Milwaukee’s March for Our Lives exhibited the power of the surging movement for gun control

Never again! (#Never again). Sing it out high and loud to the heavens.

“Come senators, congressmen/ Please heed the call/ Don’t stand in the doorway/ Don’t block up the hall… There’s a battle outside/and its ragin’.  / It’ll soon shake your windows/ and rattle your walls/ For the times they are a changin’.” – Bob Dylan 

Two baby boomer-age women, among thousands, marched down State Street to the fiery cadences of one of Dylan’s greatest protest songs emitting from a portable player one held. The other woman brandished a harmonica to play along. It was one of many ingenious ways in which people put on a March to Save our Lives from the bloodstained peril of a nation with more guns than people.

It reminded me of how potent Dylan’s song remains. Concurrently, in Washington D.C., reportedly 800,000 gathered in the largest single protest in the nation’s history. And a highlight of that event was soul singer Jennifer Hudson singing “The Times They Are a Changin'” along with a gospel choir and the talented drama club and choir of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida, where the assault-style gun killing of 17 of their classmates has spurred an amazing movement for sane, common sense gun reform.
Hudson cranked the song up to a fever and impassioned pitch – gun death and violence has ravaged her own life. So Dylan’s great anthem met one of its greatest interpreters, 55 years after he wrote and recorded it.

As for the young speakers, they said plenty. But what struck me was how well they made the connection between mass shootings and the countless shootings and death in individual incidents that may or may not make any news, but continue with numbing regularity for the communities afflicted. So the death of Dontre Hamilton, a mentally troubled Milwaukee black man awoken from his sleep in Red Arrow Park  — and killed with a volley of police bullets after a brief struggle with an officer — was addressed several times.

A connective point is that, along with institutional racism, the profusion of guns in America makes police officers exceedingly paranoid, even though their subjective “feared for my life” rationale is way too easy to corrupt their rationale, after the fact. That easy way out for a cop slaughtering an unarmed black man or boy is part of the institutional racism, of course. But the tons of guns completes the tragic circle.

For my part, here’s a photo essay on Milwaukee’s march, one of 80 across the country Saturday, with many more protests marches around the world in solidarity with America’s gun dilemma.

A huge and fiery crowd engulfs the Milwaukee County Courthouse; well, at least up to its ankles.

A senior citizen with a walker climbed up the hill to the courthouse, and let ’em know what she feels about America’s outlandish indulgence for guns — the worst kind of guns, that kill masses of people, senselessly, needlessly. Yes, she’s pissed off.

Another marcher who would not be denied was a woman with a broken ankle.

An infant was used as a prop, but it was starkly effective as a protest.

A big march crowd on State Street, stretching from 9th Street all the way to Water Street,  seemed to have no end.

The destination for the march was Red Arrow Park across from City Hall, a popular gathering place but also infamously the scene of a police gun killing of an unarmed black man, Dontre Hamilton.

Judge Rebecca Dallet (right) joined the protest and did a little in-the-crowd campaigning for her bid for a state Supreme Court seat, in the April 3 election. 

The proud father of a six-month-old girl (below in the buggy) wants her to grow up without needing to fear for her life when she goes to school.

Even the Statue of Liberty showed up, and up, and up, and up.

The crowd listens to an impassioned, spontaneous speech for gun control, with an emphasis on “love,” by a man in the crowd near the podium.  

Here is the man who had plenty to say, despite not being among the invited speakers.

These two high school student speakers wore their hearts n their sleeves, and are part of  a new generation of activists who, we hope, makes a transformative difference in gun control.

On my way back from the march, I noticed the stately old Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, described on its website as a” conservative, caring” congregation. It was built in 1878 of cream city brick, which is deteriorating, but the back side is undergoing restoration work. As with my first photo at top, of the flags and “never again” sign, and we often look to the heavens for answers. What does this conservative congregation care about? One hopes, life and sanity over guns.


