The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts finds its “Auteur”

New JGCA executive director Kai Simone on the center’s legendary stage, inherited from the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery. Photos by Kevin Lynch

A new critical biography of the brilliant film director Alfred Hitchcock inevitably examines how he became the first American embodiment of an auteur. 1 The term, used by French critics and directors, refers to the artist who controls her work’s vision and process, in a group artistic endeavor.

In a significant change, the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts may have found it’s auteur, Kai Simone. The organization’s mission statement strives for “community…strengthened by creativity.” As the Riverwest Artists Association, the center was a dedicated but collective endeavor. Yet one board member characterized board meetings as sometimes “painful” and, despite the center’s considerable accomplishments, president Mark Lawson commented, perhaps only half-jokingly, ”We really didn’t know what we were doing.”

The RAA is visual arts-oriented, but the JGCA is about diversity in the arts and audience.

JGCA Executive Director Kai Simone (left) will bring diverse experience to the venue’s dedicated board of directors, which includes (standing beside Simone) president Mark Lawson and artist Bennie Higgins. 

That’s where Simone, the first-ever executive director, steps in. “I have a very special relationship to jazz,” said the former Chicagoan with an abundance of connections to that city’s rich jazz community, as did the founder of center’s nominal inspiration, the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, Chuck LaPaglia. Strong allies of Simone include Heather Ireland Robinson, ED of The Jazz Institute of Chicago, and Emmy Award-winning trumpeter Orbert Davis, artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. A source of inspiration is Ralph Bass, an influential R&B and jazz producer at Chicago’s legendary Chess Records. Such factors should help sustain the jazz/creative music tradition JGCA has provided The Second City’s “second city,” if you will.

The center took a step forward a few years ago with the hiring of Program Manager Amy Schmutte, who leads the successful O.W.L. program, an arts presentations and activities program geared to senior members of the Riverwest community. And as gallery director, Schmutte has dramatically boosted the center’s sales of artwork, especially online sales during the financially tenuous period of the COVID pandemic.

Simone will develop from that success, and look far further afield.

“I also want to build on the legacy of the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, develop more educational and historical programs, and scholarships.”  Simone’s eyes are firmly fixed on the future — and the venue’s distinctive checkerboard stage. She feels the center needs much more outreach to youth culture, a specialty of hers.

The center showed that potential with a monthly performance series geared to hip-hop culture which — before the pandemic — developed a strong youth following almost on its own self-directed momentum.

Simone is an experienced theater director and herein the auteur analogy strengthens. In an interview, this truly seemed a woman of embracing vision, but also fully capable of handling practical operations of a multi-arts center. “I love mentoring, leading, and teaching.” she says. She’s also a performer, a writer, and a singer-songwriter. She founded the arts-ed Skai Academy, an MPS affiliate until the pandemic led to system fund cuts. That circumstance helped lead her to the center’s new opportunity.

For all her educational bona-fides, Simone values ultimately allowing students liberty to think “outside the box.” She relates how she once hid herself inside a cardboard box onstage before an unsuspecting young audience and, when she finally burst out, she had them “hooked.” Such engaging ingenuity should help strengthen the JGCA. Simone also envisions doing more with the WXRW radio programming already benefitting the center, as well as “virtual reality presentations, even animated films.” 2

She also thinks she can combine the center’s non-profit status with indirect profiting strategies, through partnerships, with MPS and Arts @ Large, among other organizations. “We own the building, so rent helps. So, it’s a business approach. I like problem-solving and talking to people about visions and passions. I want to take it to another level.” Regarding diverse community outreach and audience-building, Milwaukee has, besides African-Americans and Latinx, “a huge Hmong community, as well as Japanese, Burmese, and Ghanaian,” said Simone, whose daughter is half-Ghanaian. “I want to think globally and act locally.”

________

This article was originally published in slightly shorter form in the Neighborhoods section of The Shepherd Express https://shepherdexpress.com/neighborhoods/riverwest/jazz-gallery-center-for-the-arts-finds-its-auteur/

1 The critical biography is The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense, by Edward White, published in March 2021.

2. Saturdays at 10 a.m., JGCA board member Elizabeth Vogt hosts WXRW 104.1 FM Riverwest Radio’s weekly Artful Lives, an interview and arts profile program, on behalf of the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts. It’s a low-power station, but all programs are available to stream in the station’s archives.

