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Celeste Spransy

When Celeste Spransy, armed with a degree from the Art Institute of Chicago, moved back to Milwaukee, she called the art critic at the Milwaukee Journal and said: “I’m a new artist in town and you should come up and visit me.” Spransy recalls this with a smile and then bursts out laughing. “Talk about being green – put that in your story!” she says. This wasn’t Spransy’s last display of chutzpah. Years later, she says with a playful glint in her eye, after she made a name for herself as an artist and was interviewed by the Milwaukee Journal, she ran up to a paperboy on Oakland Avenue and bought every paper he had. “I said, ‘I’ll take them all!'” she remembers. “He’d never had that happen to him before!” Born and raised in Milwaukee, Spransy has been active on the Milwaukee and Chicago art scenes since 1970. She makes decorative screens, window hangings, mobiles, and paints in oils and watercolors. Spransy attended the Layton School of Art and Design and Milwaukee State Teachers’ College, but, she says firmly, “I was not going to be a teacher.” In Chicago, where she attended the Art Institute and Northwestern University in the 1940s, she admired flat painters like Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall when three-dimensional Renaissance artists were held up as the ideal. When she came back to Milwaukee, artists were “somewhat misrepresented in the city,” she says. There was only one art gallery in town and artists were not taken very seriously. This didn’t stop Spransy from making friends with other local artists and showing her work in galleries as the art scene expanded. Spransy fondly recalls Dorothy Bradley, who opened one of the first galleries in Milwaukee. She also recalls turbulent times during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Spransy sketched the protests and prominent activists like Father Groppi, and some of her drawings made it into the paper. As soon as her four children were in school, says Spransy, whose late husband was Milwaukee Journal illustrator Alan Gass, she rented a studio and once again took up painting. Spransy has lived in various parts of the city, including the East Side. “Milwaukee,” Spransy says, “is fabulous.” She is glad the city is expanding and developing. “We’re getting along pretty darn well,” she notes. Still, Milwaukee isn’t quite a match for Riverwest. “I love Riverwest,” says Spransy. “Love the trees, love the Peace Action Center, the [Riverwest] Artists Association.” Even the police are fabulous, says Spransy, mentioning that after several robberies in the neighborhood, the police officers came over, introduced themselves and made Spransy and her family feel protected. The neighborhood has a homey feeling, Spransy notes, explaining how neighbors greet each other every time they meet and help each other shovel snow in the winter. These days Spransy paints in her studio, a converted garage next to her house, from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. She takes commissions and exhibits her work. Looking over the organized clutter of the studio, where tools, finished paintings and works in progress are piled, “I like commissions,” she says. “Because that way I’m sure to put things away.” Her apartment — she lives on the second floor of a duplex for “exercise purposes” — is testament to her love of art. Colorful glass screens and splash paintings — “completely without meaning” — decorate the violet walls along with her late husband’s prints and drawings. Books crowd the shelves and the coffee table. A striped tabby cat named Toby lounges on the couch, eavesdropping as Spransy talks. Spransy will be 86 years old in November. “I’m glad to tell people my age,” she says. At her age, she notes throughout the interview when she digresses, a person has a lot of stories to tell. “When you can [disclose your age], you are free,” she says decisively. “You have conquered your disabilities.”