All photos by Kevin Lynch

Joe Henderson’s brilliant album “In ‘N Out” will come alive at the Jazz Estate Saturday

Album cover image courtesy of

Anybody who loves, or wants to hear more of, the music that Blue Note records presented through the mid-1960s – as bold extensions of hard bop and more avant-garde freedoms – should pay heed of an event happening at 8 p.m. this Saturday at The Jazz Estate on Murray Avenue in Milwaukee ($13 cover).
A strong and fearless quintet will perform live music from one of saxophonist-composer Joe Henderson’s greatest albums, In N’ Out, recorded on April 10, 1964. 

The Jazz Estate’s curator/booker, trumpeter Eric Jacobson, will lead the band. He’s among the region’s two or three best trumpeters, and is chair of brass and woodwinds department in The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s jazz studies program. Jacobson has curated Record Session, which has presented live an impressive list of music from classic recordings, by ensembles he puts together for several years at The Estate. It’s a fascinating project for any jazz fan who came of age in the 1960s, or has since discovered the decade’s music, a period rich in classic jazz modernism and innovation.

Trumpeter Eric Jacobson, who organizes the Record Session series at the Jazz Estate, will lead a quintet Saturday performing compositions from Joe Henderson’s 1964 album  “In ‘N Out” and other classic albums of his. Courtesy Eric Jacobson facebook page.

The band also includes saxophonist Jason Goldsmith, pianist Mike Kubicki, bassist Jeff Hamann, and drummer Todd Howell. Goldsmith has a big task obviously, but is a highly accomplished musician who teaches saxophone at the West End Conservatory, and has performed with leading jazz musicians, including Ernie Watts, Ed Shaughnessy, James Moody and Slide Hampton.

Jacobson has not revealed the exact playlist but indicated that material from In ‘N Out will be a jumping-off point for a survey of Henderson compositions from various other albums, including Page One, Mode for Joe, Inner Urge and Power to the People. Those were all Blue Note albums. except for the last one, recorded on Milestone as the 1960s cultural Revolution gained power. 1

Here’s a brief Facebook teaser video for the event from Jacobson:

A ghost will shadow the bandstand. Henderson actually performed at The Jazz Estate some years ago, when I was not living in Milwaukee, unfortunately. Although he could play with startling and moving passion, his intelligence always guided his horn’s voice, even at quicksilver tempos. You could really hear the man thinking when he improvised, as logical as it was sometimes startling, ear grabbing and, not infrequently, beautiful.

Joe Henderson, in 1996, as a mature master of modern saxophone and jazz composition. Courtesy

As In ‘N Out is at the nominal inspiration for this project, I’d like to give you my take on it, as a Blue Note and Joe Henderson classic.

First, as a visual artist, I must note the album cover itself (see top), one of the best examples of Blue Note’s striking, even arresting, trademark graphic art style. Here we see Henderson’s head comprising the dot of the “i” in the title. And the graphic merges the idea of “in” and “out” with a brilliant downward sweep of the second letter of “in”. It conveys superbly, with the arrows, the churning, forward-pushing energy and sharp intellect of this music. As a total image, the album cover title asserts its own sort of muscular beauty. (Graphic artist Reid Miles knew this was a winner, as he signed the design. Look closely for it.) 2

But before a comment on the music specifically, I’ll say that it’s generally understood that the title referred to the musicians striving for a blend of both “inside” playing, which largely adheres to a tune’s chord changes, and playing “outside,” or in a manner free from characteristic bop type changes. The latter realm is something that pianist McCoy Tyner especially facilitates, along with the extraordinarily gifted bassist Richard Davis. Tyner by then had mastered the modal style of jazz that is regular bandleader John Coltrane played.

Modal jazz is influenced by Indian classical music and Coltrane especially used it to flying free of sometimes-constricting complexities of modern jazz changes, which he himself exemplified in his classic tune “Giant Steps.” This recording’s drummer Elvin Jones, also an innovative bandmate of Coltrane’s, frees up the music rhythmically, with his uncanny polyrhythmic style, while still maintaining powerful and swinging tempos.

