The Unexpected Dynamic of Urgency
By Bilhenry Walker, Artist and Activist
Upon graduation from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1968, I began working full time as a professional artist in my two-car garage in Altadena, California. During the next four years, I developed and built a series of wall-sculptures which used a light source to explore the effects of light on color and shadow.
I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1972 and rented my first studio in Cedarburg, where I worked exclusively as a sculptor for three years. I eventually bought a building in Grover Heights where I continued developing my artistic sensibility through building acrylic sculptures in the 70s, casting monumental poly-ester resin sculptures in the 80s, and fabricating aluminum monumental sculptures to the present. I have only recently begun developing a “Social Justice” aspect to my work, which has brought me back to figural work with socio-political implications.
I created a sculpture gallery in 1980 for Wisconsin sculptors and eventually included sculptors from around the county whom I met in national competitions. In 1995, I brought Bilhenry Gallery on-line and began giving my artists and myself a greater national presence at www.bilhenrygallery.com
I have also curated three shows of monumental sculptures: the first at Cardinal Stritch University, which had the largest grouping of Wisconsin sculptors in the country; the Milwaukee River-Walk, and “Sculpt-Miami,” a show held at Kavachnina Contemporary during the Art Basel 2009 Miami.
It has been only in the last several years that I have felt comfortable expressing my anguish through sculpture at the tragedies occurring throughout my neighborhood in Grover Heights. Four years ago, I began working with the abstract death drawings of victims found on our city sidewalks, which I then resurrected into sculptures. Eventually, my sculptures have come to represent real events and victims rather than the general abstractions that marked my earliest pieces. This “Social Justice” effort parallels the industrial and non-objective sculptures I am still creating, but is providing an unexpected dynamic urgency to my work. It has taken me 45 years of art making to discover the legitimacy of this direction.
HOMEBOYS FLYING AND DYING
I have just completed two sets of models for “Milwaukee Heist” and “Homeboys Flying and Dying.” Both are narrative sculptures in three parts, which were inspired by a wreck ‘n death accident behind my studio in February this year.
These figurative elements are approximately nine inches tall and are cut out of one-inch thick aluminum plate. The yet to be completed sculptures will be human scale and fabricated from mitered hardwood.
In “Milwaukee Heist,” we see a celebration of the two youths on the left, who stole the car. In the center is a representation of Deanthony Parks, who was thrown out of a window as the car turned over and slammed into the corner of a house on Port Washington Road. Deanthony died at the scene from a concussion, which was the second one he had suffered in three days, both from stolen car accidents. The third image represents his three companions, who crawled out of the upside down Camry and split in three different directions, never to be seen again. I witnessed most of this unfold from the rear window of my studio.
My next door neighbors were very upset when they heard that Deanthony had died. He had often been a visitor to their home, which is where I had originally met him. They also knew the driver of the car, but wouldn’t give up his name to the detectives who came by asking. They later told me that he had already stolen three cars since Deanthony’s death.
The second sculpture, “Homeboys Flying and Dying,” came about as a result of a conversation I had with my neighbor’s son. He informed me that six of his friends had already died as a result of car accidents in stolen cars. These deaths don’t swell the “gun violence“ or “homicide” lists, but do create their own category of senseless deaths trolling the streets of Milwaukee.
Legislators Short-Changing Schools Short-Change Everyone
Car theft has become a huge socio-economic problem in Milwaukee with 8,000+ cars stolen last year, many of them directly from dealership lots. As the schools are starved of education dollars and art programs are cancelled along with other afternoon activities, kids are dropping out of the boring exercise of school attendance and are living for the thrill of the “ride.” The legislators who have short-changed the urban schools are contributing to a whole new class of up-and-coming criminals that are costing the business community, our insurance rates and everyone’s road safety significantly.
While legislators in Madison are effectively starving the public schools into academic purgatory in order to justify their “privatization” agenda, the unintended consequences are mounting for both the business community and the general social fabric. Many of these kids will make it into the “System” and wind up on the treadmill of criminality affecting their families and their economic potential for the rest of their lives. Thousands of dollars will be spent of our money to clean up the damages they inflict and the rehabilitation they must face. Will anyone ever say it was worth it to short-change our kids’ education?
