On a Capitol Square spring morning in 2007, Nicole Gruter smiled and held a basketful of neatly wrapped American flags. She handed them out with the warmth of a church usher providing Sunday bulletins.
Inside was a tax receipt itemizing the $1,500 every local taxpayer had contributed to funding the Iraq War.
On a Willy Street summer evening in 2003, the sound of a couple arguing and plates crashing pierced the neighborhood calm.
The noise streamed from a speaker outside Mother Fool's. In the coffeehouse window, Gruter sat counting a tall pile of money while a carpenter built a wall behind her. Her self-written drama confronted the pretense of domestic life.
Nicole Gruter's art is not necessarily something you see at a gallery or a club. It's something you encounter - or join - during a random walk down a Madison street.
Since she saw her first punk-rock basement show as an eighth-grader growing up in Mankato, Minn., Gruter, 38, has adopted live performance as part of her everyday life.
She washed her hair and shaved her legs on Library Mall as a UW-Madison undergraduate student in 1992. The piece raised awareness about daily use of chemicals.
Her 2008 yard sale became a lawn art party. On flyers posted along Monona Drive, she confessed to her "problem letting go of material things without the recipient knowing what it meant to me."
So her yard sale was transformed into an inheritance sale. Each item was tagged not with a price, but with a memory it conjured.
Douglas Rosenberg, a professor of art at UW-Madison, advised Gruter during her time attending the Master of Fine Arts program. He says performance artists like Gruter "mean to engage the public in a very intimate way and to call attention to the moment of interaction in a manner that underscores an attempt at making real meaning from life."
During her undergraduate years at UW, Gruter studied theater. But she kept venturing beyond the script: "I wanted to execute ideas that didn't easily fit into the categories of theater, music, dance or visual art."
Tea party at Mount Rushmore
Last fall, Gruter commenced a two-month Tea Tour across the northern and western states. The tour was a series of impromptu tea parties at vacation destinations and worksites.
She drove with Shane O'Neil, of the Madison band Screamin' Cyn Cyn & the Pons, in a 1995 Chevrolet conversion van that had been retrofitted into a mobile teapot. The rear doors were a handle. The hood was a spout.
"Do you wonder about the pace of your lifestyle?" Gruter asked in the press release for the Tea Tour (which bore no relation to the conservative Tea Party movement, except for a smirking coincidence). "Does it cause you anxiety, depression and even anger? Join in a conversation concerning our 24/7 society while enjoying a cup of tea by the tea-mobile."
The tour kicked off in Madison and made its first stop in Mankato, Gruter's hometown. Then she and O'Neil set out for Mount Rushmore. This time, no friends or family would be there to greet them. "I felt so nervous about it, I felt like canceling it," recalls Gruter. "Finally, with gentle but stern encouragement from Shane, we set up shop at the base of the welcoming area."
Nobody stopped to join the party. Then a woman and her dog approached. She sat down, had some tea and started to talk.
"She was our only guest for the day," says Gruter, "but at a certain point I stopped worrying about what the whole idea was 'supposed' to be and began enjoying the conversation, the beautiful scenery, the sunny weather and being in the moment."
Suddenly, Gruter realized something. "In a country whose reward system is based almost solely on productivity," she notes, she had spent 18-hour days "preparing for a tour intended to promote the idea of ritual relaxation."
The moment was an epiphany. "I had yet to take my own advice to just chill out," she recalls. "I decided at that moment to let go of the anxieties of expectations and just let things happen organically." At the end of the party, "the woman went to her car and brought us back food, gave me a bracelet she had made and some cash for our gas tank."
After more than 15 years challenging the boundaries of live performance, that day Nicole Gruter reached a milestone. Her audience had finally determined the outcome of a show.
"I knew at that point," she says, "we were going to have an amazing journey."
And so it was. Gruter and O'Neil rode the teapot van through the Pacific Northwest, down the West Coast and across the Rocky Mountains, with final stops in New Orleans, Memphis, Missouri and Illinois. Along the way, they collected simple but significant pearls of wisdom, like this from an Ohio traveler Gruter met in Oregon: "I wish I wouldn't have waited until age 50 to realize I didn't need to carry all the burdens of my family. That's freed up my time."
Punk rock and noise
The first time Gruter visited Madison, in 1987, she attended a show at O'Cayz Corral.
