The OnMilwaukee.com Summer Festivals Guide is presented by Pick 'n Save, Where Wisconsin Saves on Groceries. Pick 'n Save is Wisconsin proud, and excited to help promote and feed the great Milwaukee summer that includes festivals and fun nearly every day. Click to save here!
It’s not often that you see portraits of Dave Grohl and Vince Lombardi displayed side by side.
However, the art and career of William K. Stidham are pretty well summed up by those contrasting characters on canvas. If you’ve been to Summerfest this year, you might have seen Stidham’s stunning portraits of Grohl, Lombardi and many others.
Located at the northwest corner in the lakeside craft tent near the Briggs & Stratton stage, Stidham’s Gusto Studios booth is a visual delight and a friendly gathering place for Summerfest regulars and newcomers. From portraits as large as 48" by 32" down to flasks and coasters, the images and colors evoke musical memories in the summer sun.
I met with Stidham over a beer at his "office," a picnic table a few yards from his booth. We discussed his art, music, football, Milwaukee and much more.
Stidham now lives and works in Austin, Texas, and San Miguel, Mexico, but his emotional art and inspirational life story both have strong connections to Wisconsin. While 2015 marks his seventh year with a craft booth at Summerfest, Stidham’s Milwaukee’s roots reach back to his birth here in 1965.
His father worked in marketing at the famous Schlitz Brewery, which provided Stidham with a strong appreciation for Milwaukee, its brewing heritage and local music and sports culture. Even the name "Gusto Studios" is based on the Schlitz 1960s marketing campaign and vintage beer formula now enjoying a renaissance, just like Stidham and his art.
"It’s a prodigal son story in some ways," Stidham said. "Milwaukee just fits my profile. The people are really nice, and I feel completely grounded here. I have a since love affair with this place."
When his father’s career in the beer industry took the family to San Antonio in the late 1960s, Stidham took to Texas.
"I love being a Texan," he said. "But, I’m still an ambassador for Milwaukee wherever I go."
Artistically, Stidham’s career has an inspirational purpose and mission. After spending years trying to write that "great American novel," he was at a major crossroads in his mid-30s.
Now 52, Stidham started painting at age 35 when he bought a basic water color kit at Walgreens. "I felt that I wasn’t done being creative, so my painting came out of the ashes of writing," he said. "There was no art school or books. I just started painting."
While not successful at first, Stidham found his ultimate artistic inspiration in country music legend Willie Nelson about a decade ago. "I wasn’t planning to paint celebrities, but I decided on him since he was from Texas, and he was the first concert I saw in 1972," Stidham said. "I also read his book ‘The Tao of Willie,’ and it all seemed to make sense."
That first Nelson painting brought Stidham the technique that gives his paintings such unique personality and character. He first added the flaming heart symbol representing that power and energy. Then, he risked ruining the painting by pouring a quart of water on the watercolor. Essentially "baptizing" the painting, Stidham soon realized he created something special and his "Sacred HeART" series of music legends was born.
With paintings of diverse music icons from the Beatles to Bob Marley to George Strait, it’s natural that Stidham’s work fits perfectly with festivals like Summerfest, Lollapalooza, South by Southwest, Bonnaroo and others.
"The music festivals fit because I don’t have to explain as much and people really get it," he said. "I capture an essence in the paintings with a spiritual vibe that makes a connection."
Stidham also created a painting series honoring women and Latino culture, but is now venturing into sports for the first time with two new works honoring Wisconsin’s greatest football legends. His painting of Lombardi and another with quarterbacks Bart Starr, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers can evoke similar emotions to those in music and entertainment.
"Music is an emotional mile marker that ties us to memories," Stidham said. "Sports is the same way. It’s like a religion, especially in places like Wisconsin and Texas."
Whether appreciating performers like Grohl, coaches like Lombardi or just cool paintings, take a swing by Stidham’s Gusto Studios booth at Summerfest or online at williamkstidham.com.
Mike Morgan rides retro, whether on his 1976 Harley Aermacchi 250 or Heritage Softail. Mike has been a motorcyclist since 2001 having ridden in Sturgis, Daytona Beach, the California coast, New England and everywhere in between, including in the last three Milwaukee Harley Anniversary parades.
Mike worked in communications and marketing at Harley-Davidson for more than 12 years, writing and editing all kinds of content, including award-winning media kids in 2009 and 2012. He had ridden the Harley several times before Brewer games at Miller Park, and ran in one of the last sausage races at the old County Stadium when he was Communications Manager for the Stadium District Board.