness of the layers of lives so close to our own.

On the Street

Listening to Mitchell is installed in various places on Mitchell Street between Fifth and 12th streets. It will be part of Doors Open Milwaukee on Sept. 21. Sonja Thomsen will lead a one-hour tour that day beginning at 4 p.m. The tour will begin at the Modjeska Theater and tickets are required. For more, go to listeningtomitchell.wordpress.com.

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