18 May



May 16, 2010



Highway 12 winds from Chicago to Madison and through a hundred places between. Most of them similar, repetitive, as though the colored segments on a ringed snake. A river parallels their American main streets, the highway ferrying its passengers through at 20–30 mph. Jewelry stores and restaurants. Some newer additions: yoga studios above natural food stores. Realtor signs in the yards, For Rents in the windows.

Then it’s gone and behind you, the next town already looming on the horizon—if not for the gentle curves that wind you around knolls and up steeper hills and hide both horizon and town until you’re upon them.

The road widens closer to Madison, four lanes and a view across flood plains. Two large lakes sandwich the city of 200,000, and as you exit Hwy 12 and are whisked into the city, it seems like a microscopic version of Chicago: the narrow downtown towers over a vast expanse of wind-whipped water, the hotels, conventions centers, and industrial buildings abutting Lake Monona, just as Chicago’s do Lake Michigan.

It resembles the Windy City in another way: the collections of local art amassed in its museums, galleries, cafés, and clubs are—perhaps astonishingly—as provocative as anything showcased at the Art Institute or even the DIY studios of the city to its southeast.


It began in an Espresso Royale, an old chain my boss back in Kansas used to work for. We’d arrived the night before, in wind and rain, like pilgrims to an unknown but magnetic Mecca, and this morning, we weren’t looking for art. Just two, hungry tumbleweeds, at the mercy of a porcelain wind. We were in the café for almost half an hour before I noticed the art on the walls.

Portraits. In ink and watercolor. Subjects were old, overweight men—craggy noses over thin lips, eyes drooping, as if grudgingly maintaining their circus-like poses.

Art, especially photography, has always celebrated the abnormal, the less-than-perfect—but these men were near grotesque. Their bodies were quick, bald lines, devoid of color. But their faces…. green, yellow, orange, a little bit of purple: the mash of color where one would expect skin tone made the faces looked bloated, bruised. Only the lively poses animated the seeming corpses.

These discolored faces over empty bodies provided an oddly inhuman but simple juxtaposition; each one subtly mesmerizing, the way real people sometimes are, on the bus, or the train, with sometimes a single, gangrenous feature embedding itself in our memory.

I asked the young, black-haired barista who the artist was. She said, ‘His name is Kyle Schuler; he should have flyers by the door.’ He didn’t, so I can’t be sure his name is spelled exactly like mine—I’ve seen it spelled with two ‘l’s— but regardless, it’s not a common one, so sharing it with this Madison artist, whose work had caught me like a preoccupied bluegill, was one of those coincidences you latch on to. The kind you savor. Even though it is, in fact, fleeting and barely worth noting at all.



The storm blew in from the West. Met us head on as we drove, catching the world in its turbulent balloon like a maelstrom trapped in a snowglobe. Temperatures dropped from 70 to 40, layering a chill over the greening lawns that would last our entire stay in Madison. On Saturday morning, Allison and I stepped out onto an empty State Street, the city’s most vibrant strip—another uncanny parallel to Chicago—made now a ghost town, warm souls banished by the cold.

The State Street causeway leads to the campus, where historic, red-stone buildings rear up like mountains from the plains of the barbershops and pubs. The wind came off the lake just like it does in Chicago: mercilessly. We escaped into the first open building, into a Great Hall with wooden beams and murals fit for an Austrian fortress. Stone staircases led to the second-floor student galleries. We weren’t chasing art, but it seemed to be drawing us to itself.

Her favorite was the chair. A ’60s piece. Lime-green fabric on a dipping, convex back. Captured by a photographer against the white of the wall, stuffed into a corner—a brilliant addition to a series of similarly found chairs stuffed into corners.

Mine was the family of bears. Only one part of the mixed-media tapestry, the bear family; others were faces, scenery, a story. In watercolor and ink, just like Kyle’s bruised, turtle-faced men in the café. Ink drawings, like the bears or the finch, popped out of the shifting collage like memories. As if the artist had devoted a day to remembering the assortment of her life and drawn as things surfaced.

The split-level gallery held only a few dozen pieces, but it was a warm, almost cave-like respite from the gray chill of the sky, a humid heat that when coupled with the inspiration of the art, warmed us from the inside. For a while.



The day passed, as they do. The street filled. Along a central stretch, a tall, broad, white building stretched an entire block in length and depth. Multiple staircases traced their way from tiled lobbies to metal terraces, only a few stories tall, but with a matriarchal posture. A mother watching over her young.

Her doors beckoned; though with the sun long set, we were sure they wouldn’t budge.

But they lifted up and out, unfolded like wings and shut us in to a cavernous space whose light struggled against the imposing dark that came through the windows like a cloud of starlings. A pillar of absence ascended through the building’s center, cutting a hole through each floor before touching the sky. A stairwell, lit with phosphorescent trails running serendipitously along the banister, departed from just in front of us.

We didn’t know why the galleries would be open. Perhaps the building’s love of art was truly that of a mother: unconditional. Our feet led the way, each gallery jutting off the main rotunda like the modular home of an eclectic collector. Stacked on top of one another. Rooms in a tower, the spiral staircase giving way to greater and greater views of a world a moment ago hidden.