Last weekend, there was another accident at the same corner behind my studio where Deanthony was killed. This was caused by a car filled with seven youths that t-boned a car on Port Washington Road while trying to escape another “hot-pursuit.” When the noise and dust had settled, all seven made a wild scramble out of their car and over the three six-foot fences that led through the backyards of my neighborhood. Although several were captured, the rest, no doubt, made it safely back to their own neighborhoods, where the cycle could begin yet again.
“CRIME SCENE AT 11TH AND ATKINSON”
This sculpture is dedicated to the two young men, Jamal* and Tariq*, who were gunned down in Milwaukee with an assault rifle on Sunday, May 18, 2014. A third was wounded and a fourth, the intended target, was killed at the same corner several weeks later. Each young man had his own story to tell within a family of relationships that was turned upside down by this one-second burst of automatic fire.
“URBAN PIETA” on the left describes Terrell* holding Jamal* in his arms while he bled his life onto the concrete sidewalk. “RUN RED DEAD” in the center is the silhouette outline of Tariq*, who suffered from only one bullet, but was damaged so badly he bled out in the ambulance. The third sculpture on the right is “RITES OF GRIEF,” which describes the aftermath of grief which overwhelms a family and community when such senseless shootings occur. It was a blood-soaked Terrell who finally told the grandmother that her grandson had just been murdered only a block from her home.
Three more Milwaukee families have been forever altered by the loss of their sons in this killing of revenge and “street justice.” The fear that is added from past killings to this killing hangs heavily over our entire urban community, where children aren’t allowed to play outdoors and people don’t snitch on killers walking in their midst.
Senseless deaths, grief and wide-spread fear have become facts of everyday life right here on our own doorsteps in urban Milwaukee. Senseless deaths are never forgotten.
Questions and Critiques!!
Nov 24, 2016 at 12:24 PM
From Fred Smith, MD retired; Bioethicist; retired professor:
Bilhenry, I think it’s beautifully done; I admire your commitment to your community.
Although Fred (Jonas) is right that environmental depredation does not remove personal agency & responsibility - as J.D.Vance points out about his Appalachian cousins in Hillbilly Elegy. Nevertheless, without employment opportunity, it seems, overall, an insoluble situation. And creating such opportunity is the responsibility of the larger society, whose choices for globalization, etc., have helped create or exacerbate this situation. (It seems that Trump’s choice of Education Secretary [a Calvin College grad active in Reformed church in Michigan] will only exacerbate the flow of public money to private schools. And will his plan to privatize infrastructure building & repair provide jobs to your black neighbors?)
Even if one emphasizes the personal (ir-)responsibility of the dead & injured young people you write about, this isn’t cause to dismiss the empathy and compassion you feel for them and their bereaved families. If God so loved the world, and Jesus died on the cross to save sinners, why not commemorate these youths and their agony in works of art? The artist isn’t a policeman or judge; rather, s/he seems to me a prophetic observer who announces a certain (often avoided) truth to the public in art that speaks to our sub-cortical consciousness and affect.
Have you read Fr. Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart? - about his work with similarly high-risk (mostly Hispanic) gang members and associates in Los Angeles: heart-breaking, and yet filled with hope. My brother-in-law Dick Kraft (also ‘63) brought it to my attention. (He attributes his recovery of Christian faith - lost at late age - to reading it.) Your advocacy seems like his - a work of the heart, affirming the ultimate worth and dignity of every poor young person whose life has been blasted by endemic societal violence.
I look forward to your book.
Nov 11, 2016
I like what I see. The hollow, cold and lifelessness of the forms plus the lack of any physical identity speaks volumes about the disconnect that most all of our society has in regard to many of these deaths and violence in general.
How large do you envision the final pieces to be?
Tom Lidtke, Former Dir., MOWA, Museum of Wisconsin Artists
The actual pieces will be human scale…64 to 72 inches tall and will be free standing on the floor so that the viewer can walk amongst them…the living dead.
November 10, 2016 from Collector Fred Jonas, MD Psychiatrist practicing in Miami, Florida
I’m sort of reluctant to say this to you, because you’re very loyal and compassionate, and I appreciate it. You’re being unreasonably sympathetic to the “urban community,” and you’re excusing them more than you should. Back when Bill Cosby wasn’t a total sleaze-bag, or at least before the world knew about it, he chided his community for its bad behavior, and dumb way of talking and dressing, and contributing to its own complained-of victimhood. Not that the victimhood isn’t real. But it has a limit, and you don’t get to use the existence of it to do whatever you want. I remember when I lived in Massachusetts, and some caucasian guy was arrested for something after a police chase. He was being led away in handcuffs, and the media reporters and camera crew asked him for a comment. ”The system,” was what he had to say for himself. No, you don’t just get to do whatever nonsense you want, and then blame it on “the system.” Sure, “the system” is broken (it just got far more broken, as will evolve over the next four years), but you can’t do drugs, steal cars, not work, create babies, etc, because of “the system.”
