Neighbor Spotlight: Tess Kenny

Neighbor Spotlight – Tess Kenney

by Sue Blaustein, photo by Peter DiAntoni

Theresa Kenney – Riverwest Neighborhood Association’s 2010 “Neighbor of the Year” – gets up early. Her morning routine includes brewing a cup of green tea and then surfing the listservs of activist organizations in Riverwest. She scans the latest chatter from the Riverwest Co-op, the RNA, and Riverwest Health Initiative, the Victory Garden Initiative, Transition Milwaukee, Milwaukee Urban Gardens and Concordia Gardens. 


If any of these noteworthy groups is working on an important project that requires expertise in graphic design, event production, electronic media, catering, or food preservation, she contacts them. She knows who’s up before dawn like her, and who needs to sleep in, but she is always ready to make a call and brainstorm about their projects and how she can help. Tess’s help is valuable, because she is an educator, a designer, a chef, stagehand, videographer and more.


Tess is an Associate Professor at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin. She teaches digital design, 2-D design, and drawing as well as graduate and adult education classes in technology, the humanities and basic art. She’s been a stringer for IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) for over a decade, and freelances doing video production. She also serves as Artist-In-Residence, teaching digital design at a south side charter school – The School of Urban Planning and Architecture (SUPAR).

Why would someone with such a varied and busy career volunteer so much time? Tess grew up in Riverwest – on Humboldt Boulevard, near Hadley. She attended St. Casimir’s School. Reminiscences about the cohesion, safety and neighborliness of earlier eras can become clichéd. But the Riverwest Tess remembers from childhood really was such a vital place. Tess recalls many times running the family’s beagles on the banks of the Milwaukee River, tobogganing at Riverside Park and trick or treating on Halloween where children went into the stores, restaurants and taverns in their costumes, and everyone would know them by name.


Her father worked at General Motors AC Spark Plug division. He belonged to the United Auto Workers and worked at the plant on Kenilworth and Prospect – a building that now houses UWM students and retail outlets. He was an expert archer and hunter and many of their meals consisted of wild game; no fast food here. Her mother, who had grown up on a farm, supported the family with many of the skills Riverwest activists are now trying to revive. She canned and preserved – not just fruits and vegetables – but fish and game as well. She also sewed many of their clothes and crocheted. DIY is not really a new concept!

When Tess’s father was promoted to a position at the Oak Creek GM plant, the family left Riverwest for South Milwaukee, and Tess went to high school there. She wasn’t happy about leaving Riverwest, but she made good friends in South Milwaukee and still keeps in touch.


Tess went back to school in her thirties, picking up a degree in drawing from MIAD, then an MFA in film from UWM. In 1994, she co-founded a video production company, Xpresso Logic, Ltd. and secured a contract with Milwaukee World Festivals to do the image magnification at the Marcus Amphitheatre.

Her ten-year run at the Amphitheatre was the link that led to her career as a chef and caterer – first to performing artists, then to deli customers at the Riverwest Co-op Café. In her capacity as liaison between visiting performers and Cellar Door (a national promoter), she got to know the chefs who came backstage to prepare food for touring musicians. These chefs must literally “cater” to the very specific tastes and needs of their clients, and have access to the best of everything.

Tess soaked up their knowledge and added personal chef services to her business. She has catered to the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rolling Stones and Sarah McLachlan. After moving back to Riverwest in 2002 she acquired a doctorate in Art Education.


She moved to a house in the 2300 block of Booth Street and found her childhood neighborhood buzzing with activity. Riverwest had seen some hard times, but she was thrilled by the determination and creative energy of residents building institutions like the Currents, The RNA and Riverwest Co-op. She applauds the work of block watch captains like Spike Bandy and 5th District Captain Edith Hudson for their efforts to make the neighborhood safer.

One day in 2006, she saw a sign in the window of the Riverwest Co Op – they were looking for a deli chef. She applied for the job, confident she could use her “catering to the stars” skills to boost deli sales and provide Co-op customers with healthy, organic food at a down to earth price. She’s very proud of the Co-op’s achievements in this regard. Tess has developed specials like “Comfort Food Wednesday,” showcasing organic foods in the ethnic dishes she (and many more of us) loved as a child.

Tess shares the cooking and preserving skills she learned from her family and in the catering business. She worked with Victory Garden Initiative organizer Gretchen Mead helping can and preserve the VGI harvest. She made batches of chili and brought them to the crews working at Concordia Garden and Kilbourn Gardens. This was but one act of kindness mentioned at the RNA meeting where she was named “Neighbor of the Year.” 


Tess thinks that Riverwest activists and food security groups across the city are leading important efforts to revive a skill-based economy. When she was a child, she was surrounded by people who knew how to build and fix, hunt, grow and preserve. Now, the manufacturing jobs that were the backbone of this neighborhood are gone, and the fuels that powered industry are in dangerously short supply.


She met and eventually married Jack Kenney in 2007, after a “fairytale romance.” Tess also came to know and admire John and Lynn Okopinski, who work tirelessly in the neighborhood and for decades have made the hall at the Falcon Bowl available for non-profit events. Because of her love of the neighborhood, she and Jack decided to celebrate their wedding at the Falcon Bowl, walking under an arch of saluting baseball bats held by Jack’s softball friends from the storied Crusties, the Un-American League at Riverside Park and his teammates from the Falcon Bowl sponsored softball team. Tess smiles fondly and says, “The whole neighborhood was there.”


That’s why, when the Riverwest Fourth of July Celebration needed a new coordinator, Tess along with Claire Moore of the Pink House Studio, stepped forward and put a new twist on this most traditional of neighborhood festivals. In 2010, Riverwest celebrated the first “Energy Independence Day.” The focus was on educating the neighborhood about sustainable resources. All the activities that nourish nostalgia were there – decorations, a parade, and speeches from elected officials. However, the mike wasn’t hooked up to the outlets in Gordon Park Pavilion. Instead, the residents of Riverwest volunteered by pedaling bicycles (Mayor Barrett and Alderman Kovac each took a spin) to generate power, and the parade was limited to non-motorized vehicles. Dignitaries like Congresswoman Gwen Moore arrived in Cream City Rickshaws and the parade was lead by MPD’s First District mounted patrol. 


It was a Fourth of July like no other Milwaukee had ever seen, and the perfect metaphor for the work Tess does and supports so avidly in Riverwest. Every day, people are blending skills that date back to the Neolithic era with high tech, 21st century knowhow to build community in our time. Tess Kenney feels honored to be a part of it.