Wednesday, March 18, 2009

April Artist: Colorful World

For many of us, the natural world refreshes, comforts, inspires and excites. Joel Wish finds all this and more in the out of doors, and uses nature as a springboard for vibrant impressionistic pastel works.

The Waunakee artist and psychologist—whose work is showcased March 27 through May 10 at Artisan Gallery in Paoli—took a moment to share insights into his inspirations and process.

How did you become an artist?

I have done art since I was a kid. From when I was just in elementary school my mom took me way across town to the Corcoran museum for art lessons. My parents were very supportive of my having private art lessons on and off through my elementary, junior and high school years. In college, I tried to double major but I was told it would have to be either art or psychology. I obviously went with the safe choice.

I am a psychologist in a hospital (UWHC), working primarily with kids. Working with medically ill people makes you appreciate the fragility of things. In short, it makes me grateful for what I have. The tough parts of working with medically ill people get absorbed in me somewhere deep below the surface and doing art just helps bring what’s stored in there out into the light with new meaning/perspective and appreciation—kind of like a cleansing.

How would you describe the style of your art?

My art is one percent knowing what I’m doing and ninety-nine percent struggling to create something that feels/looks right. For me, creative “flow” is the constant push/pull of trying to make something that looks or feels okay despite not knowing how I’m going to get there.

Why do you focus on the natural world?

I find drawing from nature easier than drawing the human figure. The incredible variety of color and form in nature allows one to be very creative while still “landing” a product that is “believable.” Whenever I try to capture a human image, I find I’m locked into getting the details “right.” There’s a narrower window in capturing what’s believable and acceptable in the human form. Getting details right for me is what I try to do at work but not for relaxation!

How did you come to your incredible use of color? And did your chosen medium play a role in this?

I work a lot of hours and I need a medium that is forgiving and quick—little setup time, able to come and go into it with ease, etc. Pastels are perfect, kind of like crayons are for kids. Just like kids can pull crayons out and whip up a painting almost anywhere, pastels allow me to walk into my studio, “paint” for five minutes or five hours and then go back to working at my desk. It’s a back-and-forth volley between work and art. As for the color, pastels are an easy medium for colorists; I really enjoy maximizing the color by making use of different colored surfaces. What lies under the surface of the painting often creates the vibrancy of the painting itself. There’s nothing like painting on dark surfaces to maximize the intense colors inherent in pastels.

What inspires you?

Nature—its forms, colors, contrasts. I love finding these things in the everyday world. Sometimes they’re right there in front of us, but so often overlooked.

What are the greatest challenges in making your art?

What to do with all the paintings I create! I must have about two hundred pieces lying around the house. I’m sure my wife would say the greatest challenge is finding a place to sit in our living room. The house is overrun with paintings. I believe in a few years I’ll probably paint only postcard-size artwork because I simply will have run out of space! I guess the other challenge is working in the very fragile medium of pastel. It creates dust, which is neither good for the lungs nor for trying to have it stay put on painted surface. The dust has some inherent need or tendency to shift. One of the greatest absurdities in my art life is taking a pastel painting and trying to surround it with a white matboard. Life seems awfully short to be grappling with keeping the matboard pure. I wish I could have fallen in love with some more stable art form!

When do you consider a work successful and how do you define that?

What I’ve created has to stand up against the internal critic and it has to stand up against that critic over time. Sometimes the internal critic doesn’t arrive on the scene until days, weeks or months after I thought the painting was complete. I might feel great about something I’ve painted one day, only to wake up the next morning or even weeks later and discover the piece isn’t okay. Maybe only fifty percent of the time does something feel successful from day one to the next day and over time.

What do you hope to share with viewers through your art?

Good question. I guess, however, I have chosen to depict nature, and if viewers can appreciate that through their own eyes, then we’ve made a connection that goes beyond words. Sharing that connection with others is what art is all about for me.

Images are by Joel Wish and courtesy of Artisan Gallery.