"I was checking out the town as a possible university destination," recalls Gruter. "Soundgarden was the evening's headliner."
Gruter attended a lot of O'Cayz shows during her undergraduate years. She began working there full-time as a bartender in 1995. Cathy Dethmers, who now owns the High Noon Saloon, had taken over O'Cayz operations a year earlier.
"I knew Cathy just from going to O'Cayz, but I didn't know her that well," says Gruter. "A guy I was dating got me involved with a job there." She worked there until the former East Wilson Street nightclub burned on Jan. 1, 2001. She's been serving drinks at the High Noon Saloon since it opened in 2004. In between, she helped book shows at the Loft when it was located at the Lussier Teen Center on East Washington Avenue.
"I love the live element. That's what draws me in," she says. "I have to have that stimulation of being around music." She has worked for Dethmers longer than any other employee.
"It's refreshing to work with someone who has such an open mind about musical genres and performance styles," says Dethmers, "and who is just excited to see what will happen on any given night."
Gruter has her own music project, Wilhelmina Baker, a solo act "consisting of operatic arias sung through effects pedals, megaphone moments, lip-synched skits and handouts of tasty morsels." She has released two CDs since the project's inception in 2004. Steve Burke and Dave Adler of the Gomers collaborate on the songwriting. The tracks have included the piano work of Mother Fool's co-owner Stephanie Rearick and were recorded by longtime Madison musician Wendy Schneider.
Wilhelmina Baker's most recent release was the four-song EP Sex Object. Using different musical forms that range from rap to spaghetti western, Baker takes on the lust for acquiring inanimate objects. The title track is a gruesome rap song that uses nauseating sexual metaphors to demonstrate the crudeness of materialism.
"I come from a background of punk rock and noise and crazy performance," says Gruter. "That's my heart and soul. So I thought, how can I combine these two? It's not like Wilhelmina Baker is some kind of crazy mosh pit. But the idea is to transform a traditional format. Nobody wants to mess with opera, and that's what appeals to me."
Gruter says live music has had and always will have a big impact on the direction of her work.
"Recently I realized how greatly I've been influenced by musical front men and women," she says. "I notice a performer's energy or attitude, how they relate to the audience or how they command a certain theme during the show."
Disintegrating the barriers
Gruter started breaking down artistic walls as a college student at UW. In 1992, at the Lothlorien Co-op, she performed a dance with a woman who blindfolded her and forced her to paint a window frame red. Gruter then punched the pane, cutting herself in a move she now calls "stupidly dangerous." The experience confirmed this much for Gruter: She had found her calling.
"The big attraction for me was that your own ideas were the source of the material, as opposed to being influenced by a script that somebody else had written," she says. "The stage element was completely open and very malleable."
More recently, Gruter has moved beyond dramatic improvisation. "The overarching theme has been live art interaction with people," she says.
That includes a 2007 piece called "I No" in which Gruter invited others to write down things they have a hard time saying no to.
"People wrote their statements on sticky notes, and we put them on a wall of a gallery," she says.
"I wasn't expecting people to be so upfront and divulge so much information. People would share things like, 'I really can't handle my mother, but I can't say no to her.'"
"One thing that's tricky about these pieces is that you don't know if they're going to work until you do it. There's no dress rehearsal if you're being interactive with the audience."
Rosenberg, the art professor, says Gruter's "focus on disintegrating the barriers between performer and audience makes her part of a long history of artists with similar concerns."
Her work, says Rosenberg, "harks back to a particular locus of activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s in which ideas about egalitarianism and everyday life became a focus of art practice."
Even as Gruter grows more inclusive of her audience, her own struggles weave their way into her work. For example: "I reached a point where I realized I owned way, way, way too much stuff," she says.
So in 2008 she planned a dumpster-dive dance party at the Nottingham Co-op. "Into a decorated trashcan, I tossed items from my life that I wanted to get rid of, but couldn't bear throwing away," Gruter writes on her website. "Inviting the audience to pilfer through the trash, I described the items while dancing to music and lights supplied by a DJ."
Gruter says she's glad that her work has evolved past what she describes as "soapboxy, political statements."
"I think my current approach is an advancement. I'm facilitating and finding out what others have to say about issues."
That helps the art, and it helps the audience. "People can relate better when it's personal."