Judith Ann Moriarty
Inside Outsiders

Local outsider artist Jimmy von Milwaukee

By - Mar 6th, 2012 04:00 am
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email

Altered Nutcrackers (mixed media, by artist Jimmy Von Milwaukee, 2002)

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:

Girl in Daisy Shirt (Watercolor on paper, By Jay Devere)

“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.”

JVM remembers Marcia Tucker (founder of the New Museum in NYC) lecturing at the Milwaukee Art Museum, about a folk artist with a doctoral degree. “The rush for fashionable art,” he quips, “is no different than the rush for gold.”

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.

Man wearing Dreadlocks (mixed media, by JaBolo)

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.

For more on TCD’s coverage of Milwaukee Art Museum’s “Accidental Genius,” click here for Judith Ann Moriarty’s review and here for Kat Murrell’s review.

4 thoughts on “Inside Outsiders: Local outsider artist Jimmy von Milwaukee”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane with Jimmy Von Milwaukee (and it’s sad that Bob Watt died recently). A great article!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Came across this great article by accident. It’s been 20 yrs since leaving Milwaukee; but I will always remember Jimmy VonMilwaukee, fondly, as one of the more creative critters in your midst.

    I sure hope he is not just a “walk down memory lane”; JVM was always engaged in future projects. Although Leon Feldman “events” could be described as tempting side shows, Jimmy had a sincere empathy/interest for his outsider artists.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I went to art school with Jim, adored him and his talent. I had a great time taking the piss out of people.

  4. Sandra Stevens says:

    JMV is one of the most talented, intelligent and interesting individuals I’ve ever known. I miss you Jimmy! I’ll see you at your gallery soon. So glad I found you!!! Sandra from our local 770 days!

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us