By Princess Safiya Byers Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Apr 18, 2021 at 12:01 PM Photography: Andrea Waxman

In 2015, best friends Bridget Robinson and Symphony Swan-Zawadi were looking for a way to combine art with activism in Milwaukee.

So the two created BlankSpaceMKE, an artist cooperative.

“We share the same views on most things. We love Milwaukee, we love Black people and we love art,” said Swan-Zawadi. “And we wanted a space to be able to create comfortably.”

Robinson, 42, and Swan-Zawadi, 33, also are the architects behind Milwaukee Black Restaurant Week, which runs through Sunday.

They started looking for studio spaces in Milwaukee and eventually found one at 9224 W. Burleigh St. The physical BlankSpace studio offered a space for artists to hone their skills and learn how to invest in themselves and their dreams.

Since then, the physical space has closed, but BlankSpace remains active. It focuses on introducing creatives to resources as well as amplifying Black creatives and their works.

In March, for example, BlankSpace used its platform to celebrate Black women doing great things in the community as part of Women’s History Month. The goal was to shine a light on “unsung SHEroes.”

“I feel honored and blessed to be considered ... by my sisters at BlankSpaceMKE,” said Adrian Spencer Good, who was acknowledged by the cooperative. “It’s wonderful to see sisters uplifting sisters and lifting each other up.”

Swan-Zawadi said the road has not always been easy. The cooperative discovered keeping a physical space was more than two could handle. But having a brick-and-mortar presence remains a goal.

“It’s sometimes difficult after six years of doing this to never get any credit for it,” Robinson said. “It was hard feeling so connected to the city that sometimes doesn’t feel connected to you.”

“We had moment where we wondered if this would be easier if we weren’t Black women,” Swan-Zawadi said.

But despite the difficulties, they’re proud of their achievements.

“We’ve been able to accomplish as much if not more than nonprofits that get funding to do this work,” Robinson said.

“This is a labor of love,” Swan-Zawadi added. “We have been making this happen with our own time, effort and money from our day jobs.”

Swan-Zawadi works as a director of programs for Arts @ Large, the arts-based nonprofit, and Robinson serves as the senior director of operations and administration at Safe and Sound.

They hope to get funding to do more work for their community.

“I hope that what we’ve been able to accomplish encourages people to trust Black women,” Robinson said. “People struggle valuing us, and I hope that people can see the magic we’ve made happen and trust us from there.”