By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 08, 2003 at 5:40 AM

It's a sad commentary that any almost monkey with a microphone and a transmitter can become a household name in Milwaukee, while many of us would be hard-pressed to cite three active painters in the city. But, there are lots of them and, from Fred Stonehouse to Gabe Lanza, there are a fair number of great ones.

We recently caught up with Jean Roberts Guequierre, whom we think is one of the city's most talented painters and asked her not only about her work and her past, but about being an artist in Milwaukee.

OMC: Why don't we start by having you give us a little background? Are you a Milwaukee native?

JRG: No, I am a native Midwesterner, born in Illinois, raised all over the place. I have lived in Milwaukee 15 years, longer than I have ever lived in one place.

OMC: Did you always feel compelled to create art, even from a young age?

JRG: When I was young and lived in Detroit I remember feeling compelled to look at art and to draw, though not necessarily to draw the art I was looking at. I loved visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts, wandering through the medieval galleries, sitting in the Diego Rivera courtyard, visiting the costume displays, being amazed by the architecture of the place. It never occurred to me that I would want to be a professional artist, though I drew in a sketchbook constantly.

OMC: How did you grow into becoming a "professional artist?"

JRG: After I left college I continued to create work and seek out other people I respected who made work that interested me. I had some good examples of how someone commits to an idea and pursues it. I tried hard to learn from my friends, mostly their work ethic. I had my own ideas about content. It isn't glamorous, it is just work. That may be the hardest lesson I learned. Now my professional life is making art, applying for shows and trying to find a gallery that would like to show my work -- less like inspiration and creation that I thought it would be when I started.

OMC: Do you find it difficult to balance your work with your family responsibilities? Do you get enough time in the studio?

JRG: During my most productive years I have made up to 15 paintings a year. Now that I have little children, it's different. Last year I made three, the two years before that I made none -- I had no studio. Those two years were the most difficult, I did a lot of drawing and even had a few great shows. Even now there is no balance between my work and my family responsibilities. Time has completely tipped toward the family , but I had a feeling it would. I try to take the long view, in which, though I only get a few hours a week at the moment, I will get more time very soon -- "soon" has an undefined quality that serves me well and keeps me from gnashing my teeth too much. So, no, I never get enough time in my studio.

OMC: Where do you find inspiration? Do you think Milwaukee affects your work? Would it be different if you lived in Detroit, for example?

JRG: Inpiration: long dead painters, some living authors, history, fairytales, poetry and people I watch when I am out in the world. Sure, Milwaukee affects my work, I draw the faces and bodies of people who live here. I love to hear their stories, sometimes I draw them. I like the old houses and the corner taps. I like living here, the city is not too spread out, unlike Detroit. You can live in this place and know it; the good and the bad.

OMC: How do you define success for an artist working in Milwaukee? Is it different than being on the coasts.

JRG: Success means continuing to produce work in the face of the demands of day to day living, which is incredibly difficult. If you can also make a living at it, then you are really doing well. It would also be nice to be respected by your peers and be included in exhibitions, maybe be represented by a reputable gallery. Is this different from life on the coasts? I have no idea. Everything I know from the coasts is sketchy, you should ask some Milwaukee artists who emigrated -- Carrie Skoczek, John Gruenwald, Jason Rohlf.

OMC: There is certainly a conservative streak here: tell us about your brushes with that.

JRG: Ah, the ridiculous Wilson Center incident. The Sharon Lynn Wilson Center in Brookfield invited me to exhibit my paintings in their exhibition hall, part of their new art center. Apparently, I was choosen based on slides of my work that they had seen from an exhibition at the gallery of the Wisconsin Academy Sciences, Arts and Letters in Madison. I showed them slides of my work and provided them with a CD-rom of even more images of my work, which included images of some of the work that I didn't have in slide form.

They didn't have an exhibition contract, there were no exhibition guidelines I was asked to follow. My friends and I hung the exhibition two months after they saw images of my paintings and at that time I was told that some of the paintings might need to be covered up when school groups were in the building -- five had nude figures in them and one did have partially-dressed intercourse depicted. I was nonplused but reluctantly agreed.

