Welcome commentors! This blog’s comments section is enabled again.

See the source image

Hello Visitors,

Please feel free to comment on a blog or topic related to it. I’ll try to review and respond ASAP. To comment, click on the talk “balloon” at the top right of each post. Then write or insert (C&P, add link, whatever) your comment and “submit.”

Thanks,

Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch)

Also, you can subscribe to this blog as well, for free.

“The Ashcan School” reveals America’s underbelly and many shades of its character

A prize possession of The Milwaukee Art Museum’s “Ashcan School” collection is the large painting “The Sawdust Trail,” from 1916 by George Bellows. Milwaukee Art Museum

Art Review:

The Ashcan School and The Eight: Creating a National Art. The Milwaukee Art Museum, through February 19, 2023. Bradley Family Gallery

For information and tickets: https://mam.org/exhibitions/details/ashcan-and-the-eight.php

To see a world in a grain of sand” poet William Blake once put it. Later, American poet Walt Whitman would see “a grain of sand” as no less perfect than a leaf of grass.”

These great modernist poets saw things profoundly magnified in the humblest of earthly entities, light years from most of the art and music that for centuries courted royalty. So perhaps it was inevitable that the nation built on the anti-regal and messy moorings of democracy foster an art movement antithetical to royalty-schmoozing. Rather, one of the commonfolk, at least in its ideals. This American motherlode would bear the nation’s first “national art.”

Known as The Ash Can School, its name derived from a pejorative critical comment that the art was as good as “a can of ashes.” But in that comment’s snoot the artists saw soot, as in a poetical paradox. The ashes contained dirt, enough to allow seedlings to grow and tilt toward social justice, found in artistic truth.  That is, a great, if profoundly flawed nation’s life and essence might be extrapolated from something as slight as a cigarette butt’s droppings.

The Milwaukee Art Museum’s The Ashcan School and The Eight: Creating a National Art allows Americans to see themselves in the early 20th century, a time of great cultural upheaval, a nation shapeshifting in its peculiar genius — troubled, compulsively creative, proud, and quotidian. It was also struggling through the first World War with the Great Depression around the corner. Yet immigrants poured in, adding diversity, labor energy, and societal tension.  Perhaps more than anything, modernism’s post-industrial revolution had shackled and driven America.

How did the Ash Can School capture all this? First, they objected to exhibition practices that they considered restrictive and conservative. They often employed an expressionistic, painterly style to portray gritty and downtrodden subjects previously deemed inappropriate for high art and museums, the stuff of “ashcans.”

Accordingly, the museum’s curators and guest show catalog essayists draw parallels to cultural and social issues still relevant today.

The Art Museum owns one of the nation’s largest collections of works by the Ashcan School, and this is the first exhibit to include nearly the entire 150-object collection, says curator Brandon Ruud. Prints, drawings, paintings, and pastels represent artists of the so-called “The Eight,” who largely produced the Ash Can style and sensibility: Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, George Bellows, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, Arthur Bowen Davies, Maurice Prendergast. Several affiliated artists like Stuart Davis reveal the full range of the group’s subjects and artistic practices.

One’s eye might easily gravitate to a large painting in the show, Bellows’ “The Sawdust Trail,” by traditional measures of scale and complexity a “masterpiece,” even though the group’s aesthetics strove to burrow beneath grand art conventions that may obscure the truth as they saw it. The painting earns its renown, an epic canvas with a cinematic view of a religious revival meeting.

It tells a rich and sardonic story of post-Puritan American impulses that continue to this day in evangelic churches. The charismatic preacher, named for a real historical figure, Billy Sunday, would solicit salvation while typically delivering a thunder-and-lightning sermon to spook believers out of their savings. The air above his big tent virtually billows with a dense cloud of sun-lit smoke that might easily exalt the illusion of the divine.

Billy Sunday himself glad-hands one convert. Several women faint (from the fumes of divine inspiration?) amid the dense, motley crowd. Exaltation, or delusion, or some other strange strain of behavior is distinctly American as it is universal, to see the “MAGA” power deluding today, and the global trend to political authoritarianism.

A man with that kind of power might be a Republican presidential candidate — if he can beat out Donald Trump who, heathen though he may be, knows most of the preacher’s hidden gifts for dark persuasion and personality-cult politics.

