Thursday, July 23, 2015

Why Not Be In On It?

Over the past year or so, my good friend Elisabeth and her partner Neil (you've met them before on this blog) developed a fascination with an artist that they discovered hidden in the vaults of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Her name was Lucia Stern, and no one had really heard of her. Elisabeth and Neil wanted to figure out why. Their research culminated in a beautiful show at Usable Space gallery in Bay View this past Friday, July 17. They were able to borrow several pieces of Stern's from the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Haggerty Museum of Art, and several other sources. Before this show, many of us had only seen photographs of Stern's work that Elisabeth and Neil had shown us. The photographs don't really do her work any justice. You have to see the raw talent in person to believe it.

Leading up to this show, Elisabeth and I talked a lot about all the ideas that were running through her head about this amazing woman. Elisabeth had said that she wanted to write a piece about Lucia, and wasn't sure where or how it would be presented just yet. I offered my blog as a starting point. A few weeks later, Elisabeth presented me with this amazing piece which I am honored to share on my blog. And so, without further ado, I invite you to BE IN ON IT. Read on, be inspired, take the time to learn something about the coolest Milwaukee artist you didn't even know existed. 

WHY NOT BE IN ON IT? An exhibition and happening at Usable Space, July 17, 2015.

We introduce to you: Lucia Stern. Artist. Designer. Writer. Performer. Lecturer. Poet. Innovator. Modernist. Stern was born in 1895, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she resided all her life until her death in 1987. The story of Lucia Stern contains many tantalizing contradictions, with varied proportions of promise and sabotage. Some of the opposing characteristics of her career:

Midwestern. Middle-aged. Female. Untrained.  Internationally-exhibited artist.
Milwaukeen, for life.

In her personality, Lucia Stern was also a fascinating study in contrasts:

Stern was shy. Assertive. Polite. Independent. Educated. Eccentric. Introverted. Friendly. Sensual. Upper-middle class. Thrifty. Bohemian. Whimsical. Brazen. Proper.

About eight months ago, my partner Neil and I became aware of Lucia Stern when he stumbled upon one of her paintings, deep in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum. As a prep guy at the Museum, Neil sees and handles great artwork every day, and on this day he was tasked to move this particular work.  Lucia Stern’s piece called “Pointed” struck him. A non-representational, geometric painting: it felt immediate and timeless; like something he would wish to create himself. In inquiring about Lucia, Neil learned that the Museum had a large collection of Stern’s works: what amounted to a large checklist of paintings, collages and one sculpture. Prying just a bit deeper into catalogs and asking around to Museum colleagues, Neil learned of Stern’s many exhibitions, performances and lectures at the Art Museum when it was the Milwaukee Art Center.

The work represented in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection was the tip of an iceberg of information available publicly about Lucia Stern, in archives of many local institutions including the Haggerty Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Public Library, UWM’s Golda Meir Library, and the Milwaukee County Courthouse.

As Neil searched through documents at all these archives, he saw records that amounted to a vast production for this artist, including not only sculpture, painting and stitchery, but also performance art, kinetic sculpture, modular toys, poetry, stuffed sculpture, fabric pendants for outdoor installation, and much more. In the archives at the MAM, and MPL, UWM, and the Haggerty, Lucia Stern was well-documented, as a stridently confident abstract artist working in a time, manner and setting that seemed hard to believe.

So, who was this woman who signed her name by stitching “Lucia” into the corners of her paintings? How was she making this modern, forward-striving work, in the middle of the 20th century, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin? And how could it be that her work was generously documented and preserved in collections, and yet her legacy as an artist is completely obscure to contemporary authors and journalists?

To learn, untangle and discuss facts about Lucia has been an almost daily practice of ours for the last eight months, which feels like only a start. Neil and I have been encouraged by Lucia’s advice to young artists. As she stated in her interview with an art history staff person in 1977, “If a young artist can just work two or three hours a day at his artwork, he can do a great deal…  It can’t be only a weekend thing….to remain IN IT.”  

Admittedly, this mission of discovery about Lucia Stern is not an academic pursuit, but more of an art project for us as artists, cultural enthusiasts for the city we live in, and people.

With great cooperation and assistance from a number of supportive individuals, we have woven the pursuit of knowledge about Lucia into our every day lives. Through this exploration, we have been inspired, enlivened, challenged, and bowled over by the radiant reality of what Lucia Stern accomplished. We have deepened what was at the outset, an excited empathy that we both felt for Lucia and her work. We have greatly enjoyed being in conversation with her for these eight months or so.

