Despite rural focus, Wagner captured Bay View's urban rise in mural series
Bay View was only an independent municipality for less than a decade, but well over a century after its annexation by the city of Milwaukee in 1887, the neighborhood still feels like a village.
And perhaps nothing captures that spirit more than the paintings of Bay View by Milwaukee-born artist Ferd Wagner that adorn the auditorium of the 1922 Bay View High School.
The trio of brightly colored murals – painted in 1956-'57 and perhaps five feet tall and 12 feet wide – were executed in the realist illustrational style for which Wagner was known. In addition to these murals, Wagner painted covers for Hunting & Fishing magazine, some examples of which can be found online.
The Bay View murals depict the growth of an urban landscape, but they explode with verdant, leafy greens. Nearby, a bronze plaque commemorates the March 25, 1957 dedication of the paintings, saying, "These Bay View murals marking the development of our community, are dedicated to Bay View's sons and daughters who gave their all that we might live."
The first mural, "The Spirit of Bay View" – a gift from the class of 1926 – shows a schooner out in the harbor, as white men unload logs from a boat and a log cabin settlement can be seen at left. In the center, a pair of Native American children watch from behind a tree. Next to them is a pioneer man with a musket, waving his hat toward the settlement.
There's also a Native American woman with a baby on her back and a toddler holding her hand near a birch bark canoe.
A plaque beneath the painting reads, "'The Spirit of Bay View' symbolizes all that is beautiful and true at her side in the community. Ready to provide for her material needs; at her feet and beneath the young tree of knowledge is youth, eager to learn the truth which sets men free."
Nearby, is "Child of Industry," donated by the classes of 1952 and '52. In the distance we see the rolling mills roaring at full blast, its multiple chimneys spewing smoke. Meanwhile, in the foreground, on a wood-plank sidewalk, a boy plays with a hoop and stick and a group of people chat in front of the nascent village of Bay View.
The accompanying plaque reads, "The village of Bay View, 'Child of Industry,' developed by the iron works established in 1867, incorporated in 1879 and annexed to Milwaukee in 1887."
Here, in the foreground are two men, including a worker, and two children, one of which holds a model jet plane. Behind them curves the south shore, looking toward the industrial city to the north.
"I clearly remember him working on the Bay View murals, which were started in his garage at the cabin in Pembine," says the artist's grandson Jim Wagner. "Although I don't remember for sure, it's even possible that my brother or I may have modeled for him for the boy with the plane – I was 10 and my brother 8.
"I do remember modeling for him as a young boy for some of his commercial magazine illustrations. We have one original casein art illustration of one of those, hanging
in our living room."
The plaque below the final mural – presented by the classes of 1954 and '55 – reads, "The Bay View of 1957, where ocean liners and jet planes continue the spirit of the past; and where neighborliness and perseverance are an earnest pledge to the future."
"These are great," enthuses Graeme Reid, director of collections and exhibitions at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. "And, it's great to see that they have survived and seem to be in good condition. Kudos to Bay View High School for doing this."
"Recently, we were asked to comment on some Santos Zingale murals at a high school in Racine from the 1930s that had been removed and recently damaged by water after a fire. It takes enlightened leadership to recognize the value and importance of these works and all too often that is lacking. Too much art has been lost over the years."
Wagner was born in Milwaukee Oct. 16, 1894. At the age of eight, he won a dollar in a Milwaukee Sentinel drawing contest with a pen and ink illustration he called "Snow Bound." This early inclination toward nature and wildlife painting would continue throughout his life.
After graduating from high school, Wagner reportedly took a job as a farm labor to underwrite his studies at the Wisconsin School of Art, where he was a student of Alexander Mueller. Afterward, his first job was, he told the Sentinel, "drawing pots and pans for $10 a week" at a Downtown department store.
Next, he worked in the art department at a printing company under Thorsen Lindberg and saved enough to head south to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied illustration for four years.
After freelancing in the advertising industry, Wagner was sent overseas with a medical unit during World War I, a fact that led him to quip to the newspaper, "a fine thing for a Christian Scientist."
After the war, Wagner married and he and his wife Mildred had three sons – Richard (born around 1924), Alan (born circa 1925) and William (born around 1932) – and settled in Wauwatosa, keeping a summer home on Wiggins Lake at Pembine.
Wagner was a member, along with the likes of Gustav Moeller, in the Men's Sketch Club of Milwaukee, which was founded in 1922 as a club for men who enjoyed drawing or painting, and which continues on today as the Milwaukee Sketch Club. Wagner was also a member of the Milwaukee Art Institute and taught at least one year at the Layton School of Art.
In addition to commercial and freelance work – including those magazine covers and some sheet music cover art – Wagner exhibited his watercolors of cityscapes and natural scenes, many done at Pembine and a series, in the mid-50s, painted during a trip to California.
In 1971, the Milwaukee Journal wrote, "In a long and rewarding career, no one has painted the scenic splendor of Wisconsin, the memorable moments outdoors, with more responsiveness to nature than Ferd Wagner. Shows of his watercolors are tours of our resplendent rural areas."
Wagner continued to exhibit and offer painting demonstrations into at least the 1970s.
Though he died in 1982, Wagner's vision of Wisconsin's outdoor glories live on, including in the stunning and hyperlocal murals he created for Bay View High School.
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