An even more insidious example of how compromised holiness undermines the truth is Mike Pence, who has said he will not testify to Congress about the January 6 insurrection, even though he was a primary execution target. He’s played it politically all the way, claiming a dubious “separation of powers” privilege — only because he survived.

So, these Ash Can diggers uncovered America haunted by cycles of power as old and foreshadowing as the first conquests of Native Americans and slavery.

Yet one might better experience this exhibit on a smaller scale, as a kind of forensic mystery, investigating the human figures that tell personal stories of lives possibly forsaken or transgressed.

John Sloan The Barbershop, etching and aquatint, 1915, MutualArt.com

Zoom down from, say, the atmospheric expanse of “The Sawdust Trail” to individual figures in intimately revealing scenes. No one surpassed painter-printmaker John Sloan at carving out these small-window revelations of what would become known as Americana, in a land still grappling with its identity.

The class-laden print The Barbershop animates to the point of satirical comedy. A crowded barbershop is recast as a tableau of sublimated class-warfare. The two men being serviced clearly reign. One seems to eye, with lust or disdain, a young lower-class woman manicuring him. Seated in waiting, a middle-class man reads the satirical Puck magazine, and beside him lies a subversive Marxist magazine called The Masses, for which Sloan served as art editor. The complex, beautiful composition (less than 10 by 12 inches) is riddled with America’s contradictions of social indulgence and defiance.

Among Sloan’s numerously displayed gritty parables of the underclass is Night Windows. A Peeping Tom husband spies on a bathing neighbor in a nearby window, while his wife hangs out his family’s laundry amid squalling children. In Sloan’s world, God may or may not have been invited for dinner. They are too busy trying to put bread on the table for the brood.

Robert Henri, Dutch Joe, (or Jopi van Slooten), oil (24 by 20 inches), 1910, Pinterest 

Robert Henri, who was the movement’s leader, had the portraiture skill to humanize the mother, the man, or boy, in the brood.

Witness his marvelous portrait of a street urchin named Dutch Joe, (or Jopi van Slooten), from 1910. In this bundle of mischief, you sense potential, yet risk. “The disparity between the innocence of the hero and the destructive character of his experience defines his concrete, or existential, situation.” That’s how American literary critic Ihab Hassan characterized what he called America’s “radical innocence.” 2 It entailed the possibility that, in his scruffy vigor, brash will and ingenuity, Joe might get ahead in the world, or be swallowed up in it.

This show is populated with a fascinating array of colorful actors, many of problematic agency.

John Sloan, Reading in a Subway, etching, 1926. Pinterest

Everett Shinn, The Nightclub Scene, oil, (36 by 34 inches) 1934

From Shinn’s iridescent Nightclub Scene to Sloan’s bundled-from-the-cold flapper in Reading in a Subway, or the vibrant gaggle of 9-to-5 women in Return from the Toil, these artists encounter a diverse populous and gives lie to the contemporary criticism (on an exhibit wall commentary) that these artists diminished women and minorities in the class-struggle tableaux. They were doubtless men of their time, subject to certain biases, but by this evidence they strove for greater understanding and truth of how we live together, and in isolation, in America, to envision a real yet better way, one quotidian day at a time.

In other words, they often told a small “d” democratic story, creating heroes among quietly courageous women and other folks hidden in the cracks of society.

And the men depicted are often satirical subjects of classism and sexism, as in preacher Billy Sunday and Sloan’s “Barbershop” scene.

George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, lithograph, 1923-24, (18 by 22 1/4 inches), Pinterest 

Perhaps the most famous image in the show is Dempsey and Firpo, the lithograph print that led to George Bellows’ explosive painting of a big-time heavyweight boxing match, a literal witnessing of the brutal sport that came of age in this era. “When Dempsey was knocked through the ropes he fell in my lap,” Bellows explained to Henri. “I cursed him a bit and placed him carefully back in the ring.” So, Bellows justifiably includes himself in the painting’s corner, a bit like director Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearances.

Bellows had studied art under Henri. John Fagg’s superb catalog essay describes how “Henri encouraged his students both to scour city streets for inspiration and to read widely and embrace culture in all its forms.” This sounds like the best kind of voraciousness that would exemplify the American striving these artists documented and interpreted, warts and all.