To create a lively picture of this figure, we’ve consulted conversations, firsthand accounts from everyone including family members of Lucia Stern, to persons connected to the current, non-familial holder of Lucia’s estate, located in California. Together, we have visited with the current owner of Stern’s home on Shephard Ave who purchased it in 1987. We’ve reviewed dozens of newspaper articles, records of exhibitions, personal and business letters, personal photographs, exhibition catalogs, several versions of a will, recordings and film of interviews, and have poured over Lucia’s chapbook publications. Together, we selected each of the works on view in this exhibition.

What we have found is a record of a marvelously productive, stylish, inventive, free, exuberant person and community figure; a largely unsung, brilliant artist who woke up every day motivated by the impulse to create work that would satisfy her curiosities and her drive to make. Lucia was always prepared to unguardedly express her deep and even spiritual connection to her material practice, which to her, was a “temple.” However her creative impulse was manifest at a given moment, whether through developing wood sculpture, or sketches and dreams of set and costume design, Stern produced as though she had no limitations, in a world and time when she had many. 

In the late 1930’s, when Stern was well into her 40’s, she took up her childhood hobbies of drawing and stitchery, and found herself in a consuming and unrelenting art practice. This pursuit would occupy her full time for the rest of her life, and turn her home on Milwaukee’s Northeast side into a culch-filled, overflowing studio, in which every surface was considered working space including the closets, and thrust her into the international art world for a window of time.

We don’t know much about Stern’s life before her discovery, except that it involved international travel, the study of music, and her courtship and marriage to Erich Stern, who was sixteen years her senior. When Lucia Stern was discovered, her work defied gender biases, and made a powerful impression on critics, Modernist art contemporaries, and curators. But most artists living and working in Milwaukee today have never read about Lucia Stern, or had the chance to come across her work until WHY NOT BE IN ON IT. Neil and I decided to present an exhibition of her work to build a bridge between Lucia Stern and the artists living and working in Milwaukee’s present times.

With the benefit of time passing, we understand now that creative women were at an extraordinary disadvantage in Lucia Stern’s day. She lived in a time and place where, in her words “the woman artist was a lesser person,” and higher education for woman was considered uncouth, if at all accessible. Stern herself struggled to articulate and to interact with the constraints of the sexism she encountered, how it impacted her and shaped her potential, career and personal life. Stern’s identity flexed at times from empowered, self-assured and wide-eyed, to childish and a rote representation of the gendered roles of the time. Sometimes Lucia Stern was deferring of her own authority as an artist.  Stern would often refer to herself as a “designer,” instead of an artist, in artist statements and interviews. She was unaccustomed to having the right to arrange her own works in the galleries she exhibited in, even in her seventies. Late in life, when Lucia Stern’s key supporters had passed away, including her adoring husband, Stern settled into the echelon of eccentricity often attributed to mysterious and industrious female artists, widows, or single adult women, following her own instincts and living wildly.

The downside of time passing is that it has stunted our ability to present or to recreate some of Lucia’s most pressingly contemporary or experimental works. Works that did not get much attention in her lifetime, works that were largely ignored, and works that we believe truly reveal her as a super-contemporary and important producer. We also know that the art movement that she is most associated with, Non-Objective painting, generated considerable interest internationally and in other cities in the U.S., but was often treated with distaste here in Milwaukee.

There’s still so much we don’t know about Lucia’s life. Though it feels right to appreciate that she was ahead of her time, and articulate that she belongs in a canon of modernist artists that she has yet to enter, that’s not the whole story. Even in the most respectful and well-intentioned accounts of Stern’s career, we don’t get visions into her stranger works. Stern made performances throughout her career, some complete with sets, music, and costuming; she wrote poetry and made light projections to accompany readings. She created modular sculptures intended for touch and play- “children’s toys,” she called them. She created kites, and fabric sculptures and pendants for installations in outdoor spaces. Lucia Stern was unafraid to  “go there,” and experiment with what art could be. Her boldness was ferocious. Beyond the relative success of the stitchery paintings she created that showed in renowned galleries worldwide (several of which you can see tonight), it was Stern’s unique willingness to create without restrictions on what “art should be,” that made her a truly significant artist, worthy of our contemplation today; after all, it’s work that makes you ask questions that is the most worth consideration.

