The “Human Touch” an exhibit focusing on people and diversity recently opened at Redline Gallery in Milwaukee. The exhibit, which runs from October 18 through December 23, includes over 40 works from a variety of media—ranging from serious to whimsical. This is definitely my kind of exhibit! The works exhibited are from the corporate collection of over 400 pieces owned by RBC Wealth Management, one of the nation’s largest full-service securities firm headquartered in Minneapolis. Redline is definitely privileged to have these works on loan from this 20-year old collection.
As a resource artist at Redline, I was invited to the opening day gallery talk with curator Don McNeill. Don gave great insight into how the collection begun and has grown over the years. The exhibition is a traveling one and Don has been curating the show since 2000. Some of the works included are from artists early in their career before they became well known. One of the pieces from Kehinde Wiley is of his early work when he used baroque fabric for the background of his urban men—today he paints the backgrounds. Other artists whose work is included are: Carrie Mae Weems, Dawoud Bey, Radcliffe Bailey, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claudette Schreuders.
As part of the opening week Redline invited Willie Birch, New Orleans-based artist. I believe this was Willie’s first time being in Milwaukee as he commented on the coolness of the weather more than once! I first encountered Willie’s work in person when it was displayed at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University. The exhibit was borne to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Willie’s work was very striking and I will never forget the huge canvasses in black and white using primarily acrylic and charcoal. His matter-of-fact themes are based on the everyday lives of people Willie knows personally, has met on occasion, or happened upon in his daily travels; and the surroundings in which they live. McNeill mentioned how Willie uses a simple camera to take photographs of his subjects before returning to his studio to paint them. There is a lot of historical significance to Willie’s work. He has done paintings of people who were most likely victims of the horrific Katrina that occurred in 2005. Some of the communities that are part of his work are probably no longer in existence.
During his visit, Redline took Willie on a small tour of Milwaukee. At the Gallery he performed gallery visits for several of the artist. I was extremely blessed to not only have a studio visit but to spend an evening at dinner alone with Willie! Willie is a polite gentleman, a very experienced artist, and a man with no shortage of conversation. The man will talk you under the table—but is very engaging—you’ll wonder where the time went. Seriously, if it hadn’t been for Beans and Barley closing on a Wednesday night—we’d probably still be there—him talking and me listening (lol)!
I really appreciated his “down home” manner; Willie is a highly successful artist, well represented, collected, and all that but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve! He shared his journeys and experiences with different galleries and a new direction he is going in with his work—public art and sculpture. He recently designed “Crawfish Mounds” a sculpture that captures the essence of the New Orleans culture and its people. For years Willie has had an interest in the fragility of grass, flowers, and crawfish mounds as he relates their survival to human beings’ struggle to survive. Anyone that is native of New Orleans readily identifies with crawfish mounds. Recently Willie had begun converting crawfish mounds into sculptural forms—from paper mâché to large-scale bronze.
As an artist, activist, historian, devoted father, and so much more Willie has already made significant contributions to the art world and beyond. At 70 years he’s nowhere close to being done.