Now, as for that extraordinary title tune which begins in the album. The head of “In ‘N Out” starts with an off-kilter but captivating phrase, almost as if Henderson is hovering at the fork in the road between going in or out. It then bursts (out/into) a very fast bebopish line that has the intervallic and harmonic nuances that were distinctive and peculiar to Joe Henderson.

The ensuing soloists absolutely burn – Henderson on tenor, pianist McCoy Tyner at the peak of his powers with a cascading solo rippling with his own harmonic innovation of fourth intervals. Trumpeter Kenny Dorham, a naturally lyrical player, slows the tempo for a few moments, then jumps into the speeding vehicle himself, and finally Henderson returns for a very witty closing solo. The tune is breathtaking and whizzes by at 10 minutes and 22 seconds.

It is as if the whole band has taken both forks in the road, in and out, touching down on each and yet flying over them with ever-expanding wings.

I won’t really review the whole album as such, but I will say concisely that the ensuing “Punjab” is also an intriguing tune, but a more spacious and lyrical side of Joe Henderson, which continues on the third tune, “Serenity.” The album shifts to a few hard bop-ish pieces, “Short Story” and “Brown’s Town” both ingenious in her own ways and composed by the date’s trumpeter Kenny Dorham, a greatly under-appreciated musician of the post-bop/hard bop era. “Short Story” is a descending line with a few stately extensions and twists, just like a good short story. And Dorham himself proceeds with an extremely musical and compelling solo.

I’ll conclude by noting that, in ways, this remains an underappreciated album. A few years ago, I chose the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco as a destination for a desire to take a westward road trip. Specifically we made the big drive to hear the SFJAZZ Collective perform a couple of concerts which would become a recording of Joe Henderson compositions (and originals). Curiously, this world-class ensemble did not perform oe record any of this album’s tunes, though I didn’t hear their third evening of Henderson music, and he was a fairly prolific composer.

Late in his career, Henderson recorded several magisterial albums for Verve records which gained him great popularity and acclaim, as arguably our greatest living tenor saxophonist. He died at 64 on June 30th of 2001 in San Francisco, his home during most of his career, of heart failure, after a long battle with emphysema.

So for me, and I hope many others, Saturday will be a rare opportunity to hear superb Joe Henderson music live, pretty close to the way he recorded it.

The ghost will be listening too, and hopefully nodding with a smile of approval.


  1. Eric Jacobson, a highly accomplished but honest musician, says that the band will do all the compositions from In ‘N Out, except the title tune which, he says, they didn’t have time enough to rehearse. As my description of the tune might suggest, it is a technical as well as artistic challenge to master. “But there’s so many great tunes of Joe’s that I want to play, so it’ll be a fun night,” Jacobson says.
  2. The album cover design compromises function for form in one respect. Pianist McCoy Tyner’s name is reduced to an “etc.” because Reid Miles didn’t have enough room in this layout for his name. Great as he was already, Tyner still had the smallest reputation amongst these musicians. His breakout Blue Note album as a leader, The Real McCoy – with Joe Henderson and Elvin Jones as sidemen – wouldn’t be released until April, 1967, three years later.

“Black Panther” stalks the serious stuff with powers that dazzle and inspire

Even without his mask, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman as The Black Panther) retains his superpowers by wearing a magical necklace. Courtesy

The Marcus Theater ticket taker – a pudgy, full-grown white man with an adolescent’s gawky enthusiasm – seemed to have hot-wired Black Panther into his skull, and could hardly stay seated on his stool. He blurted out a single run-on-sentence- thumbs-way-up review of it, and told us to stay after the closing credits for a postlude. I almost expected him to follow us in, plop down, gobble our popcorn, and blab a scene-by-scene spoiling of the movie and, while it played, show us how to order Black Panther paraphernalia online with his smart phone.

