I sit in the heart of the heart of the city, on the West Side, somewhere between downtown Milwaukee and the vast industrial zone known as Miller Valley. August heat radiates from the streets; the waves ripple off the blacktop. Sounds of cicadas mix their mechanical whirr with drones and blares of passing traffic. I'm sitting on a large mulch pile, cool in the shade, flicking ants off of my legs, in a somewhat dejected vacant lot nestled between a bank, a church and a few funky houses. The lot is being converted into a community garden through a collaborative project called Urban Eden. Raised beds are arranged along a cement wall, the back of the bank's parking structure. The bare wall has been transformed, through a fascinating public art project, into a portrait gallery of local residents.
A woman with a makeshift shopping trolley walks by and nods at me, crossing towards a group of Hmong students who stand together in the shade of a grove of trees. I'm taking pictures of the portraits through tall sunflowers. The Hmong talk among themselves in unfamiliar but pleasant rhythms, and I can hear birdsong in between the passing pneumatic roar of busses. It is a hot, but restful place. A place of multiple reclamations, of aggregated acts of growth and faith.
Wheat pasted onto the cement wall in front of me are 23 large black and white portraits. The men and women represented are a diverse group, a mix of age, race and culture. They are all arranged similarly; large head shots, tight framing, posed against a background of the wall that they are now pasted onto. They look at me looking at them.
Like the garden, the prints will be ephemeral, exposed to the weather, ending with the season. The portraits are of the workers, gardeners, neighbors and residents who frequent the area, and who have a relationship with the space. The faces have a gentle but insistent presence, as if they are watching over this reclaimed urban space, witnesses to the life on this small patch of ground. I write some notes in my journal and wait for the two artists to arrive.
Sally Kuzma and John Ruebartsch have collaborated on projects in the past. They recently finished an ambitious project documenting global refugees that have settled in Milwaukee. Kuzma coordinated this project, Urban Eden, named after the garden itself. She organized the community members, while Ruebartsch took the photographs. Many of the subjects, along with student volunteers from nearby Marquette University, helped install the prints onto the wall.
I asked John and Sally to tell me about some of the people on the wall:
"There's the story of Pete, a homeless guy who hangs around in the area. He comes here all the time and loves the project, gets all emotional about it and brings his friends to see it… The guy on the far right is the caretaker of the church…He helps out around here a lot. That woman over there, and her friend are both Hmong elders. They meet in the upstairs of the church every week, and have a very powerful influence on their communities… That young man there is Najib, from Somalia. He speaks really good English and works over at the International Learning Center. He seemed to think it was cool, but also seemed bemused by it… The guy with the glasses there is Burmese. He goes to school here. There is a big Burmese community in Milwaukee, a fairly recent immigrant group. Over there is a family of four: a husband, wife and their two boys. They were great to work with and helped out a lot... All of these people helped make the space, and this project tries to honor that care and labor."
John went on to explain his photographic process:
"I wanted the portraits to be simple and elegant. These are all people that are part of this community, so it was important to get to know them before taking their pictures. I shot them all in the same position, against the wall that their images are now pasted onto. I didn't want them to be very posed… I tried to seek their essence, and let them present themselves to the camera and to the community."
I took a few more photos, and said goodbye. As I was getting into my car I realized that this is a lot more than an art project. It is a visualization of the warp and weft of community - a weaving of relationships built around a once dejected and vacant lot that has now become a crossroads of people and nature, culture and language. It is a place of transformation, a space where folks can see themselves in, and as a part of, a living landscape.