Shannon Molter: An eye, an ear, a feel – and a pitchfork – for creativity photo and story
by Peggy Schulz
For many of us, our day jobs are completed at less-than-inspiring locations, and our minds turn on and off to the tasks associated with those jobs in concert with our working hours.
But for Shannon Molter, her sense of beauty, artfulness and connection to the Earth is something that stays with her always, even after she finishes her day as a Youth and Family Programs Educator at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
This month marks six years of Shannon’s career as an art teacher. She’s eager to keep going, growing more opportunities for children and their families to learn about, appreciate and create art.
“I work with kids 15 and under and their families,” Shannon says. She writes the curriculum for five different, “awesome” programs. “Teaching from the artwork in the gallery at the Art Museum is so much fun,” she says.
Shannon knew early on that she wanted to go to art school. She found the art education program at UWM to be a good match for her. “At the time, I thought being an art teacher was the only job for me,” Shannon says.
She ended up, though, with three majors, including Art Education, Fiber Art and Environmental Philosophy. That somewhat eclectic grouping of interests has carried on through her work and her home life, in exciting ways.
Shannon realized while still at UWM that creating art was just as enjoyable as teaching others to embrace it.
“It was a funky mix, my studies at UWM,” Shannon says. “But it really worked. It was hard to graduate; it was so much fun to learn,” she says.
Shannon’s current lifestyle, one that is wonderfully diverse, including “a bountiful number of hobbies,” as she describes them, is a true reflection of that “funky mix” she enjoyed while at UWM.
“Right now, leather is really my jam,” Shannon says, of the artwork she’s currently producing. You can see examples at her website: Shannonleemolter.com.
A tattoo on Shannon’s upper-right arm – “Genesis 3:19 – The ground remembers her” – suggests the connection she has felt with the Earth from a very young age.
“It’s a way to remind me of things to come back to,” Shannon says. She cites the perhaps more commonly-known passage, which, in the New International Version of the Bible, reads: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Shannon is quick to point out that only used leather ends up in her artwork. The word “sustainable” trips easily off her tongue.
“It’s about the environment,” she says. One need only look around her yard – and her art – to know how much sustainability is an integral part of who she is, as a neighbor, an artist and a human being.
The ground, the Earth, the woods around her childhood home – Shannon has brought those links with her to Riverwest, where they are celebrated each and every day.
Shannon lived in the dorms at UWM for her first two years there and then discovered the many attractive qualities of Riverwest as a neighborhood.
“At first, I lived with a house full of brilliant, inspiring, artistic ladies,” Shannon says, “in an awesome apartment” above the Jazz Gallery. She fairly quickly got on the board of the Riverwest Artists Association. She has moved a couple times in the neighborhood in the nine years total she’s spent here.
“I did think about moving after graduation,” she says, “but the arts community in Milwaukee is so welcoming, nurturing and supportive.” It allows Shannon to work full time and be a practicing artist, something that isn’t always affordable in other locations, she says.
“Riverwest is the right size of a neighborhood,” Shannon says. “When I’m walking down the street, I see people I know, yes, but there’s also an amazing variety of cultural differences.”
Shannon notes that the lifestyle here is right for the “urban mini-farmer.”
“That’s not only accepted, but celebrated here,” she says. “There are not many cities that you can do that with the footprint that is in Riverwest.”
While you can see both decorative and edible plantings in perhaps the majority of yards in Riverwest, only a few display the sort of expansive variety Shannon has pulled together over the years she’s lived at her current home.
Even the wind chimes on her front porch are beyond ordinary, ringing out a multi-note tune after a small gust of west wind curls around the corner of her east-facing porch on Pierce Street, sending the wooden chime-holders gently bumping against the metal tubes. A passerby might think it was a recording, so lovely is the sound.
But, no, the chimes are real, and just part of the total outdoor experience at Shannon’s residence.
In the front yard, there’s decorative brick work forming a wall surrounding the basement window; a small, stone sculpture that is a fuzzy poodle (if stone can, in fact, look “fuzzy”) sits next to a bountiful chive plant; and a range of perennial plants, including the Straw Flowers (so-named, Shannon tells me, because their stems are hollow tubes), that persist in fighting back against Shannon’s regular trimmings.
A nearly-luminescent, multi-colored coleus plant adorns one corner of the front porch. One can imagine the pattern and brilliant color of the plant transformed into a beautiful silk scarf around the shoulders of an Art Museum patron.
Yes, it’s true: Honeybees and chickens are now legal in the city of Milwaukee. But how many people do you know who house their chickens in a specially-designed coop that looks more like a warm, welcoming, yet tiny lake cottage?
The honeybees fly between two hives in the southwest corner of the yard, helping to pollinate those flowers and vegetables that they can.
Tomatoes, a number of types of squash, including the orange squash pictured here, cucumbers, lettuce, Calendula, eggplant, collard greens, kale, sweet potatoes, garlic, jalapenos, raspberries, beans, carrots and many herbs all thrive in Shannon’s yard, which has abundant sun exposure.
The orange squash is from seeds given to Shannon by a former co-worker. They were discovered during an archaeological dig at the First Nation’s Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin. They were carbon-dated and determined to be 800 years old!
Shannon grew up in Cadott, Wisconsin, population now about 2,000, on 30 acres of forest with 5 acres of yard, as she lovingly describes it. While Shannon’s parents weren’t technically farmers, they did maintain a large garden, but no livestock beyond chickens. Shannon’s mom and dad still own the 30 forested acres and the family enjoys camping there regularly.
Shannon’s dad built the chicken coop for her, from recycled materials, in keeping with the entire family’s motivation to be as sustainable as possible. The four chicks were a birthday present to Shannon back in May. Little Foot, Chinola, Violet and Freckles won’t be laying eggs until sometime late in the fall.
Shannon’s mom also contributed to Shannon’s appreciation of growing things. Her mom owned a flower shop and now is a Master Gardener through the State of Wisconsin.
“I’ve always had sort of a green thumb,” Shannon says, to help explain the definitely “green” look of the yards on Pierce.
Shannon acknowledges that there are challenges in Riverwest today.
“Issues of gentrification, vast income disparities, housing and homelessness,” she says, are some of the concerns she and others have for what has become her second home. “And the diversity that we all originally enjoyed seems to be dissipating somewhat,” she says.
But Shannon also quickly points to the many positive aspects of being a Riverwest neighbor, in addition to the urban garden atmosphere to which she contributes.
The Public House and Company Brewing are, as Shannon puts it, just two examples of going “beyond the bar” in Riverwest. She also has fond memories of Fern Fest that occurred this past spring.
Char-“Bee” Koenen, one of the most ardent promoters of having bees in urban areas, now is an immediate neighbor. Shannon is proud to say she got her bee hives even before Charlie moved in.
And the number of other artists throughout the neighborhood feeds into the overall sense that positive things literally and figuratively are growing every day.
With the input of neighbors as thoughtful, creative and passionate as Shannon Molter, Riverwest surely will see a rich harvest in many respects in the future.