By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 08, 2020 at 12:01 PM

Desperate times call for creative measures and who better to hatch an inventive plan for moving a gallery’s business outside during the pandemic than a local artist and his partner?

In fact, artist James Steeno’s gallery is already a mobile one. It’s a 10x10-foot tent that he and his wife – and marketing, sales and organizational wiz – Heidi Steeno, use to sell his original watercolors and illustrations as well as prints and other creations at local festivals, makers markets and art events around the state.

When all of those events were canceled in the face of the coronavirus shutdown, the Steenos began to consider the idea of setting up the gallery on the front lawn of their West Side Washington Heights home, where James also has his studio.

What began as a joke quickly morphed into reality as it began to seem like the only option for selling during a time when artists, like many others, are struggling to stay afloat.

When they shared the idea, others expressed interest, too, and on July 1, the first Washington Heights Neighborhood Artists Front Yard Pop-Up took place on the 1700-1800 block of North 52nd Street in what the Steenos call, "a very grassroots way through the passions and big-hearted generosity of the great neighbors."

The day was a gorgeous one and the neighborhood turned out, as you can see from the photos, to support the artists.

"I have organized other pop-up events during the holidays and they were never held on front lawns," said Heidi Steeno. "(But) they were more ‘traditional’ events inside a rented venue. COVID made us get creative with making our own events.

The Steenos were pleased with the success and, they said, the "coming together as a neighborhood for something as simple as an arts event turned into an experience so uplifting to the mind, body and soul that for a few hours, summer felt like normal again."

"The Front Yard Pop-Ups have been a true community builder," said Maggie Broeren, who lives on the block. "What's not to love about wonderful neighbors, super talented artists, makers and musicians, and perfect summertime weather, and a well-organized safe and fun event with face masks?

"These shows truly highlight our great neighborhood and the talents of our Washington Heights neighbors. We have been thrilled to host two artists, both were excited to be part of the event and benefit from generous neighbors, and we look forward to hosting others."

A second pop-up was held in August and more than two dozen artists and makers have now participated, including neighborhood creatives like Maria Knier (The Bezert), Nicole Julius (More Than A Sparrow Pottery), Jen Loberg (Scarred for Life) and Melissa Muller (ceramics), as well as artists from all over the city, including Katie Daly (Big White Yeti), Jenny Aicher (Fern & Nettle), Ryan Laessig (Milrawkee Alt), Tara and Pon.e Russ (Frank & Bella) and Milwaukee Artists for Racial Justice.

"The August Front Yard Pop-Up was our first event since February," said Daly. "A typical year has us out in the community vending at least once a month, so this year we have struggled with feeling disconnected from our local community.

"As makers, we typically are working alone or with only one or two other people in our studio, so I really crave this interaction with our customers that events provide. The Washington Heights neighborhood embodies what a neighborhood should feel like: warm, inviting and safe."

The Front Yard Pop-Ups continue this Sunday, Sept. 13 and Oct. 18, from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.

"We hope that once we make it to the other side of coronavirus we can continue the Front Yard Pop-Up events one or two times throughout the summer since they have been so successful," said Heidi Steeno.

"My block is probably one of the most engaged and active blocks in the city of Milwaukee so the Front Yard Pop-Ups fit with some of the fun and innovative gatherings we have on a regular basis (outside of COVID times)."

For updates on the Front Yard Pop-Ups, visit jamessteeno.com.

"I was so excited to see a safe, masked, local outside event just a block away," said Washington Heights resident Jennifer Buchholz.

"Not only did I encourage my neighbors to go, I shared on social to bring others to our community. The event was so well run both times. Great variety of makers. I bought some locally made jewelry and other goodies. Can't wait for the next one!"

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 an episode of TV's "Party of Five," 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 OnMilwaukee.com 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 can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.