“Henri talked not only about the students’ paintings but also about music, literature, and life in general, and a very stimulating manner, and his lectures constituted a liberal education,” recalled Stuart Davis. 3

This exhibit constitutes such an education, as rare as it is valuable, at a time when it feels sorely needed. If you want to learn about confounding America, of both yesterday and today, in the Faulknerian sense that the past is never dead, this Ash Can art provides you, in immersive depth, yet free of academic pretenses, though the catalogue essays are welcome. It is an experience of vast pleasures amid what Duke Ellington called murmuring “Harlem airshafts,” and Hitchcock’s rear windows, and pregnant, grimy shadows of night. 4

___________________

This review was originally published in a slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express: here: https://shepherdexpress.com/culture/visual-art/america-unvarnished-in-mams-ash-can-school-exhibit/

1 The exhibit also includes a lithograph version of The Sawdust Trail, which shows more of the fine details in the dense composition.

2 Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel, Princeton, 1961, 7

3 John Fagg, “The Unseen City: The Ashcan School’s New York,” The Ashcan School and The Eight: Creating a National Art, show catalog, The Milwaukee Art Museum 2022, 78

4 A reflection of this collection’s ongoing contemporary relevance and vitality is that it is still growing even after decades. A primary curator of the show, Brandon Rudd explained to me: “One of the truly amazing things about the Ashcan School collection is that it is both such an integral part of the Museum’s rich history and is also active and growing: This exhibition features new acquisitions and never-before-seen donations, as well as loans from private collections in the Milwaukee community and works rarely displayed or seen by the public because of their fragility.”

 

Dennis Mitcheltree: A long-lost Milwaukee jazz saxophonist returns home with a “Golden” new album

ALBUM REVIEW: Dennis Mitcheltree – Golden Rule (Dengor)

Add Los Angleian Dennis Mitcheltree to an impressive list of intelligently creative Wisconsin jazz musicians with strong roots, or still residing here. His prime collaborator of 25 years, Madison-based piano virtuoso Johannes Wallmann, dazzles throughout with power, deftness, and artful ingenuity. Mitcheltree’s sixth album Golden Rule, is titled not for Jesus Christ’s famous dictum, but philosopher Immanuel Kant’s version, extolling equitable human relations, which he called “the categorical imperative.”

 That’s not to suggest the saxophonist-composer’s music is didactic or stern, only to underscore depth of thought behind it. As his quartet recently demonstrated at Riverwest’s Bar Centro, his music delights and amuses while keeping the mind fueled and geared up.

Saxophonist Dennis Mitcheltree recently led a quartet in a live date at Bar Centro, not unlike this live date from Europe. Photo Courtesy Jazz in Europe

On “Genghis Kant” Mitcheltree’s hard swing heartily honors the great philosopher’s fearless blend of empiricism and transcendentalism. The musician’s penchant for heady wordplay translates into a musical wit by turns pithy and intricate. Try on “Pacifisticuffs,” for example. “Bling Tone,” is a ring-a-ding echo of an early Miles Davis trademark, “If I Were a Bell,” (slyly implied in the title). “Gingerfoot” is a sharp, snappy theme with slightly Monkish angularity.

Mitcheltree’s tenor sax tone is warm, rounded and Sonny Rollins-like, but adorning a slightly trickier mind.

We need music like this, as diverting philosophical salve in dire times.

_______________

This review was originally published in The Shepherd Express, here: 

Golden Rule by Dennis Mitcheltree – Shepherd Express

Eric Jacobson grows as an artist in his new album “Discover.”

Album review: Eric Jacobson: Discover (Origin Records)

Eric Jacobson will hold an album release party at the Jazz Estate, p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19.   

Eric Jacobson blazes. In person, the naturally powerful Milwaukee trumpeter has long conveyed the impression: “I’m gonna cut anybody here, and all comers.” That’s fueled some willfully dynamic solos. With trumpet poised, his muscular angularity recalls an Italian Futurist sculpture. So, Discover comes as a surprise, perhaps as a self-discovery, trading competitiveness for musical and artistic maturity.

The tune “Discover” arose from the experience of his father’s death, prompting a “search for meaning and personal identity,” writes annotator Rick Krause. The album opener “New Combinations,” has a Jazz Messengers ensemble feel, amiable yet muscular. “Discover” follows immediately: with a pensive, nostalgic tone and a forward-looking sense of form, Jacobson’s solo toggles between tender memory and rising resolution, akin to Freddie Hubbard’s gift for colorful storytelling. But not derivatively; he’s expanding post-bop’s wheelhouse of modernity.