Jazz Gallery show finds creative ways to begin again, emerging from pandemic

Art exhibit review

“Places I’ve been and may never see again,/ I won’t say haunted but I get visited/ and it follows me around wherever I go./ Begin to begin, begin to begin.” — “Begin to Begin”  Field Report

If we’re not haunted by the last dreaded year, it surely still follows us around, at the very least with masks, whether pocketed or making us  strangers to friends. Worst of all is a plague of recollected fright, sickness and loss.

So slowly, we begin to begin, again, the new “old” life.

One of Milwaukee’s lesser-known art galleries reflects back on the pandemic with vivid and resonant forms and imagery. The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 E. Center St., is best known as a live music venue, which obscures its distinguished history of well-curated and extremely diverse art exhibits, overseen by the venue’s manager Mark Lawson, who also curates galleries at The Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. 1

ReBegin: New Works for New Beginnings, a group show of 18 artists running through May 29,  suggests creative-rebirth from pandemic, but also how we may never see the places we’ve been to, in the same way.

Howard Leu’s noirish, black-and-white photo-archival print, “You Don’t Call No More,” conveys social loss, with art loft-like window panes separating the viewer from fog-enshrouded telephone poles.

Howard Leu, “You Don’t Call No More,” photo archival print. All photos of artwork by Amy Schmutte

Roxane Mayer’s gritty, cold-wax encaustic-entombed facades include the year’s other massive human pilgrimage to healing, defiant social activism, with a window-pane poster reading “Hate Has No Home Here.”

Jim Farrell’s two pieces, rich with evocative, story-telling textures, address the mind and psyche — “Ancestral Orbit” in profound quests, and “Logic Perimeter” in a human head’s mathematical cogitations, a fight-or-flight reflex toward cleansing the virus’s impact, a longed-for rebeginning.

Jim Farrell, “Logic Perimeter,” mixed media

Similarly, Karen Williams-Brusubradis’ large acrylic painting “Metamorphosis,” reveals the microscopic workings of an apparent human nervous system in transformation from forces playing, or preying, upon it.

Karen Williams-Brusubradis, “Metamorphosis,” acrylic painting

Among the most optimistic or affirmative pieces is Benny Higgins’ lyrical “Frog Hunter III,” depicting an at-risk boy playing at a riverside, somewhat autobiographical in that Higgins, a former police officer and untrained artist, now counsels “men to be better men” at a women’s shelter, Lawson explains.

Benny Higgins, “Frog Hunter III,” oil 

Amy Schmutte’s virtuosic and innovative color photography seems to depict spring’s inevitable emergence from an atmosphere-immersed haze. In her Lewis Carroll-esque titled “Sproutoutlyng,” a lusciously sinuous flower fights through a sublime shadow of infected memory. Schmutte, who co-curated the show, prints her photos on brushed metal plates “because the way that light plays with that surface adds another layer of beauty” in photography, which she thinks of as “writing with light.”

Well said.

Amy Schmutte, “Sproutoutlyng” photography on brushed metal

Yet for me, the most eloquent and powerful piece in the show is its only sculpture, “Chrysallis,” by Jessica Schubkegel. This is a life-sized figure of a small woman, prone, and apparently afflicted. The piece comprises a model constructed of wire mesh, covered by a skin montage of torn fragments from a medical text. Buoyed in grace with elegant gestures, the form follows one leg raised at the knee, sinuous hip contraposto, and an arm bent to reach gently for the throat. It balances a sense of repose and illness that dwells deep in uncertainty. For all that hard-earned beauty, the closer you look, the more you discover implications of insight in the medical bits of meaning, an immersive, acute sense of possible doom. Still, the title perseveres. This mummy-like presence mirrors nature’s rebirth, and a sense of emergence and deliverance.

Jessica Schubkegel, “Chrysallis,” textbook paper and wire

The show also includes work by Lawson, Gwen Graznow, Tayla Hart, John Kowalczyk, Bruce Knackert, Sharon Mergener, Bob Neuman,  Jeff Redmon, Sarah Risley, Dee Dee Schaefer, and Vesile Yilmaz.

A side gallery includes anime-style cartoons by McKinley Blackwell.

___________

1 The JGCA art exhibits are often curated by committee, including the organization’s board members or other artists Lawson invites to curate. Despite no live music this last year, the venue has survived the pandemic significantly thanks to a notable increase in sales of artwork, both in the gallery and especially online, Lawson says. Here’s the link to the JGCA’s visual art online: https://jazzgallerycenterforarts.org/art 

 

This review was first published in slightly altered form in Shepherd Express, here.