Gallery One: Miksang contemplative photography.
A Tibetan word meaning ‘good eye,’ it means more than a vision field split into thirds: ‘a mind uncluttered.’ Without distractions. Based on Shambhala, a tributary of Buddhism. In the hall-like space, these Madison students of Miksang displayed their photos proudly—the visual representation of their uncluttered minds. One in particular caught my eye: an arc of individual machines, black against a field of snow. Bicycles. From an off-kilter aerial view. Chained to a curving bike rack, buried up to the spokes, at 3 and 9 o’clock. The title: ‘Wisconsin Bicycle Visibility Index.’

Here, more than in any other piece, the contemplative, unfiltering eye was apparent. With his lens, and later paper, the photographer did not capture the scene, but rather documented it, as a scientist documents the movements of small cells on a slide. It is my cynicism, and perhaps our collective lack of magic, that causes me to fill in the surrounding context: the photographer is nothing special. Doing nothing special. With no special, spiritual symbolism. No special method. It is a bike rack in the snow. Someone else, with any religion and any camera, could’ve created the same. But a fledgling mystery nudges me toward a realization that is inherently true: someone else didn’t.

Gallery Two: Print Exchange, Theme: ’Home’
Up the stairs, a show, a community. A print exchange is not a metaphor for shared lives; it is a definition of it. The artists in this second hall, who are as present as if they stood next to their respective works, collaborated on the theme, resulting in myriad representations: a girl lying on the floor, her body anchoring a rope, which suspends a house in the air… a heart, whose chambers are lain out like a cross section of a contemporary home, cluttered aortas and family ventricles with televisions and coffee tables… a single, jagged line, cutting horizontally through the canvas, as one might imagine the origin of a canyon—or a canyon from space.

Gallery Three: Quilts, ‘Stitched Ground.’
This collection housed behind glass and watchful eyes: both human and mechanical. Embroidered cloths—perhaps heaven’s, perhaps not—line the first section of the room. But our eyes are drawn to the next artist, a quilter whose patches are like woodchips, tiny scraps of fabric, as if the textile was shredded and stitched back together. She made maps, or representations of maps, or geographical commentaries via representations of maps. Art is like this—it asks questions of questions. The roughly 4’x4’ quilts depicted farmscapes and river valleys, contoured with these chips of fabric, assembled almost like found objects.

Other artists followed: buttons and glittery beads for a show entirely about manholes: in the artist’s mind, the doors to an underground world. Cross-stitched roads followed paths that switched orientation as quickly and effortlessly as television channels. Above ground, or under, or viewing both simultaneously.

In a dark corner, two harrowing pieces. The first: autumnal fields and pastures, a farming community. Giant hole in its middle: a square cut-out. In its place, an alternate but truer reality: same green fields, same contours and textures. Cross-hairs: ‘Practice Bomber Range in the Mississippi Flyway.’

The second: a forest scene; deciduous, coniferous, undergrowth; a man trekking through. Spliced throughout, a grid of streets, incongruous orientations, the dotted yellow lines as though from above; the forest at eye-level: ‘The D.O.T. Straightens Things Out.’



Gee’s Bend, Alabama—a place that no longer exists in the legal register—is nearly 900 miles from Madison. They share little more than the English language. And even that’s a stretch. Today, we know more about more things more than at any other time in history (that we’re aware of). And though this leads to favoring knowledge over wisdom, it does, on occasion, lead to moments of awesome appreciation. Like: when a single piece of art in a northern college town swiftly unravels the knotted history of an isolated village of former slaves.

The quilter in that final room placed her placard near the lower right-hand corner of her piece. ‘Crossing Over,’ it read, a title I’d later learn came from J.R. Moehringer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the small, African American town in central Alabama. The quilt showed a river, that much was clear, its serpentine much like the snake of Highway 12. It dipped into a ‘U’ so deep that as it drew its right side, it nearly made an ‘O,’ almost severing a small pocket of land from the rest of the state.

It is as if Mother Earth was manipulated by History, bending her river under the pressure of its Fear Hounds, afraid to be targeted: it drew its river with a bow of the head. Gee’s Bend is at the bottom of that ‘U,’ across the river from White Camden, with a ferry as its only practical way of accessing things like groceries and doctors. It became a symbol of the Civil Rights movement when, because Benders left their cloister to participate in marches and sit-ins in Montgomery and elsewhere, the people of Camden shut down the ferry, cutting off Gee’s Bend entirely.

The truly odd and awesome part of all this is that quilts are part of what made Gee’s Bend famous. When the town built a new sewing center in 1969, a year after Dr. King was killed, it was paid for by quilting bee revenues. And eventually the townswomen’s quilts would be showcased in New York and the Smithsonian under the title ‘Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt,” and heralded as some of the ‘most miraculous art in America.’

There is silly art, and shitty art, magnificent but inaccessible art, provocatively depressive art, art that tries too hard, and art without any impetus or anchor. But Leah Evans is of a species rare and rarely made known. Her simple quilt connecting two travelers to a time and place in history that without it would have remained utterly unknown, the third-floor gallery acting as one of Eames Demetrios’ Kymaerica installments, transporting us to another plane, splicing our lives into the greater fabric of history.

Art that can do all this—and a thousand things more—in a split second is why art exists and why, no matter what, it will persist as it always has: a single radiant soul bursts through the dense, chugging, industrial churn to show the world what it had forgotten—or what it had never learned in the first place.


Read: ‘Crossing Over’ by J.R. Moehringer.
Research: Arthur Rothstein, photographer.

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