Local outsider artist Jimmy von Milwaukee
In 1988, artist Jimmy von Milwaukee (JVM) ran for Mayor in our town, but four years prior to that he was getting ready to drop out of UW-Milwaukee’s art department.
“I was sick of the university and university politics,” he says, admitting that actually, he learned a lot, or at least enough to alter nutcrackers so they satirized Mayor Norquist & Marilyn Figueroa, and our then-Milwaukee Police Chief Arthur Jones. These are from 2002.
The 1980s was the decade when “Outsider Art” (self-taught, folk, etc.) was gaining a local foothold. Erstwhile gallery owner Kent Mueller was then busy in Riverwest at his Wright Street Gallery, showcasing the likes of Prophet Blackmon, Milwaukee’s preacher-painter. Meanwhile, Von Milwaukee cobbled the infamous Leo Feldman Galleries, Inc.—a moveable feast of both trained and untrained artists exhibiting in rent-free basement spaces. It debuted on Jefferson Street near George Watts, with visitors entering the gallery via an alley.
I was there and those who weren’t were square and missed the chance to ogle art made by Mike “Ringo” White, Bob Watt, and assorted others who entered the art fray. Art snobs stayed away. Debra Brehmer is now the current owner of Portrait Society Gallery, but in the Way Back she helped found and edit Art Muscle magazine, a publication that often featured Outsider artists. PSG carries on Brehmer’s mission, with exhibitions that frequently feature those outside of the mainstream.
Eventually, von Milwaukee would establish Feldman Galleries, Inc. in a Third Ward basement at 309 N. Water St. “My shows were always in basements,” he says. “I was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright who thought basements created mold and decay.” JVM was a rebel with a cause.
Though many of the artists who exhibited with him weren’t formally trained, some were. Chrisanne Robertson (also known as “Cashbox”), photographer/educators Shimon and Lindemann, Sally Kolf (JVM’s former wife), and a Fink named Matt mingled with performance artists such as Jord Circus from Stockholm and Erick Lunde of Boy Dirt Car, who at one of JVM’s infamous gatherings performed with members of Die Kruezen. In preparing for one of his openings, I helped him shop at Soref’s Carpet City for lime green shag carpeting to cover the walls of a closet-like space in, you guessed it, a basement. I read this week that Soref’s is closing.
But von Milwaukee’s interest in art-on-the-edge really began in the late 1970s when he worked as a security guard for the Jewish Vocational Services. His employers knew he was an artist, so they invited him to work in the Art Therapy program with various vocational service clients.
“They pretty much did their own thing,” JVM recalls, adding that the idea was to let them experiment at their own speed. Many of the artworks in his Outsider collection were retrieved from the Vocational Services dumpster. Here’s one:
“I also brought artworks from Jay [Devere],” he says, showing me another watercolor of a couple driving in a purple car, and then one of a flag-draped casket in a parade. “It’s no secret,” he says, “when Outsider art became fashionable, hordes of artists tried to recreate the look.”
Dr. Curtis Carter speaks somewhat to this point when he suggests in a thoughtful Shepherd Express article about the Petullo collection, that the craze perhaps grew from the search for fresh art material. I would agree, but of course that doesn’t make Petullo’s efforts any less valuable.
Here’s another example from von Milwaukee’s collection. Purchased in 1992 for $20 during a visit to NYC, the artist JaBolo was selling his art outside of the Museum of Modern Art. The untitled image is mixed media on cardboard. A quick look at nycstreetartist.com/JaBolo shows that the dude has a website, and that his prices have escalated considerably.
Now that he’s a mature artist who has been involved with art for decades, what does JVM think about the Outsider art movement in general? Well, his opinions remain much the same as they did when he dropped out of college decades ago. Von Milwaukee is eager to mention that the Milwaukee Art Museum has one of his paintings, acquired by Russell Bowman, who from 1985-2002 helped navigate the developing Calatrava addition. We chat about Bowman’s personal collection of Outsider art and his skill in sealing the deal for the museum’s Michael and Julie Hall collection.
The Petullo collection at the MAM (Accidental Genius, running now through May 6) would seem to bring the movement to full closure, but intrigue lurks in this Von Milwaukee tale. In the long ago when he was a temp worker hired at Olsten (Petullo’s business), a temp service worker showed him around the offices. “They were packed with art collected by Mr. Petullo,” he says.
Photos by Benjamin Wick for ThirdCoast Digest.