Thankfully he didn’t, so I was merely bemused, which primed me, and probably helped my receptivity. You see, I came to Black Panther as in inverted sort of viewer, one who only periodically partakes of action super-hero movies, and resistant to the sense-gorging proliferation of digital special-effects, most of which for me, despite their frequent razzle-dazzle, go down like artificially manufactured food, with injected nutrition, if it’s there at all.

Give me the vintage and hard-to-imagine magic and romance of the original 1933 King Kong, and the mighty ebb-and-flow of the 1956 Moby-Dick, for big special effects, or the chilling subtleties of the original Dracula with Bela Lugosi, for supernature. Such films exercise the imagination, instead of overwhelming it with effects, and still seem somehow more akin to nature, and supernature, as I sense and imagine monsters, vampires and dinosaurs might be if around today (look again, wary reader). If that makes me hopelessly old and unhip in some eyes, so be it. At least I have a distinct point of view that doesn’t simply reel with every gigantic screen explosion of easy, digital intoxication.

As for Black Panther, it’s a lot more than a gargantuan carton of force-fed digital popcorn exploding in your mouth and ears, tasting and sounding like hard-edged cardboard. There’s plenty of nutrition, intellectually and spiritually, which deftly sustains its two-and-a-half hours as much as the action counterpoints the often-reflective and introspective dialogue.

The only superhero movies I’ve bothered to attend in theaters in recent times have been a couple of Christopher Nolan’s abundantly dark Batman movies buoyed by, in The Dark Knight, the peculiar humor of the quintessential British character actor Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne’s busy-body butler Alfred Pennyworth, and Heath Ledger’s almost career-defining Joker, a strangely affecting, almost sympathetic original of a monstrosity, maybe the best arch-villain in movie history. However Tom Hardy’s intellectual, arrogant, sneering brute Bane, in The Dark Knight Rises, competes with The Joker.

Black Panther trafficks in plenty of shadows but is ultimately a self-questioning, affirmative, empowering saga and it earns that exalted position, just like the mythical African nation of Wakanda’s king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) earns his throne by facing several mano-a-mano challenges in primal duels with swords and shields. One could’ve easily imagined an African-American Batman, for the first truly epic black movie superhero, given the black motif of his style, which gives the darkest color a brooding nobility. But Nolan seems to have cornered that franchise with plenty of substance in its bulwark.

The movie Black Panther in full regalia. Courtesy

Vintage “Black Panther” comic book cover. Courtesy

So writer director Ryan Coogler wisely fashioned a superhero with a grand composite of a vintage comic book hero *above) and the real-life African-American militant activist group, the Black Panthers, which itself draws from African mythology, excavated well here. Coogler, still only 31 years old, was born in Oakland, as were the real Black Panthers, and he surely has their complicated legacy deeply ingrained in him. But his fascination with this hero mythology grew from his boyhood immersion in the ground-breaking Black Panther, the black comic book superhero from Marvel Comics.

He also likely drew inspiration from noted author, social critic and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote an update of the superhero in comic book form.

The recent comic book written by noted author and social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates may have inspired the strong social and political consciousness in Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther.” Courtesy

Coogler crucially addresses the historical Panthers’ militant gun-toting side and their sometimes-impulsive violence, but this movie finally affirms redemptive, constructive, liberating Black Panther values, even reflecting the real-life group’s extensive, underpublicized, community-oriented work, which happened in Oakland and Chicago, among other cities. (For more on this subject, see my blog on the documentary photo book on the civil rights era in the north):

Of Charlottesville, the “first white president,” black football players, and Civil Rights history


And Coogler quickly began winning me over by opening the movie in a basketball playground setting in 1970s Oakland. In fact, those city scenes are the film’s most convincing and moving for me, as they fully sketch out the modern roots of this hero, his challenges and sensibilities.