IN THE MAGAZINE: The April issue of Madison Magazine comes out tomorrow. Here’s some of the arts content you’ll find within the pages:
• An interview with acclaimed filmmaker Mary Sweeney, plus information on the upcoming Wisconsin Film Festival.
• A poem by Michael A. Walker.
• Our monthly Overtones section with picks on the can’t-miss performances, concerts and exhibits taking place in April.
• An extensive look at the expansion of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Unitarian Meeting House.
• A look at a special ceramics exhibition at the Dane County Airport in Neil Heinen and Nancy Christy’s Genuine Articles column.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Show of Support

If last night was any indication, the slumping economy has done nothing to diminish Madison’s hunger and appreciation for art.

Yesterday evening, the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission unveiled its 2009 Art Poster at Promega’s beautiful and art-filled building in Fitchburg.

The event was an incredible and energetic round-up of members of Madison’s visual arts scene—including many artists featured on this blog—such as painter Georgene Pomplun, Pat Dillon of Bungalow 1227, and staffers from MMoCA and 77 Square.

But the toast of the night was Lee Weiss, the Madison artist who created the watercolor that’s become the thirty-first art poster. Titled September Flora, the image of purple and white flowers in a verdant meadow was inspired by Hoyt Park, which is close to the artist’s house.

Before the poster was revealed, County Executive Kathleen Falk seemed to sum up the mood of the crowd. She thanked Weiss and other artists for providing a means for the community to get lost in art and forget for just a few minutes about current economic troubles. While arts and culture are always important, in times like these they become crucial, she said.

The art posters are available by free-will donation at the Cultural Affairs Commission Office, room 421 of the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Other distribution sites include the city and village halls of Belleville, Brooklyn, Cambridge, Cross Plains, DeForest, Maple Bluff, Marshall, Mazomanie, McFarland, Middleton, Monona, Mount Horeb, Oregon, Shorewood Hills, Stoughton, Sun Prairie, Verona and Waunakee, plus the town halls of Blooming Grove, Dunn, Middleton, Montrose, Oregon, Springfield, Sun Prairie, Verona and Westport. For more information, visit

Image courtesy of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Maid in Madison

While the action of Mozart’s comedic Cosi fan Tutte centers on two couples determined to prove their love and faithfulness, the real force of the opera is found in Despina, the scheming maid.

Taking on this complex role in Madison Opera’s production of Cosi fan Tutte—running March 13 and 15 at Overture Center—is Mary Elizabeth Mackenzie. The Madison native who’s now living and working in New York City, recently took some time out to discuss her upcoming role and trip home.

I understand you’re living in New York. What have you been up to there?

I’ve lived in New York for four years now. I came to the city to do my master of music degree at the Manhattan School of Music. Now I’m a freelance musician and I perform quite frequently in New York, but also in Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago. I’m very active in contemporary music, and typically have several concerts on my plate at any given time. Composers seem to know how to keep me busy!

How did growing up in Madison prepare you for a career in music?

Growing up in Madison was such a blessing! My mother, Nancy Mackenzie, plays clarinet in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, plus her chamber group, the Oakwood Chamber Players. So I grew up going to all of the concerts, operas, ballets …

I was actually a violinist long before I was a singer, and I have many fond memories of Saturday mornings with WYSO [Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra]. I also used to do children’s operas with Madison Opera, so they were my introduction to the whole opera process. I’m very proud of Madison’s musical community; the city is so lucky to have so many high quality musical groups, not to mention a gorgeous performing arts center!

How did you come to be a part of Madison Opera’s production of Cosi fan Tutte?

Like most things in the musical world, I was in the right place at the right time. Allan Naplan, the general director of Madison Opera, contacted me in December to find out what I was up to, and explained that they were looking for a Despina for their production of Cosi. I was going to be back in Madison for the holidays, so we set up an audition so that he and John DeMain could hear me. I came and did the audition … and the rest is history.

