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Art Marries Technology at UWM’s Peck School

New perspectives on display at Kenilworth Open Studios

Apr. 4, 2017
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Last year, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was designated a university of “highest research activity” by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. This coveted “R1” status is shared by a mere 114 colleges and universities in the U.S. As is evident from its annual Kenilworth Open Studios, UWM’s Peck School of the Arts is a major part of the institution’s research culture. On Saturday, April 8, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., more than 100 students and faculty from the Peck School will be on hand to display and discuss their interdisciplinary, socially conscious and utilitarian work. 

Chris Willey, Lecturer in Digital Studio Practice and First Year Program, marries art and technology to cultivate empathy. In his newly founded Immersive Media Lab, Willey and his students are developing content for virtual and augmented reality. “As an artist, my goal is to share stories that have an empathetic base,” Willey explains, “I want us to be better, together.” Virtual though the reality may be, this technology has shown the potential to grant new perspectives by allowing us to walk a ways in someone else’s shoes; for instance, in the case of one 360 video, the tattered shoes of a Middle Eastern refugee. 

During the Open Studios, visitors will be able to dip their toes into a virtual reality. A rig running Google’s Tilt Brush will be set up in the fifth floor Immersive Media Lab. The program allows you to paint in three dimensions, yielding an experience at the intersection of painting, sculpture and animation that Willey irresistibly describes as “eewy gooey, lush and cinematic.”

“I feel that cartoon art is the hardest to make because it’s really abstraction,” says Tim Decker. “A great artist copies life. A great cartoonist caricatures life.” Decker has a résumé that lends credence to such a bold assertion. His background includes work on “The Simpsons,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film and as an animation director at Disney. As Senior Lecturer of Animation in UWM’s Film School, Decker’s current task is shaping the animators of tomorrow in classes such as Character Development, Advanced Animation and Puppetry. 

“This is one of the only schools that houses all of the arts together,” Decker says. “It is really important that students be exposed to the different arts.” He points to the importance of musical elements for his field: “Animation and puppetry are all about rhythm, timing and beat. When you animate something, it has to move with rhythm. If the timing is off, it doesn’t have soul.” Decker has put his puppetry students to the test with a music video assignment. During the Open Studios, the students will be working on a video set to B.B. King’s “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” taking place (where else?) in a chicken coop with “Muppet puppet” (i.e. foam-based) chickens and foxes.

With the pedagogical zeal characteristic of highly accomplished professionals, Decker looks forward to the Open Studios chiefly as an opportunity to recruit his next cohort of students. 

Senior Lecturer of Community Arts Raoul Deal is well ahead of the curve when it comes to recruiting. Ten high school students are an integral part of Deal’s team, which is in the final stages of a mural project begun in February 2016. The 85-foot mural recounts the history of the United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS) in Milwaukee with depictions of figures like activist Jesus Saras, pivotal events such as Mexican Fiesta and themes including the role of women in the movement.

For Fatuma Mohammed, a junior at Rufus King High School, working on the mural has been an empowering experience. “Minorities have been seen as voiceless,” she says. “This mural is a way of giving voice to ourselves.” Trey Savage began working on the mural as a high school student but graduated early and is now double majoring in psychology and art at UWM. For Medalia Santos, who lives in Shorewood and is of Puerto Rican descent, the UMOS mural has been both educative and inspiring. “I go to a majority white school where we haven’t learned any Hispanic history.” Despite the nature of the work, as an expression of solidarity, Santos elected to forego working on the mural on a Day Without Latinos. Deal beams with pride when he recalls being short-staffed.

The mural is to be installed on the Butters Fetting building at First and Mitchell on Saturday, May 20, but during the Open Studios it will still engulf the gallery walls of Kenilworth Square East’s ground floor.

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