Yet, the sensibilities, style and the ethos reach back  to motherland Africa. One of the film’s gratifying aspects is how we viewers, regardless of our own ethnicity, come to sense that this Africa is the mother lode of humanity, a historical fact, but also, Black Panther asserts, as a wellspring of humanity’s greatest achievements, especially in technology, medicine and architecture. That metaphor is richly evoked by Wakanda’s capital city standing beside a great body of water and atop a series of magnificent waterfalls. It’s on the edge of those deep cascades, standing in the water that rushes to the precipitous edge, that the would-be king must ritualistically face his duels with challengers to his throne.

Further, waters of the frozen kind will later engulf a pivotal plot turn, as the tale tinkers with doom, fate and hope. The backdrop, amid sunblessed African savannahs and rolling valleys, is the eloquently funky, retro-futuristic architecture of the land’s capital city, reminiscent of Blade Runner, but here expressive of a distinct Afro-aesthetic rather than dystopian decay. 

So it’s not surprising that ultimately Coogler leads us back to tattered ol’ Oakland and the most pivotal scene of the movie’s plot – actually in the prologue – as well as the playground setting, where even a white-haired black dude on the cracked-concrete basketball court still can execute a spin move to a svelte drive to the basket. And when the high-tech-yet-brown-skinned Wakanda super-aircraft portals in and lands on the Oakland court, it’s like a gift from the gods to the playground youth. You sense that a young black street kid, with little resources but his/her own intellectual curiosity, talents and guts, can simply touch the ship like a giant talisman, and gain power to the journey to become a perhaps a techno-geek warrior, like a number of the Wakandans – most noticeably the women, in a nifty smashing of Silicon Valley-esque stereotypes.* 

T’Challa’s sister Okoye (Danai Gurira) demonstrates that a magical natural resource found in Wakanda can be used for fighting as well as healing, in this battle scene from “Black Panther.” 

The co-writer-director further bolsters his P.C. cred (the initials shouldn’t be just a pejorative co-opted by the reactionary Trump era), in his handling of huge rhinoceroses. The species, in the real world, is now grotesquely hunted for its horn, leaving massive dead carcasses behind to rot. The Wakandans raise them as pets and to ride as metal-armoured transport for battle. Coogler wittily reveals a tender side of the hulking creatures. One rhino ends up charging a fetching young woman but pulls up just short – to deliver her an affectionate, slightly sloppy lick on the cheek – right in the middle of a battle.

A large species of black rhinoceros, with his natural armor, is used as a pet and a saddled beast of burden in battle in “Black Panther.” Courtesy

Also politically speaking, for me, Boseman’s young, newly-crowned Panther king evokes the 21-year-old Fred Hampton, who was murdered by a coalition of the FBI and Chicago police in 1969. Hampton radiated promise as the greatest real-life Panther leader, with charisma, eloquence, looks, intelligence and ability to transcend violence to assert black power In the sort of community oriented activism that T’Challa seems ready to lead his too-comfortably-remote nation towards. 

The last point addresses Coogler’s message to any group of people insufficiently engaged in the struggles and suffering of fellow humankind. These extraordinary Africans have built a sort of utopia but the new king realizes, partly from the tragic mistakes his father made, that much more must be done by those so empowered. This moral conundrum deeply shadows the king’s consciousness.

So Coogler ain’t lettin’ anybody off the hook here, which is wise and admirable, especially in times in need of smart, inspirational power from somewhere, emergent leaders, among the people. Nor are the film’s most-conflicting characters simply black and white (and there is one significant Caucasian character in the movie, a CIA agent, who’s pulled into all the African intrigue and drama.) The king’s greatest challenger, the aforementioned EriK Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), seems to harbor a deep, somewhat inchoate hatred. And yet the dreadlocked, street-jive talker has an intriguingly engaging personality under the macho chest puffing. Even T’Challa comes to understand that a complex soul lies within this man, who wants everything that he has.