What attracted you to the role of Despina? What are the opportunities and challenges inherent in the role?

Despina is a character that I have really come to love in the past couple of years. I studied her a little bit in college, but at the time, I didn’t have a lot of “life experience” that I could draw from to really understand her. Despina has definitely been with her share of men but doesn’t take relationships too seriously because she knows from experience that both men and women can be fickle. Being a single lady in New York City, I have experienced this firsthand! Playing Despina gives me the opportunity to focus on certain aspects of my own personality and morph them into something else entirely. My biggest challenge with Despina will probably be her extreme comedic moments, which I won’t reveal for your readers. You’ll just have to come see the show!

In the battle of the sexes in Cosi fan Tutte, Despina seems to be the only one who transcends sides. How are you approaching this character?

I think Despina is the only character in the opera who doesn’t have anything to prove. The two couples are trying to prove their love, or rather their faithfulness, to each other. Don Alfonso is trying to prove that women are unfaithful and Despina is along for the ride. She knows that both Fiordiligi and Dorabella and Ferrando and Guglielmo could easily fall for another person if given the right opportunity. She believes they are all too young to be thinking about settling down, and knows that if they were to open their eyes to other people, they might find that the grass is greener on the other side.

What are your goals for this production?

As with all my performances, my goal is to have fun and take the audience on a journey. It’s also another opportunity for me to grow as a performer and work with new people and meet new friends and colleagues.

Besides performing with Madison Opera, what else are you looking forward to doing while you’re in Madison?

My parents, sister and grandparents still live in Madison, so it’s going to be a real treat to get to be with them for three weeks! I’m sure I’ll be pretty booked with rehearsals, but I hope to be able to visit some of my favorite restaurants or go see a movie with my sister.

What’s next for you?

Back to New York! I’m doing a concert with the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble at the end of March, singing a very interesting piece by Jean Barraqué (a serialist composer, contemporary of Boulez and Stockhausen) for soprano, piano and six percussionists. I’m also working on a late song cycle by Fauré, Chanson d'Ève, with a wonderful pianist from Juilliard. And in April I’ll be appearing in a concert of selections from American opera with Harbor Opera, a small company in New York.

Madison Opera’s production of Cosi fan Tutte runs March 13 and 15 at Overture Center. For tickets or more information, visit

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Visual Indulgence

To weather the slumping economy, a lot of us are scaling back and relying on the basics to get by. So it’s especially delightful that the Chazen Museum of Art offers a chance to indulge the senses—for free—in its two latest exhibitions.

Writing with Thread: Traditional Textiles of Southwest Chinese Minorities and Mannerism in Italy and the Low Countries, running through April 12 and 26 respectively, are visual odes to embellishment, flourish and the little “extras” that elevate a work into something different and special.

Writing with Thread showcases costumes, clothing and jewelry from fifteen ethnic groups and almost one hundred subgroups of southwest China. Five hundred vibrantly hued woven and embroidered textiles range from festival garments to shirts, skirts, aprons and vests to bed covers and baby carriers. Colorful and intricate detailing in the pieces include stripes, geometric shapes, dragons, human figures, birds, flowers and many other forms. According to the museum, clothing helps groups signify their identities and record their histories, myths and legends.

Also on display are jewelry and metalwork, as well as a loom, braiding stool and spinning wheel, which offer a glimpse into how the ornate textiles are made.

In the Mannerism in Italy and the Low Countries exhibit, in place of flourish and ornamentation, black and white engravings reveal humans with rippling muscles, contorted visages and twisted torsos.

Drawn primarily from the museum’s permanent collection, the works on paper illustrate how the Mannerists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Italy and the Netherlands departed from earlier artists’ classical ideals of beauty, proportion and symmetry. Instead of trying to depict nature as realistically as possible, they created a more expressive style that’s a visual treat for the eyes.

The Chazen is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 263.2068 or visit

Images are courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art.