Then came the apologetic call from Kate Wilson that the board of the center had met and they all agreed that the six paintings were basically too offensive to be seen by people who come to the center. I would like to say right here that they are not offensive paintings, they are funny, humorous paintings, and they had all been exhibited in a museum in Milwaukee previously, without any hint of "controversy" or anyone even noting that they might potentially be "offensive."

I reluctantly agreed to remove them with the request that they keep up the labels of the removed paintings (as) my protest. They agreed. What was a pleasant show was gutted when roughly one-fifth of the paintings in it were removed. Then I received the publicity surrounding the censorship, which was also painful, not because I was embarassed about my paintings but because no one cared about the paintings, most of the people who wrote about them never even bothered to see the show. They just wanted a soapbox to stand on, and I was available.

OMC: Does the "controversy" inform your art in any way or is it just something you have to deal with outside of your work?

JRG: The controversy taught me to ask for an exhibition contract and to not be quite so trusting with so much good fellowship so quickly. It does not change the content of my work. I am not ashamed of it.

OMC: Your work has a very distinctive quality, but -- maybe because of what I bring to it -- I see a lot of "traditional" influences, despite its modernity. The look of your oil on panel reminds me of the early Italian renaissance painters, some of the colors bring to my mind the northern European masters and some of the figures, especially, remind me of Tuscan painter Luca Signorelli. Are these the sort of painters you enjoy?

JRG: Thanks for the modernity acknowledgement. I am not trying to pretend the last few centuries haven't happened. It is just that the first artist whose work I found enthralling, back in Detroit, was Pieter Bruegel, senior. Then I slowly discovered images of other painters, the Flemish primitives -- Van Eyck, Memling, David, Vander Weyden -- and I was in my element. I don't know how else to put it. I have tried to learn how they paint, and succeeded to only a small degree. I know that. Sometimes I borrow from them, I also borrow very freely from any artist who I feel could contribute to my understanding of thinking about and making art, like Giotto, Masaccio, Botticelli, the Mannerists, Balthus, Kollwitz, Beckman, Grosz, Wilde. I keep notes in my studio, on my drawings.

OMC: Someone I know bought one of your paintings at a rummage sale and it enjoys a special place in her home. Does this kind of "art distribution," as it were, bother you -- are you insulted by the fact that it was being sold at a rummage sale -- or do you think that art should become more a part of people's lives and that this was a sort of kismet, since you got a fan you may not have gotten from a gallery or museum?

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JRG: Someone bought that painting because they loved it, and then that person needed money. It must have been difficult to make that choice, unless they had moved on emotionally. And now your friend has it and your friend loves it. I have no problem with this. This kind of art distribution happens every day, sometimes sanctioned in a gallery, sometimes in a garage sale or a resale shop. It reached an audience and that is great. Art should be a part of everyone's life. If you can get it at a garage sale, more power to you. Maybe I'll hit a few more this summer. As to your friend, I'm thrilled to have a fan, how can I get in touch with her to let her know of upcoming exhibitions?

OMC: Here's a loaded question for you ... what do you think is the state of painting in Milwaukee these days? Are there a lot of good painters working in town -- can they make a living at it?

JRG: I don't get much time in my studio and whatever time I have left over I don't use to get out a lot, sad as that may seem. Most artists support their work with a job of some sort, I don't know many who survive solo on their art sales. Granted, some do but they are in a minority. So you work, maybe have a show and if you sell one or two pieces, you are thrilled and you want to write the buyer a fan letter. You write their name in your book of people to contact when you have the next show, and who knows what could happen? Maybe the state of painting in this town could be measured in the quality of life artists can have here while they work.

Do you want to know if I think Milwaukee painters are producing work , making exciting shows or if they can make their mortgage payment and still find time to work? I think there are many more wonderful artists in Milwaukee than ever get shown by the big galleries and that it is difficult to get the (people with) money in Milwaukee to trust the smaller galleries, like KMArt, when it comes to showing exciting, very purchaseable art. Money can be very afraid of the unknown. Bigger galleries are uncomfortable taking chances if an artist does not fit their exhibition niche and that, too, is unfortunate for Milwaukee artists.

OMC: Who are your favorites?

JRG: There are a lot of good painters/artists in this town, some I admire are: Debra Brehmer, Ariana Hugget, Chris Niver, Matt Fink, Marsha McDonald, Paula Schulze, J. Karl Bogartte, Fred Stonehouse, Douglas Holst ... um, to name a few.

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.