By Jason McDowell Creative Director Published Feb 12, 2021 at 3:01 PM Photography: Jason McDowell

It was about 11am on a Friday, roughly a month after the COVID pandemic started when I unexpectedly ran into my old college classmate, Brandon Minga (Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design Class of 2004, whaddup!). He had recently started a creative collective with co-founder Tim Priebe, called House of RAD, which stands for Resident Artist Doer, and moved into an industrial space within the Riverworks Business Improvement District near Fratney and Keefe. This is an area that has been quickly transforming into a hub for artisans and craftspeople.

Minga told me to stop by later in the day for a tour of the place, and to catch up on what he's been up to, which I happily obliged, but by the time I got to his space some three hours later, everything had changed.

Brandon Minga and Tim Priebe
Brandon Minga (left) and Tim Priebe (right)

"We just got done talking with the new owner of the C&D building, and I think we might be moving everything next door." The two had even already started planning where the electrical was going to go.

I still got to walk around the old place and gawk at everything they had accomplished in the short time they'd been there, but it was also all about to be uprooted.

Six months later, they were starting to set up in the new space and it was time to check up on their progress.

A little history

The building complex at 900 E. Keefe Ave. was originally owned by Globe Electric, which got its start in manufacturing electrical equipment for farm, street and railway use, and eventually merged with Union Batteries to add automobile battery production to their roster. They also produced a variety of other products, like radios and components, chargers, skates, and golf clubs. As Globe-Union Manufaturing Co., they eventually succeeded in revolutionizing electronic minituraization, lead by Jack Kilby, who would go on to change the course of history by inventing the microchip (mere weeks after leaving the Milwaukee factory for a job at Texas Instruments).

The main building at 900 E Keefe Ave. is a classic example of 1920's industrial red brick architecture.
The main building at 900 E. Keefe Ave.

Eventually the capital equity group KPS bought the complex and moved in the Pennsylvania-based C&D Technologies, a battery manufacturer, but they closed down that location and moved their operations in late 2019.

Shortly after, in late April 2020, Derek Benedyk bought the building. "Since the first time I saw the building I thought it was so amazing and such an elegant example of Milwaukee's manufacturing history," he told me. "I love old plants and manufacturing facilities and try to keep them active instead of tearing them down and putting up tilt-up's." (Tilt-ups are a modern and cheap form of construction.)

The south-side of the complex.X

Immediately after the purchase, the building was divided up and subleased for a variety of uses and, while the space is still very raw, it is already abuzz with activity.

A RAD new home

The House of RAD doesn't operate out of the main, original building, but in the buildings behind, at 830 E Keefe Ave. A large part of the complex is leased by Steve Mathison under the banner of the West River Cooperative, which subsequently subleases a chunk of that space to the House of RAD. The two groups have similar goals of a multi-use, highly-collaborative shared space.

The west side of the complex.
The west side additions.

Priebe rattled off a list of upcoming tenants: "There's a boxing school going in next door, and there's a bike shop going in there, and a rentable podcasting studio going into those bays. There will be canoe and kayak rentals, and there's a CBD guy. There will mostly be offices upstairs but we also have someone that's going to do aerial silk circus school. And this space will be a cyber cafe / conference room / chill space that people can sit and have lunch."

How it started

The RAD in House of RAD stands for Resident Artist Doer and the group aims to be a highly collaborative space that unites progressive innovators and makers in art, design and technology.

An original, hand-made reception desk
An original, hand-made reception desk from Andre Saint Louis sits in what is poised to become the conference room.

"I had an idea of doing this when I was in the military, about 20 years ago," Priebe told me. "It's been on my mind the whole time."

Minga had a similar idea and tried it out under other working names, until he found the right combination of words to express his vision, and friends to help him get it done.

As such, Priebe had known Flux Design's Jeremy Shamrowics (another collaborator from his time at MIAD decades ago) and his partnership with Minga began to develop via Minga's independent residency at Flux. Their friendship was solidified after a trip to the desert arts festival, Burning Man. "Once you go to Burning Man…it's kinda like combat. Friends forever after that."

Towards the end of 2019, Minga had outgrown his space at Flux and needed to find a place for his independent projects. When he didn't find what he was looking for at the Milwaukee Maker Space, he acquired private space around the corner from Flux at 3700 N. Fratney Street. Priebe moved in shortly after due to the need for space for his independent projects and a place to store an art car. Then, after Flux Design shut down for good, Priebe and Minga partnered with Mathison and moved their proto-House of RAD across the alley to their current location.

Raw, unfinished space at the House of RAD.
Before: Much of the space is unfinished, but whether it truly becomes "finished" is up for debate. The space will likely always be in a state of flux.
One studio space has been roughed in, while another is deliniated with two-by-fours.
6 weeks later: The rubble is cleared and one studio space has been roughed in, while another is deliniated with two-by-fours.
Two drywalled studios, nearing completion
An additional 4 weeks later: The studios are nearly done
East loading dock at the House of RAD.
Before: East loading dock.
The loading dock area has been walled off into a series of private studios.
6 weeks later: The loading dock area has been roughed in and walled off into a series of private studios.
Three loading-dock studios, drywalled and nearing completion
An additional 4 weeks later: The dock studios begin seeing action.

