Public art project enriches Milwaukee’s inner-city landscape

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

It’s only 10 a.m. on a chilly Saturday morning in early November, but about 50 mostly 20-somethings are gathered in the basement of Shiloh Tabernacle in northwest Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood. Just hours earlier they were clubbing the night away, but now, joined by a handful of older hipsters, they’re organizing a media tour of a project they hope will help to change perceptions about neighborhoods tainted with the label of “urban blight.”

The project, titled Typeface Milwaukee, was orchestrated by ArtMilwaukee. A loosely organized group of mostly millennial public art advocates and civic boosters, they’re working on bringing a 21st-century vibe to the city’s cultural scene. ArtMilwaukee’s goal for Typeface is both micro and macro — to engender local pride and engage neighborhoods through public art, and also to further Milwaukee’s growing profile as a hub of artistic activity.

ArtMilwaukee has attracted financial support from a who’s-who list of prestigious regional foundations, including Helen Bader Foundation, Wisconsin Arts Board, Zilber Family Foundation and Greater Milwaukee Foundation. The Joyce Foundation of Chicago awarded Typeface a $50,000 grant.

Typeface Milwaukee involves installations in each of four neighborhoods — Harambee, Burnham Park, Sherman Park and Lindsey Heights. Artist Reginald Baylor transformed abandoned or underutilized sites in those neighborhoods with art installations that grew out of conversations (400 in total) that storyteller Adam Carr had with local residents about their experiences living in the areas. 

Baylor, whose brightly colored pop art paintings have drawn comparisons with the energetic humanity of gay artist Keith Haring’s work, hatched the idea for Typeface while driving past what was once the Finney Library on North Avenue and Sherman Boulevard, not far from his current home. Like others who grew up in the area, Baylor remembers the space as one of gathering and learning, not the shuttered detritus of urban decline that it’s been for the past decade.

Baylor took a closer look at the boards covering the windows and felt a sudden inspiration to bring the words of community members back to the space and to other abandoned places with a rich history.

The first phase of Typeface involved a series of community conversations facilitated by Carr. He discovered that despite to the boarded-up windows in the neighborhoods, each was a trove of history and thriving with positive activities.

Carr described playing soccer in one of the neighborhood’s parks while a band from Mexico played across the street and shoppers drifted in and out of a nearby Asian gift store. He recalled an urban garden near a bus stop that was outfitted with scissors so people could snag fresh vegetables off the vine while waiting for transportation. He was surprised to find a block of houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and saw youth volunteers from area churches raking leaves off the lawns of abandoned homes.

“There is just so much going on,” he said. 

The project was constructed to grow out of each neighborhood’s uniqueness as experienced by the people who live there. Rather than Carr’s perceptions, the residents’ words drove the final concept that Baylor chose for each installation. While each involves some creative use of words in its design, as the title Typeface suggests, each is as different as the location it inhabits.

Baylor told the people gathered at Shiloh Tabernacle that the sense of responsibility he felt working on Typeface made it “the most stressful thing I’ve ever done.” But he kept up his enthusiasm by thinking of the positive impact that the presence of public art in the neighborhood would have had on him as a kid, he said.

“I spend most of my time making artwork for myself — for the marketplace,” Baylor said. “This was unique. In this one all of the financials came in advance. I created artwork that had a purpose in advance, and created it by taking content from the community.”

In addition to the backing of major foundations, the project has also been endorsed by public officials, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “Public art, particularly public art that expresses sentiments of neighbors, adds vitality and unity in the area where it is displayed,” Barrett said in a press statement. “A project like TypeFace does something more; it engages people in a common endeavor that builds community strength.”

On view ’Typeface’ installations include:

“Puzzled & Amazed,” a maze described as “a platform for history, memory, and questions from and for the community.”
Location: Five Points, 3418 N. Martin Luther King Drive.

“An Arrangement,” a bouquet of flowers “as colorful as the neighborhood’s cast of characters.”
Location: Burnham Park, at the vacant 31st Street Corner Store, 3028 W. Burnham St.

“Bookshed,” a bookshelf stocked with real conversations.
Location: Lindsay Heights, Franklin Square/Teutonia Gardens, 1420 W. Center St.

A mural of snippets of stories from community youth, adults and elders.
Location: Sherman/Washington Park, the old Finney Library, 4243 W. North Ave.