Milan Zori is not originally from Milwaukee. The artist we've come to know and love as "Dwellephant" is actually from a small town in Ohio, but with all the illustrating, painting, designing and blogging he's done for bands, various local magazines and his numerous loyal admirers here since his arrival, you'd think he'd been a local boy his whole life.
Every Gallery Night, he's there. Art vs. Craft, he's there. No Request Fridays, MODA 3's Boardfest, every WMSE event, there. You'd be hard pressed to find an art event that he's not invited to participate in or helping to set up. Zori loves Milwaukee -- and the feeling is mutual -- but it was only five years ago that a friend's family ties casually brought him and his upstart art and music entertainment magazine, "Tastes Like Chicken" to the East Side.
"'Tastes Like Chicken' was fully functioning in Columbus, Ohio as a monthly print publication," says Zori. "But we'd come up to Milwaukee in the summers because Justin (Shady), who runs 'Tastes Like Chicken,' is from here. So when he'd come to visit his family, we came along and we all liked it a lot, so we said, 'F*ck it, let's move to Milwaukee!'"
TLChicken is now solely active as an online entity, and although Zori says he only has time to do the occasional album review -- under the alias Vinny Baggadonuts -- the site is covered in his creative fingerprints.
These days, the alias he's most focused on is that of the artful Dwellephant, professional daydreamer and dream drawer. His work is delightfully illustrative; a monstrous collection of cute characters, some of which carry quotes expressing sweet sentiments, others of which simply sit pretty on their own.
These works are more than just his colorful expressions -- so much more than a happy hobby. They are him, literally, and to understand the painting is to understand the artist, and the person. If you ask him, he'll tell you that Zori and Dwellephant are basically one in the same. Whether he's making a living from his art or making art the way he lives, the distance between the artist and the art he creates is really non-existent.
"I try not to bullsh*t in my work, I try just to be me," he says. "If I'm bummed out in life, my stuff's going to be a little sad, and if I'm happy then it's happy. People in Milwaukee have very good bullsh*it detectors."
It's that opinion that's perhaps been integral in earning him such fruitful freelance work here and commission customers who return time and time again with nothing more than a check and a blank slate.
"I just think that being genuine is it and if people can figure out how to use that, then it works," he says. "People have started to trust me -- they'll give me $100 and tell me to do whatever, make something 'cute.' I think that I have the best admirers, ever. The people that like my stuff are nicest people on Earth."
He's got regular gigs in several local media -- from comics, to design work to blogs -- and is really helping to sway old-fashioned attitudes about what kind of art belongs in this genre.
"When the dot com boom happened, people were looking for different ways to promote this new thing and everyone in print was in the opinion that you had to use photos to illustrate a story," he says. "But on the Web they realized they can use art and animation and I think that opened the door for all these traditional media to realize they can use it too."
Now, of course, everyone's vying for that "handmade" look which, of course, Zori's exercised all along.
"I've never had a show in a gallery proper, and while I know a lot of the newer, up-and-coming artists, I don't really know the established ones (in Milwaukee). But with the ones I do know and hang out with, I feel like we've sort of established our own thing. Every time I want to have a show, I just try to find a place to have one."
He's shown art in small coffee shops, smoky bars, crowded music venues and literally set up shop and painted live on the street. He prefers it that way -- and likens it to Faythe Levine's efforts with independent events like Art vs. Craft.
"That whole thing reminds me of when Frank Kozik and Coop (Chris Cooper) were coming out -- that underground poster movement -- and then "Juxtapoz Magazine" happened. I think this is the same thing. We're at this simmering point and it's going to explode eventually."
He sites Cedar Block's Milwaukee Art Museum collaborations as exciting progress in the attempt to make art more integrated and accessible.
"What Brent (Gohde, Cedar Block founder) does is so smart," he says. "Walking around at Ramirez Box was so cool because people were actually talking about art and comparing it -- and people don't talk about art! So it's amazing that that event made it happen."
He's hoping that this January's Gallery Night event at Design Within Reach will be another such venue. He's exhibiting work with several local artists -- some of which have never shown work before -- and everything is priced under $100.
"I think there are so many fearless, creative people here who are willing to take a chance and do something different," he says. Look for works by DeChazier P. Stokes (Black Marmalade), Max Estes, Kristopher Pollard and many more.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”