It's a talent library, not a tool library

"It's difficult to say that it's an artist cooperative without people assuming it's a maker space," said Priebe, "We don't want people to think it's a maker space. If you have a studio, that's your studio. I wouldn't come into your space and use your drawing table unless I explicitly got your permission, so you shouldn't come in and use our table saw."

A stretcher box has been repurpoused into a liquor cabinet.X
The repurposed stretcher box with its door open.X
Fun surprises can be found in the many nooks and crannies of the space, including this stretcher box that has been repurposed into a liquor cabinet.

So residents and collaborators shouldn't think of it as a library of tools which can be accessed and borrowed on a whim, but a library of talent.

Power tools arranged artfully on a peg board sit above organizational drawers.X

"We're facilitators or aggregators of talent," explained Minga, "We get these resources and then mix them together. We want to have a healthy mix of veterans in the field working with emerging talent, interns and studio assistants."

An hastily rendered design sketch for a speaker shelf.
A design sketch for a speaker shelf, designed by Jeremy Shamrowics.
Speaker shelves (upside down) made of salvaged metal and drill bits.
Speaker shelves in production.
One of the finished speaker shelves, mounted on the shop wall.
The final product.

"A lot of us are masters of many things," said Priebe, "but we're hoping we can get an eclectic group of people so we can say, 'I know someone who does that' and we can keep building on our own skillset. Someone can say 'I got this 3D project, but really I'm a mural painter. You do 3D, so do you wanna pitch it with me?'

"We're here to help each other get projects we wouldn't usually get. That way we all feed each other."

The early stages of what will become a giant jellyfish sculpture installed in Green Bay.
Rigging up the early stages of a massive jellyfish sculpture that will be installed in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
The still-in-progress jellyfish sculpture looms overhead.
Continued progress: The sculpture will be painted with luminescent paint and outfitted with LED lights.

"We're all capable of many different things and we wanna share that knowledge with the rest of these artists," said Minga, "and hopefully they can share their knowledge and we can all start building rad shit together."

There will be windows in every studio so that people can walk through and see what's happening and there will be monitors with a slide show that people can drop their files into to show off their work.

Tim Priebe's workspaceX
A collection of masks.X
A collection of various gas mask designs.X

As we continued our tour through the building, there seemed to be endless amounts of space and possibilities. A future speak easy is planned for one of the areas of the building. Like many of the spaces within, its smallness is outweighed by the vast potential that lies within.

A small room with massive windows and a balcony, that may soon be transformed into a speakeasy.
The area designated for a potential speakeasy.

Though there is nothing currently happening in on the rooftop or the parking lot, there are ideas floating around to change that, such as entertainment gatherings, rooftop concerts and food truck nights.

A skeleton riding a scooter.X
A motorcycle parked next to the industrial prints of Brandon Minga.X
A black van with hot rod flames painted all across its exterior.X
An vintage truck painted with the Draft and Vessel logo.X

"We want to see participation in group activities. We're gonna have events like Gallery Night or a Steam Roller Print day and we want our artists to participate if they can. We will try to facilitate that in whatever way makes that possible."

Join the House of RAD

To apply for a studio at the House of RAD you can get more information on their Facebook page.

Additional photos from around the House of RAD and the West River Cooperative

A giant 3D puzzle dragon.X
A storage area flooded with blue LED light.X
A workshop on one side and storage spaces on the other.
Storage slots for residents will eventually be fenced off and lockable.
A roughed-in industrial space where the walls will eventually be clad entirely in vintage doors.
This space will soon be home to a bike shop. Its walls will be entirely clad in vintage doors.
An empty industrial space, ripe for creativity.
Empty space is quickly being divided up for a variety of uses.
A cream city brick wall with paint indicating the place a stairwell once was.
Formerly stairs.
A hammock strung between two metal ceiling support posts.
Filling in the empty space by any creative means.
An empty stage.
The building came with a pre-built stage, so naturally it is being considered for a performance space.
An open industrial space with cedar beams and painted-yellow ceiling supports.
Spaces are roughed in by the placement of 2x4s. This will become home to an aerial silk acrobat school.
Industrial beams covered in bird droppings.
Birds once made this a roost.
A dummy sits in the window.X
Reclaimed materials are stored against the wall.X
Vintage lockers turned on their side.X
A wall with a mural proclaiming 'Eat the rich' followed by a communist icon.X
An original door that was decomissioned after a ramp was installed still stands next to the newer door.X
A pile of rubble from the repurposing sits in the driveway.
Rubble from the repurposing.
An open, empty rooftop.
The open rooftop could be repurposed for elevated entertainment.
An empty parking lot.
The parking lot could be repurposed for ground-level entertainment, or a food truck party.

Correction: The article originally gave the impression that the House of RAD was located at 900 E Keefe Ave. Their address has been corrected to 830 E. Keefe Ave.

Jason McDowell Creative Director

Jason McDowell grew up in central Iowa and moved to Milwaukee in 2000 to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

In 2006 he began working with OnMilwaukee as an advertising designer, but has since taken on a variety of rolls as the Creative Director, tackling all kinds of design problems, from digital to print, advertising to branding, icons to programming.

In 2016 he picked up the 414 Digital Star of the Year award.

Most other times he can be found racing bicycles, playing board games, or petting dogs.