Michael B. Jordan (left) as Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther,” is among the most fascinating superhero movie villains since Heath Ledger (left) as The Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Courtesy

Ultimately Black Panther is a brilliantly conceived, executed and meaty high-tech show, with plenty of low-tech and humane values. The deftly-edited battle scenes flash by quickly and, even in the one-on-one macho challenges, there’s almost no bloodshed or gore to endure. I’m overjoyed that it’s a huge success despite that restraint. Perhaps we’ve (mostly) all had enough of real-life blood and gore that we don’t need much in our easily-abused “realistic” movie fare. Rather, the greatest power of the Wakandans’ genius for technology is mining a seemingly magical natural resource, for healing. The best natural healing often does seem magical.

Nor is the movie trampled by huge raging monsters, dinosaurs or sabertooth tigers. Wakandans strive, for the most part, to cultivate harmony with nature, as well as humanity.

For all that, and it’s often-dazzling and moving entertainment, Black Panther has got serious super-hero game, and scores from not only across the court, but on a super-rainbow arc from Wakanda to a bent Oakland playground’s hoop. SWISH!!!!

So, even the pudgy, white ticket-taker, all elbows and gut, scored in a bounce-around-the-rim layup.


* Black Panther‘s very strong female roles include Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother Ramonda, Danai Gurira as his sister Okoye, and Lupita Nyong’o as his love interest Nakia. Reportedly, women have comprised a surprising 45% of the audience for the movie. The stellar cast also includes Daniel Kaluuya (Oscar-nominated star of the acclaimed movie Get Out) and Forest Whitaker.




Milwaukee Art Museum takes a trans-Atlantic view of Winslow Homer


Homer, Winslow; The Gale; 1883–1893; oil on canvas; 76.8 x 122.7 cm (30 1/4 x 48 5/16 in.); Worcester Art Museum, Museum Purchase, 1916.48

Coming Away: Winslow Homer & England

Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Dr. March 1 through May 20, 2018

By Kevin Lynch

Why did Winslow Homer – arguably the greatest 19th-century artist of the American experience – need to brave the Atlantic Ocean’s tempestuous waves and sail to England in 1881? He’d become increasingly famous for the most true-to-life paintings of the Civil War and early Reconstruction. And weren’t the British who we fought for our beloved, hard-earned independence?


Nobody knows for sure why he went. His artwork comprises almost all the documents we have of a private, reclusive man’s life. Some critics see him as a kind of Melvillian Ishmael, instinctively needing “to see the watery part of the world.” Homer was hardly traveling to court The Queen. After time in London, he gravitated to the humblest and hardiest, in a remote coastal fishing village, Cullercoats, near Newcastle.

Perhaps, after American dramas subsided, Homer needed new challenges and subjects and more self-edification of the larger world. The Milwaukee Art Museum’s new Homer exhibition, opening March 1, aims to show that he also found his long perspective, his biggest-picture vision, there among the rolled-up sleeves, flopping fish and dripping nets.

Among the revelations were the fisher women, who formed the backbone of a tough life, turning the men’s labors into sustenance and commerce. So Homer over the two-way voyage, came to profoundly understand the violent beauty of the sea, and the stoic humans braced against crashing waves and other elements.

Homer, “The Fisher Girl,” oil on canvas, 1894

His trip enhanced better understanding of his homeland, its people imbued, unlike the Brits, with “the American dream” and New World bounty. Homer began to strip away the “new Eden” myth of America that he, like most other artists, earlier partook of.

The trip was “transformative,” says Brandon Ruud, MAM curator of American Art, who conceived the exhibit with curator Elizabeth Athens of the Worchester Art Museum, where this extraordinarily promising exhibition will travel from. Ruud quotes a contemporary Boston critic, who praised Homer’s art for “giving the truth, coolly confident that the poetry would be found in that.” Realism bled into atmospherics. Ultimately the sea was Homer’s greatest subject, Ruud says. After returning, he moved to another remote location, Prout’s Neck, a tiny Maine peninsula with which the sea often has its wild ways. 1.

The show is book-ended by two great paintings from the 1881-82 Cullercoats period – MAM’s mythical, almost mystical “Hark! The Lark” (Homer’s personal  favorite of his own paintings), and the brine-in-the-face drama “The Gale,” from Worchester’s collection – both depicting women.