At Usable Space, for one night only, we presented a range of Lucia Stern’s works from different moments in her career, indicating only a small sample of the diversity of material with which she engaged in her practice. We invited viewers to spend time with painting collage, stitchery, drawing and sculpture work, and with photos of her. Attendees could listen in the courtyard to an audio recording of a UWM professor’s interview with Lucia when Lucia was 82 years old, and also watch an episode of public access television show, Milwaukee Milwaukee, which features Stern and examples of both her popular and rare works. We also introduced a kind of art “happening,” in order to re-animate some of Lucia Stern’s creative writings: a reading that kicked off with a performance of poems by Lucia Stern, performed by Andy Positive, followed by a reading of Stern’s chapbook “Criteria For Modern Art,” by Milwaukee artists Sara Caron, Shane Walsh, Alec Regan, Nicholas Frank, Demitra Copoulos, Ben Balcom, Rachele Krivichi, Ashley Morgan, Peter Barrickman, Nate Pyper and Paul Druecke.

Reader Andy Positive reads an excerpt from "Criteria for Modern Art"

From her writings, we can still feel the exuberance and energy of this amazing Milwaukee artist and thinker. Lucia Stern was a brilliant, positive person who saw potential everywhere. She described her art practice as being “trapped in something she loved to do.” In her time, in this city, Stern stood out as a female artist, committed to deciphering and sharing her artistic visions and her opinions broadly. She vocalized what she saw in the art world, and encouraged the “student” in all people through everything from every day conversation, to the lectures she gave at the Milwaukee Art Center. At a time when women were expected to shrink, to fill the spaces around their husbands and families, Lucia’s positivity and style, and the boldness of her experiments were a beacon to art world figures in her time, and fortunately, for artists today.

Only a precious number of Lucia Stern works remain in the State of Wisconsin, and exist mostly in the collections of the Museums with whom she had relationships as student, patron and volunteer educator and lecturer, including the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Haggerty Museum of Art, and several private first and second generation local collections. Many hundreds of Stern’s other works were held once together in her family’s estate, which changed hands after her death under confusing circumstances, was abandoned in a storage facility, and eventually auctioned off. Now these works are being sold outside the art market.

By presenting some of what we could gather of Lucia’s work to a young (born in the latter half of the 20th century counts as “young” in this case) art community, we hope to spark awareness and curiosity about her. We hope that this curiosity will be generative to artists living and working now. Perhaps by extension, Lucia Stern will find her place as a Milwaukee art icon.

It is worth consideration and acknowledgement that the same limiting factors that
have kept Lucia Stern’s practice relatively unremembered, may also have been key factors in stoking the flame of greatness within her. Stern could work full time as an artist because she was not expected to be employed. Stern worked in isolation, because women were thought of as “lesser” artists, and the Midwest was not interested, and by her account, was actually quite discouraging of Non-Objective, or Non-Representational art. Her thoughts and visions came from her own instinct and self-guided study of art history, not from one school or art curriculum. Stern began showing her work in her middle age, a time when women were and are, subjected to a sort of dehumanization, marginalization and aesthetic scrutiny. It is partly because of the sexism and ageism that isolated her that Lucia Stern was able to follow through with executing her own visions without interruption. In public, she was unphased, and even amused by any lack of validation she received, and yet of course Lucia Stern deeply believed in her own power, and desired respect in the art world. And for a period of time, she got a lot of it. 

In 1959, Stern’s work was featured in the first one-man show at what would become the Milwaukee Art Museum. Lucia Stern’s work was exhibited almost continuously for eight years starting in 1944 at the Museum of Non-Objective Art (Solomon Guggenheim Museum). Stern exhibited with artist Paul Fontaine in Frankfort Germany, at the Kunstkabinet art gallery. At times, she rubbed shoulders Modernist greats including Calder, and she and her husband held close personal friendships with Josef and Anni Albers.

How did Lucia Stern explode from her private Milwaukee art practice? Lucia Stern was a very artistic child, and cited her encouraging primary school art teachers, including Miss Martha Kaross, as a huge creative influence on the rest of her life. Lucia went on to study music as a young woman at Marquette, The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, and for a time, in England. Having not quite excelled at classical piano performance, Stern turned her attention to dramatics, writing and a self-guided study of art history and philosophy. Lucia met her future husband, attorney Erich Stern, at a Madison Symphony Orchestra performance in Madison, Wisconsin. After eight years of a long distance relationship, kindled through beautifully affectionate letters, they were married, and settled in Milwaukee.

