Artists and their works are flowing into Port Washington, thanks to the downtown studio and gallery established by Jane Suddendorf to nurture art in her community
Matthew Lee sat amid the organized clutter of an artist’s workspace in Studio 224 in the basement of the Boerner Mercantile Building in Port Washington Saturday morning.
In front of him on an easel was a still life of an animal’s jaw that was dwarfed by a sweeping landscape painting that will be part of “The World Retrieved: Contemporary Landscapes,” an exhibit he is curating at nearby Gallery 224 that opens next month.
Fellow artist-in-residence Jamie Bertsch was also in the studio, although not for long. She was off to show relatives the exhibit she curated, “Tactility,” which is at the gallery through March 21.
And Jane Suddendorf was talking about how her dream for emerging artists and the City of Port Washington was unfolding before her eyes.
“I think we are putting Port Washington on the map in the art world,” she said.
Suddendorf opened Gallery 224 in the Port Harbor Center shopping mall at 224 E. Main St. in downtown Port in 2012 as a physical and philosophical extension of her classroom at Port Washington High School, where she has taught art for the last 17 years.
A year later, the nonprofit organization she runs opened Studio 224 just a block-and-a-half to the west of the gallery at 211 N. Franklin St. after she was approached by Boerner Mercantile Building owner Dan Ewig.
“Dan asked me if I had any ideas about what to do with this basement space,” Suddendorf said.
She didn’t have to think twice. The space was an ideal setting for an artist-in-residence studio that, with its brick walls and exposed pipes on the ceiling, has an industrial air about it that suggests this is a place where art is made.
Since then, the gallery and studio have developed a symbiotic relationship with Port.
To the city they bring art and artists, not just to display their work but to create it, discuss it and organize it in exhibits that combine the talents of emerging artists — sometimes even high school students — with established professionals.
In return, Port hosts a program that provides the space, time and support budding artists need to refine their skills and find their artistic voices. Most important, perhaps, the city provides an audience for artists.
“We’ve worked very hard to distinguish this artist-in-residence program from others,” Suddendorf said. “What we have to offer is Port Washington, a small town that is different from big cities like Milwaukee where you would usually find such programs.”
Artist-in-residence programs are critical, Suddendorf said, to supporting artists and are in keeping with her goal of fostering art education.
The program, which is funded by grants and donations Suddendorf has managed to secure, provides emerging artists with a workspace and a stipend.
“After they graduate (from college), emerging artists have no money and no place to make their artwork,” Suddendorf said. “They’re just kind of kicked out on the street.
“This program is useful because it helps them stay afloat.”
It also gives them time to refine their art and articulate their artistic vision by discussing it with non-artists in studio and gallery settings. That’s why the studio is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.
“It’s an opportunity to demystify what artists do,” Suddendorf said. “The idea is to invite the public in so they can see artists at work and have conversations with them about their art. That’s part of growing an understanding of art in the community.”
The open studio concept gives the public an opportunity to meet artists like Lee and Bertsch, who both have master’s degrees in art and teach at Milwaukee colleges. They are among four artists-in-residence currently working in the studio and 10 who will cycle through the program over the course of a year.
“When you have a conversation with an artist, you learn they are more than just artists,” Suddendorf said.
Lee, whose work includes still life drawings of animal bones, is a researcher who will spend part of the summer in Montana excavating dinosaur bones to further his artistic career. He is also a member of the United States Antarctic Program who spent 13 months at the South Pole, where he taught watercolor painting to researchers.
Of the exhibit he is curating, which will be shown at the gallery April 10 through May 2, Lee said, “Landscapes are often thought of as being bucolic. I want to show people that’s not the only landscape.
“With ‘The World Retrieved,’ I’m showing landscapes in a contemporary way. I’m thinking about landscapes philosophically as comments on political and social issues.”
Suddendorf’s community art program literally spilled out of her Port High classroom about four years ago when she wanted to give students in her advanced placement studio art class an audience. The result was the “Thinking About Art” exhibit.
“It started by bringing art from my AP class to a vacant downtown space, and I just never left,” she said, referring to the current gallery. “It was such a thrill to be able to show their art to the public.”
But it was the “Birds of a Different Feather” exhibit that embodied Suddendorf’s mission and set the tone for the gallery. The exhibit paired the work of emerging artists with established professionals, most notably renown landscape painter Tom Uttech of the Town of Saukville, who is famous for his paintings of North American woodlands and the animals that live there.
“I knew Tom, and I knew that if I could get him in the show it would elevate the exhibit and energize the other artists,” Suddendorf said. “It gave the emerging artists the ability to say, ‘I was in a show with Tom Uttech.’
“This was really the model — a complete spectrum where emerging artists could show work alongside their mentors and professionals.”
What you won’t find at Gallery 224 is Suddendorf’s work. She has taken a hiatus from creating art to focus on her opus — a sustainable program that bridges the gap between classroom and gallery and makes art accessible to the public.
“I hope to paint one day, but what I’m doing now is very satisfying,” she said. “I see myself in a directing and teaching role, trying to create a model that will last.”
It’s a stark departure from Suddendorf’s earlier career as an artist who created large-scale drawings sold in commercial galleries.
“When you become established with a gallery, you kind of get locked in a box that dictates what your art is supposed to look like,” she said. “The galleries just expected more of the same.”
Shortly after moving to Port Washington 20 years ago when her husband Jeff was named pastor of First Congregational Church in Port, Suddendorf organized an art day at Lincoln Elementary School to expose grade-school students to professional artists in the community. It was a harbinger of a career and a mission to come.
She decided she wanted to teach art and went back to school.
“I was definitely an older student,” she said.
The professional turned student who became a teacher and found a home at Port High now also serves as director of the nonprofit organization that runs the artist-in-residence program and gallery.
“This all relates to my teaching, so it doesn’t feel like I’m doing three jobs at once,” Suddendorf said. “Teaching art is not just about teaching skills. It’s about helping artists figure out how they see the world. Once they figure that out, the skills will come.”
In addition to teaching, Suddendorf said, she has learned a few things too, namely that small-town Port Washington is a city that supports the arts. She noted that Ewig and his wife Marie-Anne donate the space for Studio 224 and that the owners of Port Harbor Center charge “very generous rent.”
That gives Suddendorf hope that her dream of making the gallery and studio a permanent part of the cultural fabric of Port Washington is possible.
“I’m committed to seeing this through,” she said. “My goal is to make this sustainable so it survives long beyond me.”
An opening reception for “The World Retrieved” will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, April 10, at Gallery 224, 224 E. Main St., Port Washington. The exhibit runs through May, 2.
The gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.
Image information: Studio 224 Director Jane Suddendorf and artist-in-residence Matthew Lee posed in front of a sampling of his work in the basement of the Boerner Mercantile Building in downtown Port Washington. Photo by Bill Schanen IV