Of course, the classic damsel-in-distress trope arises in some images, with this largely self-trained genius’s astonishing flair for drama. The exhibit includes the famous, breathtaking “The Lifeline.” A sailor rescues a near-drowned woman from a sinking ship. The two dangle over the snarling sea, transported along a British-invented pulley contraption called the breeches buoy. This iconic scene also radiates symbolism and strong erotic overtones. Their limbs entwine and a soaked dress hugs the contours of a woman bereft, or in rapture?

Homer, “The Life Line,” oil on canvas, 1884

And yet, far more often, Homer’s British and later work depicts strong women as courageous, in their ways, as men. In “The Gale,” a mother, with a terrified toddler peering from a papoose, braves the angry shore, hoping for some sign of her husband’s ship.

Ruud says Homer also spent time in London museums and libraries before venturing to Cullercoats. Inspired by the epic British painter J.M. W. Turner, Homer become a virtuoso of watercolor, pushing that medium into uncharted waters. Photographs of Greek Parthenon sculpture, scholars surmise, helped him further model heroic and mythical figures.

Homer, “Hark! The Lark.” oil on canvas, 1882

See the museum’s own “Hark! The Lark.” Three women, loaded with goods, stand on a hill, ostensibly listening to the bird’s cry. Yet this scene suggests far more, with closely-observed facial portraits – their eyes, dark and gaunt, stare aloft, but their stout bodies brace for something. They convey wary optimism as they gaze high across a distant horizon. Or is it some precipitous foreshadowing in the clouds, equally plausible in such transfixed faces?

Ruud concurs that these, and other Homer works of the period, amount to no less than a proto-feminism rising from this male American artist, right as the women’s suffrage movement gained power.

Homer, “The Cotton Pickers,” oil on canvas, 1876

Despite his evident love of America and especially its land and seascapes, Homer proved intensely aware of the nation’s contradictions in its professed ideals, such as sexism and racism. Homer’s “The Cotton Pickers” (above) revealed his social awareness of race issues. Like women, his not infrequent African-American subjects found positions of drama and social dignity. A classic example is his painting  “The Gulf Stream” in which a ravenous shark threatens a black man alone out in a small boat that might just capsize.  Despite his peril, one doesn’t sense the vigorous man is doomed. A blow-up copy of the photo below of Homer with “The Gulf Stream” canvas is on display at the exhibit (although the actual painting is not).

Photo of Winslow Homer with his painting “The Gulf Stream” is courtesy of Bowdoin College

Partly because of the vast preponderance oil painting in the history of art, it was especially exciting and dramatic to see an artist of Homer’s stature take on watercolor, a medium all too often relegated to Sunday afternoon dabblers. This show demonstrates, especially in a gorgeous work of the finest application, “Fisher Folk in a Dory,” how the medium most akin to water itself stirred Homer’s imagination by turns into tempests and Pacific zephyrs. Such range of moods coexisted within the cold, stormy realms of the North Sea.

Homer became a student of both color theory and watercolor practice as early as 1873 when he began to favor English paints and papers, perhaps another reason for his attraction to the great island. “His experimentation with English techniques, including the subtractive methods of blotting and scraping away color to reveal the white paper underneath, persisted through the ’70s and garnered positive attention from critics,” writes Martha Tedeschi, in her essay for the exhibit catalog. He also learned to apply darker watercolors first, to not obscure lighter ones. His palette thus embraced light’s panoply. A contemporary critic praised these as “pictures in the truest sense.” 