Tenor saxophonist Geof Bradfield complements coolly, spinning webs of finely suspended arabesques, recalling Warne Marsh, but with a warmer tone. Pianist Bruce Barth emerges inventive and versatile, capable of delicate touches, a la Hank Jones. The album’s hot/cool dynamic still accents the lyrical, with Blue Mitchell’s bluesy “Sir John” as the ballsy ballast. The Dizzy Gillespie tune is not bop pyrotechnics but one of Dizzy’s soberest ballads, “Con Alma.” Jacobson pointedly closes with one of the repertoire’s most poignant and socially-aware odes, about a man nicknamed “Old Folks,” crying out for Deedette Hill’s lyrics.

One thing we don’t know about “Old Folks”

Did he fight for the blue or the gray?

But he’s so democratic and so diplomatic

We always let him have his way

In the evenings after supper

What stories he tells

How he held his speech at Gettysburg for Lincoln that day

________________

This review was originally published in The Shepherd Express, here:

Discover (Origin) by Eric Jacobson – Shepherd Express

In “Till,” Danielle Deadwyler embodies a martyr’s mother as a pioneering Civil Right hero

In a crucial scene from “Till,” Emmett Till’s mother gives him a ring worn by his dead father, which will help identify his body. readthespirit.com

MOVIE REVIEW:

Till (PG) is at The Oriental Theatre, Marcus Southgate Cinema, and AMC Mayfair Mall 18, in Milwaukee, through Wednesday. Nov. 9.

 

Emmett Till rises, as does his astonishingly resilient mother. All of 14 years old, he became, in death, the first icon of Civil Rights martyrdom. Mamie Till-Mobley transformed into the first luminous hero of the movement. In Chinonye Chukwu’s new film drama Till, we now finally see, hear, and feel what Mamie endured, how she persevered, and redeemed her son’s horrendous lynching in the summer of 1955. Because Emmett dies so early in the story, it’s up to Mamie to carry through this trail of tears, also a matter of history. Danielle Deadwyler’s Sisyphean performance feels indelibly resonant — as we see her push her spiritual rock up the mountain the Rev. King would invoke, she exposes and agitates the movement’s original embers, because her son’s is a death that will never die.

I wondered why it took this long for a major dramatization of this story. Perhaps the subject matter was too charged, too raw an indictment of American racism for even a Black American director to feel comfortable, as courageous as someone like Spike Lee has been over the years.

Chuckwu is Nigerian-American, so she has an innate sense of slavery’s historical lineage reaching back to The Middle Passage and simultaneously stands a half-step removed from the inherent American guilt over the nation’s Original Sins (along with the homeland-steal and genocide of Native Americans). Given the depicted event’s dagger-like historical inflection point, the behavior of virtually all the whites in the film can make a Caucasian’s skin crawl. And a black American director may risk vulnerability to, in our current polarization, unfair charges of overplaying the victim card. Such is the potency Till successfully traffics in.

Plus, released now, the film evinces superb timing in that the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act was finally passed in March 2022, making lynching a federal hate crime, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. This is popular culture’s dramatic articulation of that legislation’s gravitas, a historical bookend to the Till family legacy first formalized with the enactment of the precipitous Civil Rights Act in 1957. That’s not to suggest a closed case, rather the foundation of resolve, as the Civil Rights struggle continues with newfound urgency today.

As I watched, I grew also in wonderment over where Deadwyler came from. You’d hope for a performance of this range, nuance, intensity, and stamina from very few contemporary African American actresses. Viola Davis perhaps, but she’s not young enough to play a 34-year-woman. So, this must be the Casting Coup of the Year, at the least. More, the burning fear and desperate fire in Deadwyler’s eyes, the wails from her primal depths, and finally her steely determination make this the finest acting performance I’ve seen this year, or perhaps in several, regardless of gender. Alert Oscars.

See the source image

Danielle Deadwyler’s elegantly power-packed performance as Mamie Till-Mobley carries the magnetic force of love and resolve in “Till.” CBSnews.com

Deadwyler’s biggest credits to date include the 2021 western The Harder They Fall and the Oprah Winfrey TV soap-opera, The Haves and Have Nots. Talk about a starburst.

The film also marks the full emergence of screenwriter-director Chukwu, whose previous biggest credit was Clemency, the 2019 death-row drama starring Alfre Woodard as a prison warden dealing with an inmate’s imminent execution. That film was also based on a historical case, of Troy Davis, a prisoner executed in 2011. Chukwu received the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, the first Black woman to do so.