In addition to being a ‘brilliant lawyer,” Erich Stern was an artistic man in his own rite, and a huge supporter of Lucia’s creative pursuits. Outside of his law practice, he conducted research on the Navajo tribe in the southwest of the U.S., documenting and collecting recordings and accounts of their medicine man’s ceremonial chants for the Smithsonian Institute, and collecting their craft objects.

In their life together, Lucia Stern fed her love of art by volunteering at the Milwaukee Art Center. There, she found herself saturated with inspiration and source material, both from the developing collection of the Milwaukee Art Center, and her own daily readings about art. Her study and exposure to art paved the way for Lucia to begin to follow her own artistic impulses.

Lucia never planned or expected to widely exhibit her works.  Instead, she seemed to produce for the pleasure and spiritual fulfillment she experienced; she was
“moved to work most of the time,” synthesizing ideas by manipulating materials and pouring her thoughts out in to writing, experimenting with executing her own visions. Stern’s work was noticed by someone with influence finally in 1942.

Erich Stern was completing a translation project for Dr. William Valentino, the Director of the Detroit Art Institute. Dr. Valentino paid a visit Milwaukee, and stopped by the Stern’s North Shephard Avenue home. According to Lucia, he stumbled upon an etching cabinet full of her drawings and stitcheries. Immediately, Dr. Valentino invited Lucia to have a “one-man show” at the Detroit Art Institute, which she would do three years later, in 1945.

Not only was Stern’s work impactful to Dr. Valentino, and other Museum directors of her time, but so too to other artists, writers and thinkers. Chief among them was the Bauhaus’s Maholy-Nagy, who was also a huge influence on Lucia, as a writer, thinker and artist, but who actually sought her out. When Maholy-Nagy met her, he told Lucia, “You have done many things that we did at the Bauhaus, but some things you did earlier than us.”

When asked be her interviewer from the Art History department at UWM, if she was ever satisfied with her work, Lucia responded “…it wasn’t a finished end, in any case.”

Having spent considerable time over the last eight months looking in to what Stern did create in her life, it is powerful to imagine where else her practice might have taken her, had she had a second life.

Neil and I cannot at this time hope to tie up all the ends we have discovered in researching Lucia Stern’s life and work. With the small exhibition, we were seeking to represent to Milwaukee a fragment of what this art community has been missing: visibility and recognition for a truly talented and remarkable female Milwaukee artist who deserves to be exploded from the obscurity that sexism, Midwestern rejection of non-representational artwork, and time have weighed upon her.

In the spirit of Lucia Stern’s sense of the infinite possibilities of “art-making” and “art-breaking” inherent to artists, we ask you to converse with remnants of her. Why not be in on it? See what it stirs.


We are incredibly grateful for the cooperation and assistance of many individuals and institutions that have enabled and supported our research. Specifically, we are thankful to Heather Winter, Jim DeYoung, Ted Brusubardis and Barbara Brown Lee of the Milwaukee Art Museum; Aryn Kresol, Lynne Schumow and Lee Copper at the Haggerty Museum of Art. We are also thankful to Gail Ecklund and Mary Milinkovich of the Milwaukee Public Library, and Abigail Nye from UWM.

We are also grateful for the graciousness of Lucia’s niece’s daughter Nancy, John Nozynski from UWM, Jan, Timothy Cobb, Marilyn and Orren Bradley, Dean Jensen, Graeme Reid, and Josueine.

To our friends: thank you for encouraging our investigations and affection affair with this incredible person! Knowing each of you, and knowing what we know of Lucia, we suspect that she would be beaming to know that you took interest in her, and that she would probably light up at the chance to know you, too. We are grateful, too, to Keith Nelson for the chance to share our great admiration of Lucia Stern with artists here in her home, Milwaukee.

-Elisabeth Albeck

July 17, 2015
Usable Space
Milwaukee, WI

Excerpt from “Criteria for Modern Art” by Lucia Stern, 1971
Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum, Institutional Archives

Sculpture prototype, fabricated for Lucia Stern by Jim DeYoung, ca. 1975, Wood
Collection of Elisabeth Albeck and Neil Gasparka

Untitled, ca. 1965, Tempera on board and tempera on glass
Haggerty Museum of Art collection, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI

Silver Light No. 7, 1960-1970, Lucite
Collection of Marilyn and Orren Bradley

[Detail of] Remote, n.d.
Tempera with overlays, stichery
Courtesy of Timothy Cobb Fine Arts

Light Refractor #4, ca. Dec 1964
Plastic and paper on natural wood base
Milwaukee Art Museum collection
Gift of the artist

Lucia Stern's home studio
Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum, Institutional Archives 

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