Many of Milwaukee’s public school buildings were constructed during an era of optimism over the relationships between education, democracy, and economic prosperity. Decades of disinvestment have dramatically altered the buildings and the means by which children are educated today. The attention given to these buildings in their early incarnation has gradually been altered: slate roofs replaced by asphalt shingles, ornaments removed, pollution-exposed brick covered with paint, and windows partially covered or bricked in. Close examination of the structures reveals the ways in which society’s grandest ambitions coexist with utilitarianism and thrift.
“Old Schools” is a series of paintings made to honor local public school buildings as symbols of community, places of learning, and totems to craftsmanship. I begin each work by creating composites drawn from accumulated research and site visits. My primary interest is the school’s unique character and presence, typically expressed in the architectural detail of its exterior. A mood or melodrama further animates the painting, reflective of my uneasiness about the state of public education today and my concern for the future of the buildings themselves.
Public education is often viewed through the lense of nostalgia or critique. My paintings assert the value of a vantage point focused firmly on the material conditions of today’s urban schools. Some of our schools are shuttered and still, while others continue to embody optimism and hope. Each structure rises above its neighborhood bearing witness to the place of education in a contemporary city. The “Old Schools” series reminds us of the possibilities and the potential that surround us.