Till focuses on Mamie even as we see her high-spirited son’s social vibrancy amid burgeoning teen hormones, even spontaneously dancing with his mother, a joyous moment oddly fraught with foreshadowing. When he accepts an invitation to visit his cousins in Mississippi, his future is vaguely prophesized by Mamie’s mother (played by a frowzy Whoopie Goldberg) who fled North from that state long ago. The first emotional tripping point comes when Emmett (played with apple-cheeked good-naturedness by Jaylyn Hall) says goodbye at the waiting Southbound train, against his mother’s wishes. She intuits she may not see her only child alive again. 

As the title character, 14-year-old Emmett Till (Jaylyn Hall) pauses moments before he makes a fatal mistake in a Mississippi grocery store. movieinsider.com

Soon, in a small Mississippi hamlet, Emmett is struck by the looks of a brunette white cashier, and gushes, “You look like a movie star!” He pulls out his wallet to show the photo of his fantasy lady, Hedy Lammar.

Then, as Carolyn Bryant indignantly follows him out the door (why?), he turns and foolishly wolf-whistles at her. His stunned cousins shudder, sensing their naïve Northern kin’s fate is threatened. The director exercises fine but properly noirish restraint in depicting Emmett’s abduction, torture and murder, by the woman’s husband and a friend.

The ruins of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in 2009. Wikipedia.com

Dire dread and drama catapult the story – when Mamie hears the news her deeply-pooled brown eyes absorb the shock until she faints, her only moment of weakness. Another stunning moment of emotional nakedness arrives at the murder trial when Mamie must explain that the bloated, mutilated body was in fact her son. In a few agonizing moments, you see and feel her take a rollercoaster dive to hell and back, while maintaining a semblance of dignity. She then steels herself for her remarkably tender and convincing answer.

In that moment, she’s managing a stage of grief with uncanny courage and fortitude. By now the actress is forging the embodiment of this mother’s legacy, evolving into a Civil Rights pioneer, an arc of transformation that inspires awe. Her decision to show her son in an open casket galvanizes America’s horror of racial crimes.

See the source image

Mamie Till-Mobley (Daneille Deadwyler) tells an NAACP-sponsored gathering that “we can never forget” her son’s murder. NBC News

The real Mamie Till addresses an audience in her newfound role as activist. Vox.com

The film’s informational coda underscores the point of the new federal hate crime legislation. Till’s murderers were found not guilty, by an all-white Mississippi jury. Later, in a paid magazine interview, the men admitted to the crimes, but could no longer be tried for it. Carolyn Bryant would admit she had lied under oath by saying Till propositioned and physically accosted her.

Mamie died in 2003. Yet, in the film’s closing scene, this mother’s love abides. We sense the arduousness of her journey feeds the light shining from within, towards the mountaintop.

_______________

Bid bon voyage to the good ship Denis Sullivan. Will she ever return to her birthplace, Milwaukee?

Our September 2016 departure from the Denis Sullivan’s dock, outside Discovery World on the Lake Michigan shore of Milwaukee. All photos by Kevin Lynch

We can absorb history in many ways, but it’s usually in a second-hand or secondary source way, like reading a book, or watching a documentary. Historically-attuned scholars and artists can surely illuminate the past with immeasurable brilliance and depth. The work of documentary-filmmaker supreme Ken Burns comes to mind, as do historians like Eric Foner, John Meacham, Shelby Foote, David S. Reynolds, Joseph Ellis, Sean Wilentz, David McCullough and others.

Yet for years, Milwaukee has been blessed with something even more vivid and experientially historical than those gifted people’s best efforts, even when they are talking as guest pundits on TV. I’m talking about a mainline to history as real as stepping aboard a tall sailing ship transporting you to the glory days of such vessels in the mid-1800s, the era of Moby-Dick, Two Years Before the Mast, and Typhoon. 1

In September of 2016, I was fortunate enough to take that step, off the Milwaukee harbor onto the city’s majestic flagship schooner S/V Denis Sullivan, for a Lake Michigan tour, which helped inspire this blog. It was motivated to do research for my novel about Herman Melville. I had visited an actual docked whaleship from the era, The Charles W. Morgan, in Mystic, Connecticut.

But I’d never actually sailed on a tall mast ship from that era, even if this one was a hybrid replica, built by volunteer Milwaukeeans – the world’s only re-creation of a 19th-century three-masted Great Lakes schooner. She was the flagship of both the state of Wisconsin and of the United Nations Environment Programme . .

