Catherine Jozwik
Art Scene

Always On the Wing

Busy gallery owner, writer and MIAD instructor Debra Brehmer has strong views about art.

By - Sep 17th, 2019 01:40 pm

Debra Brehmer represents just about every aspect of Milwaukee’s visual art community. She’s a longtime art writer, a MIAD instructor, gallery owner and head of a small nonprofit.

Brehmer opened Portrait Society Gallery in a 300-square-foot space in the Third Ward’s Marshall Building in 2009. Why that name? “The portrait is the most democratic form of art imaginable. It exists in everyone’s lives as a form of art—in wallets, on walls, in photo albums, and most prevalently, in phones,” says Brehmer.

The Portrait Society represents artists whose work wouldn’t be considered portraiture in the traditional sense. “It is simply a contemporary gallery that shows work across genres. But everything is a portrait, really, because it comes from the reference of a human being. There is no need for direct representation, and that gets old pretty fast, anyway,” Brehmer said.

She noted that she is particular about the artists Portrait Society Gallery represents.

“I am not greedy in that I try to gobble up every available artist. I only want to work with people who I know I can benefit by not only selling their work but by nurturing their careers,” Brehmer said. “I tend towards feminist ideals, diversity—creating an ideal world within the microcosm of this endeavor.”

In addition to the gallery, Brehmer also keeps busy with her nonprofit organization On the Wing, which she formed several years ago. The organization hosts weekly sketchbook drawing sessions at the House of Peace, 1702 W. Walnut St.

“I wanted to find a way to expand the boundaries of the gallery beyond the mental and physical confines of the Third Ward,” she explains. “This meant crossing the physical demarcations of segregation, moving into neighborhoods that do not have access to the art world in which I participate. I wanted to do something to bridge those worlds while expanding my own.”

In spring, the Portrait Society Gallery hosted “On the Wing: Sketchbooks,” an exhibit showcasing the sketchbooks of a number of On the Wing participants, as well as established local artists. The exhibit also served as a fundraiser for On the Wing. Each sketchbook was purchased from the artist for $50, and then sold for $100, with proceeds benefiting the organization.

Brehmer, who writes for the national publication Hyperallergic, can be withering at times. Her review of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Bouguereau show was headlined “A Show of Saccharine, Seductive Greeting Card Paintings Sponsored by Deep Conservatism,” and included shots at the artist and the Bradley Foundation, which underwrote the show.

Yet Brehmer sees much to admire in the city’s art scene. “The city’s main art resource right now is the solid collective infrastructure of dedicated people working at every level,” she says, and that makes her “optimistic” about Milwaukee’s art community and its future.

The Portrait Society Gallery will celebrate its 10-year anniversary with Susceptible to Images, a new exhibit opening with a reception from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sept. 27. The exhibit will be on display through November 9 and will feature work by nearly 20 artists.

Art News and Events

-For its fifth year, the Milwaukee Art Museum will sponsor the Art and Artists series, a dozen documentary films to be shown at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival. This year’s lineup includes Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint (Germany, 2019), A Bigger Splash (UK, 1974), If the Dancer Dances (USA, 2018), Jay Myself (USA, 2018), Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear (USA, 2019), The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion (USA, 2019), Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (USA, 2019), Varda by Agnes (France, 2019), Vision Portraits (USA/Canada/Germany 2019), Well Groomed (USA, 2019), Zia Anger: My First Film (USA, 2018) and Yuli (Spain/UK/Germany, 2018). Visit for more information.

-The sixth annual Riverworks Week will be held this week through Saturday. Hosted by the Riverworks Business Improvement District, the week of events will include the Inventor’s Circus, a Rube Goldberg-style competition; a popup café serving Colectivo Coffee and baked goods; A Creative District Alive block party on Holton St. and Concordia and Townsend Avenues, with food and live music by De La Buena; the annual Riverworks BID Awards at Gathering Place Brewing Company, and more. Visit for an events lineup and more details.

Wednesday, 1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.:

Sculpture Milwaukee will host a trolley tour of the Wisconsin Avenue sculptures. Visit for tickets.

Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.:

-Sculpture Milwaukee will host a lecture at St. Kate Arts Hotel’s Arc Theater by interdisciplinary artist Nicolas Lampert, who will discuss the works of photographer, sculptor and installation artist Sam Durant. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the talk will start at 6 p.m.

Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.:

-An opening reception for Jan Serr: A Painter’s Photographs of India will be held at The Warehouse, 1635 W. St. Paul Ave. The exhibit, which opened September 13, will feature a series of Jan Serr’s landscape-rich photographs from Northern and Southern India.

Thursday, 6:15 p.m.:

Milwaukee Art Museum will present In Conversation: Jamie Nares and Julian Schnabel, a talk with the influential contemporary artist whose exhibit, Nares: Moves runs through October 6, and renowned filmmaker Julian Schnabel, in the museum’s Lubar Auditorium. The talk is free with museum admission and free for MAM members.

Friday, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.:

Julie Weber: Re/Process, the gallery’s newest exhibit, will open with a reception at the Alice Wilds Gallery, 900 S. 5th St., Ste 102.

Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.:

-The Bay View Bash, one of Milwaukee’s largest neighborhood celebrations featuring live music, local artisans and food vendors, family-friendly activities, and a dog parade, will take place on Kinnickinnic Avenue, between Russell and Potter avenues.

Saturday, noon to 4 p.m.:

-Milwaukee National Portfolio Day, a free event for prospective students of visual arts, will be held at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design’s Jane Bradley Pettit building, 273 E. Erie St. National Portfolio Day will feature a number of representatives from National Association of Schools of Art and Design-accredited colleges. Attendees are encouraged to bring samples of their original works. Visit for more information.

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