Milwaukee is an easy drive from Chicago. The rental car arrives on time and I’m parking outside the Calatrava-designed alien bird-insect edifice of their art museum a couple hours later.
The week leading up to this trip was full of painting pets so a change of scenery’s a good palate cleanser. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy staring at snapshots of Bobby, Margie, and Simon as much as the next guy. It’s obvious their humans love them even in the shittiest cellphone pic. I don’t take the job of translating that love into paint for granted. But once that work is done it’s good to have something that changes the subject, clears the deck.
On a break from my commission work I go to the Art Institute and spend time with one my favorite paintings. In it, a large fish lies on a tabletop in front of a dark copper pot along with some oysters, an eel, a strange little red fish, a lemon, and a knife. All wait to be thrown in the pot for dinner. I can’t say why I love it so much. I don’t even eat seafood. But I’ve sketched it a half dozen times since first seeing it shortly after my arrival in Chicago in 1990. It’s become an old friend.
Another night after a day of dogs and cats I’m invited to draw at Wendy’s dance studio. I’ve known her as long as Manet’s still-life. That doesn’t sound right but I don’t mean it in a bad way. She reminds the audience of our long association on a break between numbers so that’s why it stuck in my head.
Drawing music and dance and listeners/watchers is a kind of communion. Not exactly like the pet portraits but not wholly unlike it either.
I’ve been to Milwaukee’s art museum before. It’s a lot more manageable than the Art Institute. There’s a pressure with admission prices as high as they are to see every single display but all that leads to is sensory overload. That’s why it’s nice to visit a small museum. My plan is to spend most of my time at the Ashcan School exhibit but I wind up strolling through most of the building. I sit and sketch a Utrillo a few minutes then buy a postcard in the gift shop and get back behind the wheel of my rental.
The real purpose of this trip is a bookstore event in the Bayview neighborhood. I drop off my box of books at the shop and go down the street looking for food. On the walk back I stop in a record store where I’d driven Bill for a gig a few years back. In Milwaukee people are still wearing masks inside some of the businesses unlike most in Chicago so the owner doesn’t recognize me. There’s a good chance he wouldn’t have even maskless and I don’t feel like reintroducing myself. I manage to leave without buying a record.
No one shows up for the reading but I spend a pleasant hour chatting with the owners. Turns out we have friends in common. They’re apologetic, cursing Milwaukee for being so out of it, but I assure them that my expectations for public events couldn’t be lower. It’s always a crapshoot and I’m grateful when anyone shows up at all. They end up buying most of the books I brought anyway so the visit is a runaway success despite no one coming.
Art openings and book readings have never been anything I look forward to. Unlike a concert, they are an afterthought, a commercial add-on, rather than the main event. That happens on the page and the canvas, away from any audience.
I wipe away any trace of disappointment on the drive home. There’s junk food to eat and a podcast to listen to—something about the history of clothes—and a dark road that helps clear my head. Maybe tomorrow there’ll be another dog or cat to immortalize and the cycle can start all over again.