What could be more idyllic, even in its hoisting energy, than this windswept sea, seen here with a fisher girl sitting high atop the stern, while the boys prepare the nets and fishing lines, and the breeze hastens a sailboat beyond. The play of pure white light and textured clouds fairly frolics in soft joyousness. Homer went even further by daring to forsake under-drawing and allowing pure, unpredictable water and even a dry brush as principal tools, drawing the scorn of the leading art critic John Ruskin who claimed the artist was “flinging a pot of paint” in the public’s face. 2

Homer, “Fisher Folk in a Dory,” watercolor on paper, 1881

This developed into a dispute which gained international attention and a court battle. But Homer we remained unbent and undeterred. He had discovered something deep and pregnant in this seemingly shallow artistic water.  Though he paid great attention to arts critics and his press, he did not always acquiesce to them. His own eye and sensibility remained stronger and true, in his artistic universe. Almost always during this period, hearty humans remain a distinct counterpoint to the vast beyond of the elements he so magically evoked.

Yet finally, in some of Homer’s early 1890s images from the Maine peninsula, the humans recede into solitary figures, amid craggy rocks and swirling tempests. One senses vast loneliness welling inexorably. Like Melville, Homer strives to capture the encompassing indifference of Nature to human existence.

“Because this trip was so transformational his work become more meditative and abstract.” Rudd says. “At the same time, he still does some detailed work, as of old.” Homer’s later work presages the gritty realism of the Ash Can School, and even abstract expressionism, “so with the modern era dawning, Homer is wrestling with his legacy.”

John Sloan, “The Wake of the Ferry No. 2,” oil on canvas, 1907, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.” 

It’s worth considering the renowned “Ash Can” artist John Sloan who, while mainly focusing on the innards of New York’s fast-growing and teeming metropolis, also understood the role the sea played in human fate and fortune. One of Sloan’s more celebrated New York works is “The Wake of the Ferry, No. 2” from 1907, which shares with Homer’s Cullercoats paintings a complex palette, and the weighted, eloquent form of a single female figure, as she gazes out upon steamboats chugging off to sea.

Time and actual artists have proved far more kind to Homer than the likes of John Ruskin, as his legacy has unfurled with increasing resonance, beauty and truth – the qualities most authentic artists pursue. The future will doubtless honor him. For today, we have Coming Away.


More information below:

Winslow Homer
American, 1836–1910
Rocky Coast (Maine Coast), c. 1882–1900
Oil on canvas; 14 x 27 in.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund. Endowed in memory of Leontine Terry Hatch by J.T.S. and D.C.S., 1945.1

All images courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum, unless otherwise indicated.


A very relevant show to the Homer exhibit runs concurrently at the MAM, Turning to Turner, in the Godfrey American Art Wing, level II, gallery K230, through April 29. It offers prints by the famous English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, which reflect what many celebrated as his “truth to nature.” His prints are paired with ones of leading 19th-century American artists, including Homer, who carefully studied Turner’s depictions of the natural world.

Also, the museum will offer several programs and events in conjunction with Coming Away.

Gallery talks,1:30 PM on Tuesdays:

  • March 6 and May 15 – with exhibit co-curator Brandon Ruud
  • April 7 – a group talk with Ruud and other curators exploring the exhibit from varying perspectives
  • May 1 – an exploration of 19th-century fashion depicted in the show’s works with costume scholar Deborah Mancoff.
  • Lectures, 6:15 PM Thursdays
  • April 5 – “Winslow Homer: International Man of Mystery,” with Sarah Burns, professor emeritus at Indiana University Bloomington.
  • May 3 – “Winslow Homer, Ben Shawn, and American Genre Painting” with John Fagg, lecturer in the Department of English literature, and director of the American and Canadian Studies Centre, University of Birmingham.
  • April 19 – Perspectives from Milwaukee writer and historian John Gurda, freshwater sciences scholar John Janssen, Milwaukee-based musician Chris Crane and New York-based artist and Milwaukee waterworks project pioneer Mary Miss.


  1. Brandon Ruud, “Hark! The Lark,” Coming Away: Winslow Homer & England, Yale UP, 2017, 43
  2. Martha Tedeschi, “Pictures in the Truest Sense: A Reflection on Homer’s English Watercolors,” Coming Away: Winslow Homer & England, 73

A shorter version of this article was published in The Shepherd Express.