And here you begin to get an inkling of our state’s loss, when the ship stripped of it’s tall masts — departed on October 8 for Boston, and it’s ultimate destination, St. Croix, now sold to a company in the Virgin Islands – as reported superbly by Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Reporter Chelsey Lewis, in the in-depth article linked to below.

Noted Milwaukee folksinger David HB Drake, a vocal opponent of the sale, had a suggestion, as he posted on his Facebook page: “OMG– The Denis Sullivan has been sold to Boston.

This for me is like the Braves being sold to Atlanta…unthinkable!
There was no warning or opportunity given to the very people who built her and volunteered these 30 years to keep her afloat in Milwaukee. Had there been, perhaps a citizens groups could have bought her and kept her here or at least formed a partnership with the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc to keep her in Wisconsin.”

However, that museum is currently in the midst of its own campaign to raise $1.5 million to put the USS Cobia, its World War II submarine, in dry dock, Lewis reports. The Manitowoc museum considered possibly serving as a home port for the ship, but not the home port.

Other organizations, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “were considering partnering with Discovery World to use the ship for programming around the newly designated Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary, but they, too, could not take primary ownership of the boat.”

Lewis reported on a former crewmember, Michael Gaithier, who expressed bitterness:

The boat was treated like an unwanted stepchild … it was neglected and not taken care of in the way that most tall ships with most healthy organizations behind them in this country have been taken care of

Back in September 2016, sail boats breeze by the port side rigging of the Denis Sullivan with the Milwaukee skyline in the background.

For my part, as an appreciative memory, I’ll convey some of our experience on the schooner. In September of 2016, there we were, riding the waves with the huge sails billowing to and fro, as the wind took us.

Ann Peterson in the deck of the schooner Denis Sullivan in September of 2016.

The historical schooner cruise was a birthday gift to me from my companion, Ann Peterson. And it was the palpable, wind-in-your-face, and even intoxicatingly moving experience I’d hoped for, even it proved too much for the steadiness of Ann, who started out gamely, as the picture above shows. Yet as the good ship dipped and swayed in the slightly feisty waters just beyond the Milwaukee harbor breakwaters, she grew a little green in the gills, and her chipper smile faded.

That’s part of the physical reality of being on open waters on such a vessel, but there’s so much more. You begin to get a sense of how a person can release oneself from the  confining and aggravating patterns of workaday and quotidian problems and pitfalls, and from the looming shadows of psychological malaise that life’s tensions and burdens can impose.

This sort of voyage lacks the tony creature-comforts and luxuries of an expensive cruise. Rather it does transport you back to a much heartier distant time, when brave people traveled and worked much closer to the elements of water, sun and wind. In reflection, one may draw from this elemental immediacy some sense of the holistic importance of water, covering the vast majority of the globe, and the ecosystems it sustains on water and land.

These are things that a writer like Melville, despite (and because of) being a whaler in his early adulthood, proved quite aware of, for a man of his time. His masterpiece novel  reveals that he had profound regard and respect for the whale and its place in “the watery part of the world,” as narrator Ishmael pointedly calls it, in his very first reference to the oceans, in “Loomings,” Chapter 1 of Moby-Dick. Or consider his gloriously attuned description of a great herd of nursing female whales in Chapter 87, “The Grand Armada.”  Such are some the educational aspects this vessel can pursue, though I’ve never taken an educational cruise on it, per se.

How resonant is the ship’s presence culturally? Well, for one example, renowned folk singer Pete Seeger recorded a song called “The Schooner Denis Sullivan” in 2001. 2

Here, Seeger sings his story-telling song a cappella:

Our 2016 cruise also allowed us to soak up the skyline of our modestly handsome city’s downtown, in ever-shifting contours, especially as the urban silhouette cuts itself against the increasing brilliance, then the warming glow of the setting sun in the West. (see photo sequence below). Looking upward, the towering, majestic sails overhead elicited a sort of poetry of rhythmic motion – sweeping, rippling, billowing and whispering.

The Milwaukee skyline from port side of the Denis Sullivan.

Back on the deck, one of the crew members pulled out a fiddle, as did one of the guests and the pair parlayed out a lively Irish-style reel. (Blog story with link to Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article continued, below photo sequence)

A crew member of the Denis Sullivan pulls out his fiddle to engage in a couple of Irish-style reels with a fiddle-playing passenger (not pictured).