If I were a prospective adherent to, and/or buyer of, the sculptures you’re now making (they’re far more political statements than art), I wouldn’t go forward with them. The message seems very wrong to me. Poor, poor so-and-so got himself killed joyriding in a car he stole, and it’s all because the school he was in didn’t offer art class and therefore was too boring to bother to attend. Of course you’re right. The schools are badly underfunded, there aren’t enough of the right programs, and we’re failing the kids and their families. True. But that’s not an excuse.
I was at the polls Tuesday, being present for the last day of voting (I didn’t win), and a guy from the schools came along to offer the teachers’ union’s slate of preferred candidates. I was talking to him about himself. He’s a teacher, and he teaches middle school math. But he said he mostly winds up having to try to teach manners, and slip in a bit of math from time to time. It’s the environment from which these kids come. It’s their families and their shitty upbringings. Is that, too, a reflection of what we’ve done with a slice of society? Sure it is. You don’t get to mistreat a race of people for hundreds of years, then expect them to be suddenly normally civilized. And you can’t cultivate misbehavior, then be exaggeratedly punitive when it occurs. But neither can you simply dismiss the implication of it, writing it off as your own fault, because you created “the system.”
It’s a difficult line to walk. I don’t dismiss your sympathy. Some of it is not undue. But these pieces are caricatures not only of artistic representations of people, but of the sociological issues.
Good Write! I agree with most of what you say about the larger picture. That being said, these sculptures are recording and memorializing events that happened in my neighborhood and in the nearby notorious zip 53206. There is plenty of precedent for this sort of sociological observation as demonstrated in Picasso’s “Guernica”; caricatures of injustice by Honore Daumier; & paintings of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War by Goya to name a few.
My little ideological meme does not cover all the sociological problems impacting the Urban community in Milwaukee; however, I am focusing on one that has occurred in the last several years in the push to privatize all Milwaukee’s public schools. For example, last year two suburban legislators got a last minute law passed which stated that the five lowest performing schools would be taken out of the public system and given to a newly formed private district. All of their buildings, as well, would become the property of the new private system in order to prevent any going back. This was all set to happen this year but the Wisconsin Legislature threw a monkey wrench into their plans. In order to save the Milwaukee charter schools from the “under-performing “ category, they lowered the educational bar for all the schools and the unintended consequence was that the so called “under-performing“ schools in Milwaukee were judged healthy and were saved from dissolution.
The public schools in the Urban centers have been hardest hit by the drastic cut- backs in funding whereas the suburban schools have had public referendums, giving them more money per student. The draconian approach to public education was initiated by Scott Walker whose effort has been to privatize the whole Public School system and he has done this partially by starving the schools of funds so that the Charter schools look more inviting. After all, there is little teaching that can be done in class sizes of 35–40 kids where disruption is the rule and test scores consequently lowered. The general attack on teachers by the legislatures and their shills is unrelenting and has served to discourage m any would-be teachers coming out of college. It is no longer such an honorable profession to be in.
The school issue I see is but the latest in a jungle of sociological problems that have plagued the urban community for years since manufacturing jobs left for the sun belt, Mexico and China. What was once a healthy middle class black community that was fully employed is now in deep disarray and a dangerous place to raise a family. I have picked just the latest sociological issue and bypassed, the 50% unemployment among black men; 50% involvement of black men in the “System” (correlates to unemployment); black women refusing to marry black men who don’t have jobs but will sleep with them and create babies; grinding poverty that creates lots of housing evictions and malnourished kids; and senseless gun crimes that kill indiscriminately and raise the levels of fear and grief throughout the Urban landscape.
So, the upshot of my art is to talk about the most recent sociological issue facing Milwuakee and tying that into the new surge of car theft and joy-riding deaths. I consider my effort to be only one small piece of the puzzle facing us in Urban Milwaukee.
I trust I am making significant art,
Back to top
Back to The Artist in Us