RAA Artist Profile May 2016


Mark Lawson – Making It Happen

by Elizabeth Vogt

photos by John Ruebartsch


Spring, finally! The natural world is in high production mode—buds, blossoms and nests are rapidly emerging. Our batteries and imaginations are charged, exhilarated amidst this seasonal explosion. Then there are those like Mark Lawson who are constantly in this mode of making and doing.

Lawson has been essential to success of the Jazz Gallery Center of the Arts and its owner, the Riverwest Artists Association (RAA). He’s developed the galleries program at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD), curating local and international exhibits there. He’s been on governance, community and arts boards around town and helped envision Gallery Night and Day. Mark Lawson is ‘high production mode’ personified.

The mention of birthplace Nebraska brings a proud smile. His grandparents farmed there with horses and tractors, doing their own blacksmithing, woodworking, and repairs. This is the ‘DIY’ Mark grew up with. Leaving the Cornhusker State after high school, he trailered a motorcycle and his great-grandfather’s writing desk to his father’s place in Milwaukee. The plan: study art and find more music and fun than Nebraska offered.

Milwaukee delivered—jobs, clubs and music abounded. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf did shows at Teddy’s, Led Zeppelin’s first tour passed through, and the Brady Street hippie age was raging. Civil rights and anti-war protesters rallied, as did drag racers on Highway 100. Lawson jumped in on all fronts, studying art and eventually meeting his future wife at UWM. That BFA led to an MFA in Sculpture. Then, with two children, artwork was set aside for jobs in real estate.

In the 1980s, Milwaukee’s art scene in was thriving: young people ran numerous galleries and the famous Art Muscle was being published. “It was a heyday in Milwaukee,” Mark remembers, “a supportive, good art scene.” Then came MIAD. Starting in 1988 as a part-time instructor, Lawson took charge of the faculty gallery two years later, expanding to about 6 gallery spaces with 30-40 annual exhibits. In exchange for a 90% cut in pay, MIAD gave him a rich, rewarding environment.

RAA, already an energetic grassroots group, ‘drafted’ Mark in 1992. He spearheaded their years-long property search. The 2008 purchase of the Jazz Gallery (926 E. Center) transformed RAA and Mark’s daily life—he’s been lining up bands, exhibits and tenants ever since. Ever repairing, hooking up amps, and greeting (often as RAA president), he is RAA’s bona fide ‘art muscle.’

“Making exhibits has become my artform,” Lawson reflects. He has curated hundreds of shows and been instrumental in creating opportunities for shows to happen. Favorites include Future by Design (the 1956 Ford Thunderbird, a flying saucer-shaped frying pan!) and the New Modernists, featuring now iconic Reginald Baylor and Keith Nelson.

He’s also made a lot of music happen. Starting in 2011 with Milwaukee Jazz Vision’s Jamie Breiwick, jazz jams and concerts are back (now also spiced with experimental music and hip-hop) at the once-famous venue.

Perseverance is key to Mark’s successes; it turns good ideas into realities. It’s also key to the DIY evolution today. Spring diligence to all!