ThriveOn King artists talk honoring Bronzeville’s past with pieces for the present

Art doesn’t just tell a story about history; it is history. Soon, history will be celebrated on the first floor of ThriveOn King through an array of artwork including sculptures, murals, paintings, ceramics and more. 

The motif among these works is Bronzeville’s past, future and present – a theme that honors Bronzeville’s renaissance and its resurgence as well as respects residents’ desires for the ThriveOn Collaboration to support the community’s rich history of arts and culture as expressed during visioning sessions.  

Art’s prominent integration into ThriveOn King has been supported by generous donors of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Medical College of Wisconsin, as well as Foundation grant funding. The focus on art, culture and history is part of the Collaboration’s overarching commitment to economic development, health equity and early childhood education.

Art is relatable to the community, said Mutòpe J. Johnson, a Milwaukee-based artist whose piece, “Destination Bronzeville MKE,” will be displayed on the first floor of ThriveOn King.    

“There’s a kind of visceral experience that comes from walking through spaces that should be relatable not just to the people that work there, but to the people that pass through those doors,” Johnson said. “Especially in service types of organizations, where you are serving the public, you should be able to demonstrate that you’re able to connect with them.” 


Incorporating history

Johnson’s piece is a visual narrative of Bronzeville’s history and is part of a larger collection of work that he began around 2011. The painting tells the story of the Great Migration when people left the South to seek freedom and economic stability away from Jim Crow. 

“It looks like a complete picture at a distance, but it’s not until you walk up on it that you actually see that it has some dimension,” Johnson said. “Dimension added to clothing details that the central figures are wearing, the cornfield for instance or the baggage that is beneath their feet, all of those elements have dimensionality to them.” 

The dimensionality comes from layers of paper and paint and – surprisingly – dryer sheets, a happy accident that Johnson discovered one day that turned out to be the right material for the couple’s clothing.  

Rosy Petri’s piece “Vel N Em” pays homage to Vel Phillips – a civil rights leader, lawyer, politician and activist – the open housing marches and Petri’s own lived experience of the protests that took place during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Petri, who is a textile artist and Harambee resident, was struck by some of the parallels between the open housing marches and the protests in 2020. Artists are often called to issues of justice equity, where there’s a lot of passion, she said.

“I think making visual art about things that you’re passionate about can give language to some of those feelings, those beliefs and also serve as a like a kind of barometer for the equity of the community,” Petri said.

Olivia ‘LIV’ Burks
Olivia ‘LIV’ Burks

For Olivia ‘LIV’ Burks, inspiration came from reading history books. Her pieces – two 6-foot-tall paintings titled “Music on the Streets of Bronzeville” – celebrate the music history and the liveliness of Bronzeville. 

The canvases interact with each other, with the first canvas depicting a musician playing music for children who are playing instruments in the second piece. Streets with their original street names make up the musician’s torso. 

“I want people to look at this piece and understand that there’s a future ahead of us,” she said. “It is within us. We are creative, we’re taking this creative spirit, and we are running with it. I want everyone to look at it and be inspired and just feel this legacy that is happening.”  

Deva Houston’s piece “Fall Port de Bras” honors a more personal history. It depicts a dancer in a flowing dress with her arms outstretched. 

“ThriveOn King is celebrating the rich cultural heritage of Milwaukee and for me that meant the dance community that was such a huge part of my life,” Houston said. “‘Fall Port de Bras’ represents the fall colors – the many facets of the diverse dance community that I was raised in.” 

Houston’s late mother, Vernetta Houston, put her in dance classes at City Ballet Theatre with Lee Palmer and Linda Lacy Jones. Palmer had Houston as a student teacher at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, Inner City Arts Council and more, while Jones took her to classes at Ko-Thi Dance Company.


Putting the collab in collaboration

Not all the pieces are the work of a single artist. La Familia de Arte, for example, is a grassroots organization that creates large scale, community-based artwork. 

For ThriveOn King, the group is making ceramic planters depicting historical events and artistic contributions. Its second piece, “Bronzeville Past, Present and Future,” consists of three, 4-foot-wide hexagons made up of circular tiles. 

About 25 artists come to the studio to work, but over a hundred people are involved in the project, said associate director Jacky Gutierrez. La Familia has spoken with Bronzeville neighbors, business owners and various groups including Neighborhood House, Mt Zion Quilters, Silver Spring Neighborhood Center, Pearls for Teen Girls and Invisible Realities Ministry to get ideas on what to depict in the individual tiles.  

This intentional collaboration is at the heart of La Familia’s work. 

 “It kind of goes back to our basic assumption that there’s all kinds of natural resources in the community: creativity, a heart for improving the community, care, commitment,” Lori Gramling, executive director, said.  

Children paint canvas for Nehemiah “Nemo” Edwards "Together We Thrive" piece.
Children paint part of a 6 x 15 canvas for Nehemiah “Nemo” Edwards' “Together We Thrive” piece.

Like La Familia, Nehemiah “Nemo” Edwards, a visual artist, wants everyone to connect to art. For his piece “Together We Thrive,” Edwards invited over 50 children to help cover a 6x15-foot canvas with paint and plaster, as well as paint cutouts of shapes.

“I thought it was important for anyone to be able to feel like they can connect to art in a way where they don’t feel like they need some skill to participate,” he said. 

Edwards, who pursued art after working as an engineer, believes it is important that everyone, especially youth and adults alike, have a creative outlet. 

“Your creative outlet is a thing that you do that allows you to be free in that moment,” he said.  


Community-centered work

When community artist and muralist Brad Anthony Bernard submitted his proposal, he ensured it had a community engagement piece. Bernard teaches at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and his student interns are helping him paint portraits of community leaders for his mural, which is a combination of vinyl and paint.

“I think corporate structure needs community in order to function,” Bernard said. “They need to be investing in opportunities for artists to create the works and transform the exterior and interior spaces of communities.”

Bernard noted that the ThriveOn Collaboration is setting an example for other organizations. 

“This is a precedent,” he said. “It’s intentional reach to the artists in the community who understand the history of the community and can provide imagery that’s representative of it and accurate, in a well-meaning way that’s not exploitative or obligational.” 

Kristine Hinrichs recognizes the community of construction workers physically building ThriveOn King with a series of photographs that will be printed on metal. 

“There really needed to be some way to recognize their work and in particular the work of the workers of color,” she said. “That’s really where the idea came from to recognize the people that were working in the heat and the cold and even a little bit through COVID and all that kind of stuff.” 

John Kowalczyk
John Kowalczyk

John Kowalczyk is a painter and muralist, but for his ThriveOn King piece, he is delving into the world of sculpture. His piece features red-winged blackbirds and homes with quilted patterns.

“I settled on red-winged blackbirds because they are fierce protectors of their nests and their neighborhoods and their communities,” he said. “Some people might think of them as almost aggressive or fierce, but I think of them as lovingly protecting their nests and their families and their homes.”

In the Bronzeville neighborhood, that’s such an important concept, he said.  

“I'm so excited that this first floor will be a community center hub, and people will be able to interact and see the art every day,” Kowalczyk said. “My biggest hope is that one young person sees it and then it stays with them forever, and they feel the need to become an artist as well.”


Support the art at ThriveOn King by contributing to the ThriveOn Arts Fund.


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