Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - LIND­SEY AN­DER­SON

Michelle Grab­ner chal­lenges the sta­tus quo.

Michelle Grab­ner finds plenty of in­spi­ra­tion in Mil­wau­kee.


thrives on hard work. She ac­knowl­edges as much over cof­fee at Fuel Café’s new Fifth Street out­post, just down the street from The Sub­ur­ban, one of the gal­leries she and her hus­band, Brad Kil­lam, run to­gether. The cou­ple also owns a sec­ond lo­ca­tion in River­west, plus The Poor Farm, an artist space in Lit­tle Wolf, Wis­con­sin.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Grab­ner com­mutes to Chicago to teach paint­ing and draw­ing at the Art In­sti­tute, writes for high-pro­file pub­li­ca­tions such as Art­fo­rum and jug­gles cu­ra­to­rial projects. But she thinks of her­self pri­mar­ily as an artist: Her stu­dio work comes first, she says, with teach­ing com­ing in a close sec­ond. “And all these other things – cu­rat­ing, writ­ing, run­ning The Sub­ur­ban – help me in my teach­ing. I’m at my best when I’m en­gag­ing them.”

Orig­i­nally from the Fox Val­ley re­gion, Grab­ner feels that she can jug­gle her dis­parate en­deav­ors more eas­ily in Mil­wau­kee than in Chicago, where she of­ten felt as if she was un­der in­tense scru­tiny, es­pe­cially af­ter she co-cu­rated the 2014 Whit­ney Bi­en­nial.

Since her re­turn to Mil­wau­kee in 2015, she’s logged thou­sands of hours in her stu­dios here, cre­at­ing new works.

Many are sculp­tural casts of hand-knit­ted and cro­cheted blan­kets that re­flect her ca­reer-long in­ter­est in do­mes­tic en­vi­ron­ments and ev­ery­day life.

One such work has been in­stalled at 301 E. Wis­con­sin Ave., where it re­mains on dis­play through Oc­to­ber 22 as part of Sculp­ture Mil­wau­kee, a free out­door ex­hi­bi­tion of 22 pieces.

An­other, multi-panel weav­ing, made of strips of brightly col­ored pa­per, hangs in the Mil­wau­kee Art Mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion “Pa­per Play,” on view through Oc­to­ber

29. The show is more par­tic­i­pa­tory than most – MAM is invit­ing vis­i­tors of all ages to cre­ate weav­ings of their own, in­spired by Grab­ner’s work, and is sav­ing what they leave be­hind, so that Grab­ner will have an ar­chive for fu­ture paint­ings.

Crit­ics have some­times scoffed at Grab­ner’s will­ing­ness to blend craft and con­cep­tual art. In a 2014 New York Times re­view, Ken John­son called her “a com­fort­ably mid­dle-class tenured pro­fes­sor and soc­cer mom,” im­ply­ing that mid­dle-class moms can’t cre­ate com­pelling works of art.

She doesn’t bris­tle at the la­bels, though. “What his re­view rep­re­sented, which un­for­tu­nately had noth­ing to do with my work,” she says, “was a prej­u­dice about where con­tem­po­rary art should come from, about whether it must be male driven, cos­mopoli­tan. What is the con­tem­po­rary avant-garde? Where does it have to come from?”

Ac­cord­ing to Grab­ner, art can come from any­where. From clas­si­cally trained coastal ur­ban­ites, yes. But from soc­cer moms in the Midwest, too.

WANT MORE? You can read a com­plete tran­script of our

in­ter­view with Michelle Grab­ner at mil­wau­­ner.

A New York Times re­viewer called Michelle Grab­ner a soc­cer mom. Here, she em­braces the con­cept.

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