Story and Photo by Ellen C. Warren

There’s a flourishing subculture in Riverwest which is outside the radar of many of its inhabitants. This bunch doesn’t actually recognize itself as a group, but the members are quite likely to recognize each other’s faces and, even more likely, to recognize each other’s dogs. For that matter, they’re more likely to know the dogs’ names than the names of their human companions. These are the dog walkers of Riverwest. They can be found during most of the daylight hours and beyond along the river’s trails and fields in any sort of weather.

Our Neighbor Spotlight this month shines on a couple of dog walkers who’d be known by the group as “Darby and Alex’s moms.” Although there’s a great deal more to Marianne Herrmann and Wendy Basel’s lives, the two Australian Shepherds are clearly included whenever they say “our family,” and their walks together are a very satisfying and intrinsic part of their relationship.

Still, it wasn’t dogs that brought Wendy and Marianne into each other’s company in the beginning. It was art. They met at the Elsewhere Art Show, the alternative to the Lakefront Art Festival for a couple years in the early ‘90’s, where they each had a booth.

Wendy, a native of Omro, Wisconsin, grew up on a dairy farm. (“Yes, we all love cheese,” she quips, “even the dogs!”) Her grandparents, each on their second marriage, had left Milwaukee to farm in Omro where they combined families and added a few more kids to equal thirteen. Wendy’s dad was one of the youngest and remained on the farm until his death in 2005. Her mom passed two years earlier.

In the last years of study for the Commercial Art degree that she acquired at UW Oshkosh, Wendy’s interest shifted to pottery. She threw herself into that world, keeping a studio in Oshkosh and firing her pots in the kiln she kept in the barn at the farm in Omro. Her dad’s long hours as a farmer provided her with his assistance in tending the kiln. She sold her wares at shows around the state. “I used to sort of make my living traveling, doing art shows,” she explains. So, that’s how Wendy wound up at the “Elsewhere.”

Marianne’s earliest memories are of life in Columbus, Ohio. Her mother moved there shortly before Marianne was born, and she spent her first seven years there before the family returned to the Milwaukee area. She’s remained in Milwaukee, living on the East Side until 1983, when she bought the house on Burleigh where she and Wendy have lived together for the last fifteen years.

Herself a prolific artist, Marianne began with watercolors. She later branched off into stained glass after attending classes with her upstairs tenant, Lisa, who became her partner in the stained glass studio in their basement. She sold her art at shows. She also held a full-time job as a medical health benefits claims supervisor.

So now we’ve reached the summer of 1992 and find Marianne and Lisa’s booth a few spaces away from Wendy’s. Wendy’s pottery was so beautiful to Marianne and Lisa that they took turns going over to her booth to make a purchase. The chatting continued through the day and when Marianne learned that Wendy didn’t have a place in town she offered her a spare bedroom. Soon to follow was an amusing pizza date at the formerly infamous Al Calderone Club (which they used to call “the whatsa matta you?”). And that’s all she wrote. It was, in Marianne’s words, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Wendy’s move into the house on Burleigh was delayed a little while by the reality that the Riverwest Art Walk was impending and Marianne had to clear the front areas of the house for her yearly participation. Her house was part of the Art Walk for nine years.

Although they no longer show their work from their home it is still a house filled with art. After Wendy moved in she began doing stained glass with Marianne. The luminous Tiffany style pieces adorn the windows, the walls are decorated with rich watercolors and a few elegant pieces of pottery are on view.

Wendy presently works in a bindery. She had to give up throwing pots due to a back that was hurt by years of baling hay. Marianne went on to get her Masters Degree in Social Work. Ambitiously, she attended graduate school at UWM full-time while continuing to work fulltime. “I told my family and friends, ‘See you in two years!’” she says with a laugh. She’s now a social worker at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Inpatient Rehabilitation.

Their newest artistic endeavors are in creating glycerin soaps and milk carton candles. Both products bear resemblance to the stained glass work they share, but with the addition of soothing textures and exuberant scents. During the summer months they sell their “Studio 609” soaps and candles at the East Side Market and Cathedral Square Market as well as a couple of other fairs.

They are surrounded by good neighbors, (Ellie, from across the street delivers freshly baked lemon bars as the interview ends) and plenty of art galleries, and they’re near the river. “We’re so close to everything!” exclaims Marianne. This Riverwest family is very content to be living here.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, here are a few of Marianne and Wendy’s suggestions for staying happily together for many years:

Wendy: “It’s like driving. If two cars make a mistake there’s an accident. It takes both making a mistake. If one compensates or corrects the move, there’s no crash.”

Marianne: “See the fun in things. We’re so often saying, ‘We’re just having too much fun!’”

Wise lines: “Pick your fights!” “Keep a sense of humor!” “Make space for each other.” “Lie in bed and eat chocolate!”

And, of course: “You gotta have Alex and Darby!”

Riverwest Currents online edition – February, 2007