By Ellen C. Warren
In the land of creativity that some would identify as Riverwest live a plethora of artistic styles, motivations, modalities, licenses and worlds. Some have names … like orchestrating, painting, sketching, photographing, poesy, belly dancing. And some are just garbage. Garbage so good the New York Times placed it on their list of recommendations for viewership of art on social media platforms. Paul Druecke’s project, American Pastime, appeared in NYT’s Five Art Accounts to Follow on Instagram Now at the end of March of this year.
Let’s have the artist explain. “The core of it is still images of, essentially, other people’s litter. As Covid surged … it started as … a way of staying connected to the land and the people, I just began going around picking up trash … I was interested in a kind of back story … I would arrange a little still life of these objects giving them a different amount of attention … those images would be posted to Instagram … and then that evolved to include a writing component … an ongoing correspondence … almost a bit of a love story … definitely, the story of two people trying to connect to one another. It riffs off this idea of litter in the landscape.”
I asked Paul who the people were/are? “It’s a complicated amalgamation. It does not simply reduce to two people, though that’s how it comes across. I guess … There are composites. One of the people may be me, may be me from twenty years ago, may be me from yesterday. One of the people may be a current friend, past friend, current lover, past lover. It’s this mix.”
He continues, “and the nice thing about this New York Times shout-out was that it was very specifically a feature where they say, ‘We recommend these 5 Instagram accounts’ … the theme … was, ‘Instagram accounts that are doing interesting things with the combination of image and word,’ and so it recognized the importance of the literary component that was playing out with the images. I see that as maybe a primary focus for how it evolves.”
Earlier on, in the years after he graduated from MIAD, Paul concentrated on traditional media. Now, not only does he not rely heavily on one medium; in most (if not all) cases, his work “begins with a project and fills in the media afterward.” As an interesting aside, Druecke feels that residing in Milwaukee (in general) and Riverwest (specifically) have allowed him greater freedom with his art. He has not been forced to specialize.
One example of another medium is his film-making venture, Milwaukee Kitchen. Readers may recall details of this “cooking show” from last year’s Neighbor Spotlight on Didier Leplae, who has played a starring role in the series.
“For Milwaukee Kitchen I was interested in these new, broad platforms that allow you to reach a broad audience. And I think that’s always been a kind of theme, sub-theme in my work,” supplies Paul, “using the landscape to directly engage people. To experience Blue Dress Park, you don’t have to go to an institution or a gallery. (It’s) similar to having Shoreline Repast (another of Paul’s projects) out in the landscape. It’s available. And now you can share a video around the world with YouTube.”
In 2016, when his mother died, Paul focused on a cookbook he inherited, The American Woman’s Cookbook from 1938. The recognition of how much cultural information is shared within such covers became the seed of Milwaukee Kitchen. Conversations between Paul, Didier and Kiki Anderson built upon that concept, and layers were added that captured some of the somewhat absurd and open spirit of Riverwest.
The premise of the show is of a person being in the kitchen, cooking, and a steady stream of unannounced people arriving at the door, being welcomed in (something we rarely experience in this age of texting and no surprise visits). Covid changed the dynamic of the series, moving the landscape into the kitchens of individual homes, but the show continues. Filming is in the planning stages for the first post-pandemic show as we speak.
In the preceding paragraphs there were allusions to two of Paul’s projects, Blue Dress Park and Shoreline Repast.
“Blue Dress Park was very significant to me at the time,” says Druecke. “An open patch of concrete with a distinct fence that gives it a very distinct shape, it is at the southwest corner of Holton and Reservoir. I went into this very nondescript space, that had no function, (was) easily overlooked, and christened it Blue Dress Park. And then I would host events there. This was an important step for me, engaging directly with the landscape. The area has changed dramatically in twenty years, but I don’t think that space will ever change … I like this space for its pure potential. If I put a piece of art there, it would all get lost.” Mary L. Schumacher wrote about Blue Dress Park, “I’ve come to believe that idiosyncratic, creative form of can-do spirit on the part of some of Milwaukee’s more independent minded artists is one of our city’s more defining assets. Mayor Norquist came to the christening.
Shoreline Repast is a cast aluminum sculpture that looks much like a Wisconsin Historical Marker. It is purposely skewed so that it has a very dynamic relationship to the landscape. It could be sinking. It could be rising. Removing that right angle was an important part of the message of the piece. Part of Sculpture Milwaukee, it was formerly in O’Donnell Park and is now situated at Catalano Square.
A year-round bike rider, Paul can be seen around the Riverwest he claims as his anchor. He lives in the cottage he purchased in 1995 with his famous kitty, Penita, the real star of the Milwaukee Kitchen.