Emily Berens is a powerhouse to say the least. She’s an Associate Lecturer at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts in the First Year Program, Coordinator for the Milwaukee Visionaries Project, Grant writer extraordinaire, and Digital Artist. Her connection to the Milwaukee community as an artist and teacher combined with her inspiring talent and work makes her the perfect first feature. She was also my first art instructor at UWM and now a wonderful mentor and friend. If you love her work as much as I do, you can find her stuff here!
Tell us a bit about your background; how did you end up in Milwaukee?
I grew up in East Aurora, New York, which is a small town not far from Buffalo and Niagara Falls. East Aurora is an interesting little town, in that it was the birthplace of the Roycroft Art Collective, which was a big contributor to the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Late 1800’s through the 1920’s. The Roycroft Collective/Arts and Crafts Movement had a big emphasis on the importance of Craft and Handmade work and materials; there were a lot of little art studios and art fairs in my town growing up. When I took a History of Design class at UW-Milwaukee, the Roycroft movement was mentioned by my Art History professor and screened in our class materials, and I thought it was really odd/funny.
My dad is a photographer who focuses on the craft of traditional darkroom studio work and he would show his photography in outdoor community art fairs every summer. My sister and I would help out at his pop-up booth, and over time I got to know a few of the other painters, photographers, and printers who would come to each show. It was really fun to be able to walk around the shows and see what everybody was working on. I think those are some of the first experiences that inspired me to want to be part of an arts- based community.
I went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and moved cross-country from Upstate New York to Madison shortly after turning 18. I had been to Madison previously a few times to visit a friend, and fell in love instantly with the eccentricities of the arts community there, and the sprawling massiveness of the University community. I think when I was there 2004-2008, UW-Madison had around 40,000 students total; my parents worried I would be overwhelmed by how big the campus was. In reality, I loved how many people there were, and how everyone was always doing something different (both in the arts, and across other programs and majors).
At Madison, I changed my focus of study a few times; I studied in Journalism/Mass Communication, Fine Art (with a focus on Printmaking), and then ultimately ended up graduating with a bachelors degree in Graphic Design. I moved to Milwaukee for the first time in 2008 for my first Graphic Design job, working for a series of publications run by an area nonprofit. I moved briefly to Chicago while working towards an MA degree in Interdisciplinary Media at Columbia College, then returned to UW-Milwaukee to earn my MFA degree, graduating in 2013. Shortly after that I started working for Milwaukee Visionaries Project, and teaching at a few area Universities (a few years later I returned to UW-Milwaukee as a full-time staff member). I have been happily residing in Bay View for the past five years, living in a 126-year-old house with my husband Andy, who is a Milwaukee-area Native.
Can you describe the Milwaukee Visionaries Project that you are coordinating?
Milwaukee Visionaries Project (MVP) was created by UWM Art Ed Professors Kim Cosier and Laura Trafi-Prats (they are amazing!) and started out in 2010 as a project funded by UWM’s Research Growth Initiative (RGI) Grant. We are an after-school filmmaking program that serves middle and high school students from across the city of Milwaukee. We just moved this past year from a classroom in a school on Milwaukee’s South Side to a bigger studio space in UWM’s Kenilworth Square East Complex; as a result, we have benefitted from a huge increase in middle/high school students, UWM student volunteers, and contributing teachers from across the city.
We are an open-format, project-based learning initiative in which we pair students with subject matter experts to create multi-media projects intended to tell their stories. Students in our lab this year have worked across an array of projects and media- from modeling Claymation puppets for stop motion filming, learning basic woodworking and set design techniques, editing footage in industry-standard software such as Adobe Premiere/ After Effects, and writing dynamic scripts and storyboards. Student film projects have shown at Milwaukee Film Festival’s Youth Show and Extremely Young Film Festival in Houston, Texas. I started teaching in MVP in 2013, and moved into a role as a supporting Program Coordinator this past year. I now work to help recruit new students and make connections between our students and members of the UWM community. My goal for MVP participants is for them to get comfortable from an early age with being part of the University and have an idea of the pathways they can take as part of the Peck School of the Arts. I also think this program is a great example to all members involved in the many different forms and formats that collaborative arts partnerships can take! Check us and our work out at mkevisionaries.com.
As an artist yourself, what kind of work do you do?
Both my Master of Arts (MA) Degree from Columbia College-Chicago and my MFA degree from UW-Milwaukee were in Inter-Media- essentially, it’s a loose term for anything and everything incorporating multiple forms of arts and technology. I like to consider myself a ‘Tra-Digital’ artist- one who blends their work in traditional and digital media. I am most skilled in the digital software end of things, but try to blend in the handmade- sketches, prints, old photos, even found paper and textures- into dynamic digital collages. My work is a lot about process- tracing the same paths multiple times, creating material experiments through trial and error, and not thinking of works of art as having a linear “stop” and “end” point. Many of my prints and short animations are continually evolving, and I will show multiple editions of them over a period of months (or sometimes, even years). I would say in both my personal artistic process and in my teaching practice, appreciating and embracing the value of learning through experimentation is key.
Where do you get your inspiration and what drives you to do the work you do?
When I was working as a Graphic Designer in print publishing, I did a lot of infographics. I honestly love looking at how information and data can be organized in different ways to communicate a message, and that is something that carries over into both my own current work and into the artists I gravitate towards. I love artists like Emma McNally and Eric Fischer, who work with nonconventional methods data representation, often pairing real data with experiments in mark-making.
To me, the very act of organization is also an art! Pinterest has honestly become a huge part of my research process in the way it allows me to group and catalogue a lot of different visual thumbnails from a lot of different places. In both my teaching and artistic practice, I am continually trying to find new ways to catalogue how ideas are spread. I keep a digital archive of work, but I also try to keep as much hand-written documentation as I can, from sketchbook pages to notes scribbled in the margins from lectures and meetings attended. When looking for inspiration, I have found that sometimes if you pull from a large archive of stream-of-consciousness notes and cull them all together quite after the fact, you find connections and threads you never realized were there before.
What are some Milwaukee creatives that you personally find inspiring?
I love that in the time I have lived here, Milwaukee to me has become a city of start-ups. I am really inspired by the variety of DIY gallery, retail and creative spaces. I recently got to visit Var Gallery in the 5th Ward for the first time in January, and thought they have an amazing range of exhibitions and participating artists. Sparrow Collective in Bay View and The Waxwing on the East Side near UWM are both retail spaces that showcase a wide range of Milwaukee-area artisans and work that often has a regional focus. Redline Gallery has a diverse range of exhibiting artists-in-residence, and gallery nights there are wonderful to visit. I have also for a long time loved the work of the Milwaukee Home studio (mkehome.com)… it’s simple, but it works, and it hits you right in the feels.
What are your go-to spots in Milwaukee?
I work a LOT. And I love hybrid, non-traditional workspaces. A new favorite this winter has been the new Fuel Café on 5th street, which doubles as a coffeeshop bar/restaurant. The entire 5th street corridor in Walkers Point has had a number of great businesses coming in, ranging from galleries, bars/restaurants, and breweries. Another after-work favorite is Urban Harvest, which is just down the block from Fuel. They have great beer, board games, and occasionally host area pop-up restaurants. When not doing a pop-up restaurant, other great area spots- like nearby Transfer Pizza– will deliver to them. Colectivo Coffee on Prospect- right across from my Kenilworth studio space- is becoming an interesting venue for music performances. Smaller coffee spots- like Alderaan Coffee and Pilcrow coffee- have unique offerings and awesome customer service. With the ‘working a LOT’/ ‘not getting a lot of sleep’ part, good coffee is really important to me :).