By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 19, 2024 at 9:02 AM

Nearly 20 years ago, the Grohmann Museum at MSOE opened it doors to share art in all mediums that celebrated, explored or captured humans at work – from harvesting wheat to brewing beer to building railroads to forging steel and beyond.

Now, after dozens of exhibitions and an ever-growing collection of art inspired by industry, the Grohmann Museum hosts what just may be the perfect intersection of art and industry.

Cory Bonnet artX

“Patterns of Meaning: The Art of Industry by Cory Bonnet,” which opens on Friday, Jan. 19 at the museum, 1000 N. Broadway, focuses on work by Pittsburgh artist Cory Bonnet, who not only draws inspiration from the steel industry, but uses remnants of that industry as his canvas.

Bonnet paints on material salvaged from moribund steel mills in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio – forms and patterns and rollers and all sorts of vintage, often-hulking objects. Bonnet's New Vision Studio collaborators use the objects to create glass artwork, ceramics, furniture and other artwork, too.

“I was a traditional oil painter,” says Bonnet, who studied animation in college while working in machine shops and waiting tables. After graduation, he worked in a specialty building supply company that specialized in wood and wood coatings. When his employer asked if he’d like to learn more about LEED sustainability, he jumped at the opportunity.

Cory Bonnet artX

“Environmental design changed how I look at my material,” Bonnet says. “I was using all-new plywood, all-new panels, real pretty and pristine. Then I started to think about sustainability. I'm also a preservationist. I love historic buildings. I was watching them all get knocked down in Pittsburgh.

“So the sustainable design and the preservation came together in this idea of adaptive reuse, which at the time, even with LEED and the USGBC, was not the predominant mindset. It was new construction using (new) materials that were provided or produced through green means.”

So, after having painted cityscapes, landscapes and decorative work – “it would be like warehouses in the Strip District, all of it had what I thought were the essence of Pittsburgh” – on new plywood, Bonnet transitioned into working on wood reclaimed from Pittsburgh’s many industrial remains.

Cory Bonnet artX

Which, naturally, affected the work he was creating, and the paintings became even more industrially focused.

“It's hard for me to go to a clean panel and just start,” Bonnet says. “I feel like I'm going to ruin it because it's perfect. It's really nice. But if I start with something that has screws sticking out of it, holes in it, I'm not going to be able to screw it up.

“And every little bit of these things gives me something to react to, which is a much closer approximation to how my brain works anyway. I'm very much reacting to my environment.”

Cory Bonnet artX

The resulting work – while stylistically cohesive in terms of its palette of browns and greys and blues with flashes of flaming oranges and yellows, its subject matter and its representational style – feels quite varied because sometimes Bonnet paints on a panel, sometimes on forms that look like boxes, sometimes on giant formwork that was used to forge big industrial equipment.

Other work in the show, which collects 22 pieces – glass, furniture, ceramics, abstract paintings, monumental sculpture, chandeliers – are the work of his collaborators Angela Neira, Nate Lucas, Brian Engel, AJ Collins, Mia Tarducci and Andrew Moschetta.

“This exhibition reminds us of what human beings are capable of when we put our minds to it and work together to contribute to something bigger than our selves,” says Bonnet, who has been in Milwaukee since Saturday, installing the exhibition with Lucas, who drove the truck full of artwork here from Pittsburgh through a storm.

“When workers built these patterns, they started with nothing. From design to assembly, everything was hand-drawn and made.

Nate Lucas and Cory Bonnet
Nate Lucas (left) and Cory Bonnet installing work at the Grohmann Museum on Thursday.

"To see the obstacles they faced and the problems they solved, with none of the technology and advances we have today, is a testament to human spirit and ingenuity. When they went to work, the idea was not just to work for themselves but for the next generation to make things better. That’s an idea we need to resurface.”

This is Bonnet’s first museum show – though he does have a permanent gallery in the former high school where he maintains his studio in Pittsburgh's Hill District – and he says the Grohmann Museum is the perfect venue for his work.

“I had never heard of the Grohmann,” he admits, “until Steel Founders’ Society President Raymond Monroe was like, ‘have you ever heard of this?’ And Raymond likes books, so he brought me a stack of books. I read all these and it was all Grohmann. And then (Grohmann Museum Director) James (Kieselburg) came and brought me more books and I was like, ‘this is the greatest museum ever.'

“For the purposes of display, if a museum was ever established that could fit an art show that focuses on steel foundry artifacts, it was this one.”

Cory Bonnet art.X

Kieselburg agrees.

“When I visited (Pittsburgh) is August and saw the collection, saw what the other artists were doing, I said, ‘I think it’s just made for us’,” he adds.

Museum founder and namesake Eckhart Grohmann – who owned a foundry – is also excited for his museum to host this work, even if, at first glance, it wouldn’t appear to completely fit his tastes.

“He's enthusiastic,” says Kieselburg. “Grohmann’s very traditional, representational. It’s two-D that speaks to him. But (this) is really his meat and potatoes, so to speak. So he was awestruck and he and Cory struck up a conversation and he’s really thrilled with what we’re doing.”

The show runs through April 28, and on Friday, Jan. 19 at 6:30 p.m. Cory Bonnet will lead a gallery talk through the exhibition.

Details on all of that can be found here.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.