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Pfister Artist in Residence Todd Mrozinski

Bringing shadows to light

May. 5, 2015
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Courtesy of the Pfister Hotel

Clutching a delicate black-and-white photograph in his hands, the 2015 Pfister Hotel Artist in Residence Todd Mrozinski stared fixedly at an early image of his late father, searching in vain for some artistic inspiration. The photo showed his dad dressed as a young seminarian in the 1950s, starting his vocation at St. Casimir parish in Riverwest. After 20 years and longing for a family, however, he left the priesthood and fell in love with Todd’s mother. On the one-year anniversary of his father’s death, Mrozinski decided he wanted to translate the photograph to canvas. 

“I hadn’t really done realistic painting, especially from a photograph, in over a decade,” said Mrozinski. “I got really frustrated, so I decided to take a nap to clear my head. Later I woke up and right away noticed this light pouring in through our front door window. I got up, went over there, and saw this giant tree shadow on the front lawn. I just knew I had to paint it.”

Immediately he grabbed his canvas and tools, laid them out upon the sidewalk, and began tracing the leaves and branches with thin lines of white paint. The experience left a lasting and profound impact on Mrozinski.

“For me, art and spirit coincide,” said Mrozinski. “When I was outside tracing that tree shadow on my hands and knees, it really felt like a religious experience. I really felt the presence of my father, much more so than when I was looking at his photograph. It was just from the presence of that streaming sunlight.”

Taking inspiration from the sun felt particularly fitting; Mrozinski’s father’s first name was Ray.

Three years later, Mrozinski’s Shadow Series oil paintings have served as the inspiration for his Artist in Residence proposal, “Light From the Pfister.” The yearlong series at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel will include eight shadow portraits and tracings inspired by the light coming through the hotel’s large, ornate windows. A legacy piece will also be created which will go on permanent display. His large Victorian-style studio is set to house a silhouette-tracing area where guests will be able to sit and see their shadows come to life on canvas. Mrozinski believes this shadow artwork will lend itself to collaborations with both guests and staff, as well as becoming a natural extension of the Victorian art collection at the Pfister.

“Doing these shadows, I saw that there was an opening to work with people,” said Mrozinski, who prefers to use oil paint for its translucency and richness. “All of my subjects I’ve invited over to my studio. I’d set them up having a drink and trace them. When I thought about the Pfister, I thought it would be perfect to continue this idea with its guests, especially in a building so beautiful, inspiring and magnificent. The series is a wonderful tool to connect with people whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Mrozinski, born in Indiana and raised in Fond du Lac, Wis., came to Milwaukee after high school to study painting at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. After college he ran a small mural business for about eight years and a house painting business for about 10 years. Entrepreneurial spirit, however, never shook his love of art. About a year ago, Mrozinski and his wife Renee started creating fine art full time from their Riverwest studio and he is now represented by a gallery in Palm Springs, Calif.

Over time Mrozinski’s Shadow Series, rich in deep purples, reds and lizerines, has evolved. The project first took inspiration from trees, then from wedding bouquets and finally from human silhouettes. The first person’s shadow he used was his daughter’s, who at the time was helping her dad trace plant shadows in his home studio.

“It really does feel like painting a soul,” said Mrozinski. “I’m painting the energy of the interaction. The painting is just one piece of the whole process, which involves finding the person and asking them to sit, drink and have a portrait done. A lot of times, if they are looking straight at the canvas, it’s as if they are seeing their own shadow for the first time. We often see shadows as a concept, but when you sit down and see the shape that is your shadow, it’s like painting that spark of initial recognition.”

Mrozinski’s residency plans also include painting workshops for the hotel’s guests. He and his wife have held several classes for both intermediate and beginner artists.

“I wanted a space where people who may have never worked with oil can experiment,” said Mrozinski. “I’ve seen the joy my classes have just by spreading paint—just to apply oil paint on canvas. The difference here is that there are paintings everywhere in the Pfister. As soon as people spread paint and have a sense and feel of how that works, they can have a better appreciation of what they are looking at. They can say, ‘Look, this is how Lorenz painted this horse’s mane. It’s beautiful.’”

Since swapping a sun-splashed sidewalk for a studio in the Pfister, Mrozinski intends to create a warm, inviting place in which people can relax, be engaged and be able to experience artwork. Each painting, a unique dance between the guest and himself, is an opportunity to look into the light and distinguish the shadows we live among every day.

“I really just hope people will be able to take a little light of the Pfister back home with them.”


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