 

Denis Sullivan Captain Carlos Canario at the schooner’s helm (gripping the steering wheel behind him) along Lake Michigan during our tour on the ship in 2016. Canario was the Relief Captain for Senior Captain Tiffany Krihwan, who has now departed and is now based in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the historically famous whaling town. t

In the tradition of Impressionist painters, see three views (above and below) of Milwaukee’s harbor and Hoan Bridge from the schooner Denis Sullivan, as the sun sets in the West.

An example of the sort of strange phenomenon one can experience out in the incalculable and evocative atmospheres of a Great Lake was this photo I took, from the Denis Sullivan. The ghostly spherical presence or optical effect hovers above the top of Summerfest’s Marcus Amphitheatre. I fancifully dub it “Sphere of sea god.”

***

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Reporter Chelsey Lewis admirably functions as a nautical and cultural historian in her comprehensive report on Milwaukee’s recent loss of the Denis Sullivan in the newspaper’s Sunday Life section. She provides an in-depth sounding, a voyage into the good ship’s past, present and future:

https://www.jsonline.com/story/travel/wisconsin/2022/10/27/how-milwaukee-built-and-lost-wisconsins-flagship-the-denis-sullivan/8198403001/.

The seeming tragedy is the story Ms. Lewis tells of the decision to sell, reportedly precipitated by the pandemic and the apparent failure to hire a new captain and first mate, after longtime ship Captain Tiffany Krihwan and her first mate were forced to leave by economic circumstances. Those included the shutting down of the ship for well over a year, along with Discovery World, to which it belonged. The reasons for the Denis Sullivan to be sold to another operation, World Ocean School, in, St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, remain questionable, especially given that there was a potential buyer in Chicago who would’ve kept the ship based in Milwaukee. The Chicago outfit, Tall Ship Windy, was prepared to make an offer close to the market value, about $1 million, Lewis reports.

By contrast, it is also troubling that Discovery World’s representatives refused to divulge the actual price of the ship’s sale. However, the successful sale should also underscore how distinguished and rare the Milwaukee-built schooner is for historical value, among other things, and the cultural loss Milwaukee is incurring. The sale rationale came down to a decision as to what is “best for the boat,” including maintaining one of its primary purposes as an educational entity. Why such a function could not continue to be maintained in Milwaukee remains unclear, aside from financial woes the operation is still apparently recovering from, post-pandemic.

The schooner’s powerful presence had also helped attract cultural events to its Discovery World dock, such as the evening concert by the popular Milwaukee jazz group VIVO, which was going on when we returned to dock in 2016.

Saxophonist-flutist Warren Wiegratz performs with VIVO, in a dockside concert going on as the Denis Sullivan, in background, moored after our September 2016 voyage on the 19th-century style schooner.

But read the Journal-Sentinel article to judge for yourself on the whole story of the city’s loss of the ship.

Lewis’s story does finally latch on strong rays of hope. The World Ocean School purchased the Milwaukee ship to replace it’s own flagship, which is now docked up for a few years for refurbishing. There’s a possibility they could be open to selling the Denis Sullivan back to Milwaukee when their own ship is ready to sail again. It is after all, a Great Lakes-style schooner. Still, one must consider such circumstances could change as drastically as the ever-roaming tides of the oceans and those Great Lakes, in all their magnificent and mystifying vagaries.

This two-sequence photo of Madison photographer Katrin Talbot (taken a few years before my trip on the ship) in collaborative research work for this writer’s Melville’s novel, shows some of the scale of the schooner Denis Sullivan. Retrospectively, Katrin seems to bid the ship farewell.

____________

1 In the afore-mentioned titles, authors Herman Melville (Moby-Dick), Richard Henry Dana Jr. (Two Years Before the Mast), and Joseph Conrad (Typhoon) gave us first-hand accounts, or concocted creative ships of transport themselves, in often-poetic prose. These were all based on their actual nautical experiences.

The mid-1800s were haunted by captains courageous and crazed, mighty sea creatures, countless sailors and whalers (drowned and survived), “widow’s walk” wives, and others who directly engaged in, or experienced, the drama and danger of 19th-century sea commerce, romance, and warfare (see Melville’s White-Jacket and Billy Budd, both set on warships).

2. Denis Sullivan Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denis_Sullivan_(schooner))