A tour of public sculpture along Milwaukee’s RiverWalk and Wisconsin Avenue

A photo of my colleague, Margaret Dwyer, and me with “The Bronze Fonz,” taken during last Saturday’s walking tour of public sculptures along the Milwaukee RiverWalk and Wisconsin Avenue. We led a group of MSOE students on the two-hour walk as part of our research on using public art in engineering education.

Margaret and I got a Summer Faculty Development Grant this year for a project we titled “Connecting the Classroom and Public Art at MSOE: ‘Scientia Sine Arte Nihil Est‘”—which basically means (in Latin) “Science without art is nothing.”

We borrowed that phrase from our friends at the Grohmann Museum (the building where our department’s faculty offices are also housed). They have it printed on T-shirts you can buy in the gift shop. It’s a nice twist on the original quote from 14th-century architect Jean Mignot: “Ars sine scientia nihil est,” or “Art without science is nothing.” Mignot was a French architect called in to evaluate the Milan Cathedral for structural issues during its construction, as that project required stones to be lifted to new heights, literally. When you’re talking Gothic cathedrals with soaring vaulted ceilings and spires stretching heavenward, art without science would be very dangerous indeed.

So anyway, back to our summer grant. The IRB approved project was Margaret’s brainchild, and fortunately she asked if I’d like to be a co-investigator. After our public art tour ended Saturday, the students had lunch on us and participated in a focus-group discussion about the sculptures and the connections they saw between the public art and their own majors’ engineering disciplines and coursework.

We still have to transcribe the students’ conversation (apparently we can upload our Audacity audio file to Otter.ai, which is a FAR cry from the manual transcriptions of audiocasette tapes I did for my dissertation a million years ago), and then we’re going to produce instructor materials to help our colleagues incorporate public art into their courses. We also hope to write a conference paper for next year’s ASEE conference . . . in Montreal!

Some photos from Saturday below (I didn’t take that many, sorry!).

First, before we even set out from the Grohmann Museum, where the group assembled, I saw this really cool truck parked across the street. The parking meters kind of ruin the picture, but you can make out its “hot rod” style even so.

This sculpture reminds of me of the Easter Island faces. Except it looks out over the Milwaukee River instead of the Pacific Ocean 🙂

At the Highland Avenue pedestrian bridge stand two metal urns. The work is listed as “Limitation Series: Bowls,” by Paul Sebben.

Did Sebben anticipate how the public might interact with large “bowls” lacking signage that identifies them as “art”? Was this intentional on his part? I hope so, because it’s sad if not.

One of my favorite pieces was Aqua Grylli, a highly detailed, puzzling, and provocative sculpture on the west bank of the river, about halfway between Kilbourn and Wells.

(Aside: Margaret used Aqua Grylli in our recruiting poster. I only just now noticed this: Don’t both “faces” in the featured sculptures look really angry? Thank goodness the text sells it!)


If you link over to the artist’s website (she is Beth Shahagian, a Milwaukee sculptor), you can see a photo of the sculpture from a ninety-degree angle as it must have appeared at its installation in 2001. Take a look at the stone base on the lefthand side of the picture on her website. It’s a solid gray color. (Actually, you can see that solid gray color better on her “company” website, here.)

But take a look at that same stone base now, which I photographed on Saturday from the west side of the sculpture, which is the same perspective as the sculptor’s photo is from.

First, on top of the stone base, but at the base of the archway, there are several turtles sunning themselves on what look to be rocks. Streams of water are etched into the bronze, flowing in rivulets across the bronze “riverbed” and among the turtles’ rocks.

Sadly I didn’t take a photo of the turtles from above. But here is one showing a sideways view, where you can see some symbols etched onto the side of the metal block. The dark piles jutting upward are the turtles on rocks.

In the photo below you can see where one of the streams flows across the side of the bronze block and down the stone base of the pedestal. What I LOVE is how once the metal oxidized, the patina’s green color was carried by rainwater along the carved “channel” to create a colorful stream flowing down the stone.

This intriguing sculpture has lots of detail associated with “magic” and “luck.” There’s a rabbit’s foot, a horseshoe, a cornicello (a “lucky horn” amulet), a hand making the “devil’s horn” symbol (known as le corna in Italian, a hand gesture aimed at warding off the “evil eye”), and a triangle with the word “abracadabra” written all over. Just as the left base (northernmost) is covered with turtles (considered auspcious in some cultures), the righthand base (southernmost) is covered with what we all decided looked like trilobites.

So I just now looked up “trilobites good luck” and found that, yes, apparently trilobites are considered symbols of good fortune. See this Wikipedia article on the Neodrepanura, which describes how in China the fossils are mined “for use as ‘bat stones’ or ‘swallow stones,’ as good luck charms and traditional medicines.”

Interestingly during our Saturday art walk, I noticed lots of rice scattered on the ground beneath the arch of the bronze wave upon which the creature’s chariot rides. Part of me wondered: Might the rice actually be part of the artwork? Does someone come around regularly to replenish this symbol of good luck after a windy day?

The sculpture is situated above a boat landing on the river. So the most likely scenario is that a wedding party arrived via Riverwalk or water to take their photos beneath the arch of this good-luck landmark. Probably people showered the couple with rice to make a good picture.

But I kind of like my theory better 🙂

I’ll try to post a little more on the sculptures this coming week. One (called “Common Comrades”) haunts me, so much so that I went back to it on Tuesday afternoon and took lots more photos. And I may return to take more. Here’s one.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Art, Higher education, Milwaukee, Photography and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A tour of public sculpture along Milwaukee’s RiverWalk and Wisconsin Avenue

  1. Rose says:

    What a neat idea you two had. I’ve never seen the other public art aside from the Bronze Fonze and Gertie the duck. Will have to look into the others. The haunted mannequin figures look appalled that they are out of work due to department store closings, LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jtomchay says:

    When visiting Milwaukee, I always enjoy the riverfront walk.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.