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Promising visual artists work under the radar in Madison
Hidden talent
Velliquette's Awakened and Free draws viewers in with vibrant color. For more photos, click gallery, above.

At first glance, Madison seems like a fertile environment for visual artists. We have two quality museums: the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and the UW's Chazen Museum of Art. We also have a smattering of galleries, a top-ranked printmaking program with award-winning alumni, and several residents who show and sell work in major cities. But do these elements add up to a flourishing scene for drawing, painting, photography or sculpture?

Three local artists -- Michael Velliquette, Emily Belknap and Nina Bednarski -- say the work is strong but the art community is not. Here is a glimpse into their work, their studios and their struggles to create in Madison.

The Spiritualist

If you happened past MMoCA late last winter, you probably saw Michael Velliquette's sculpture Power Structure in the window. It ushered passersby into the museum's Force of Color show by hinting at the saturated blast inside. Power Structure was created in Madison, where Velliquette has lived, worked and taught since 2006.

Color is an important component of his work.

"I'm interested in a kind of visual abundance that gives viewers a lot of ways into the work in terms of color, shape and material," says Velliquette, 41. "It's about a maximal experience where the viewer is endlessly stimulated to a point of exaltation."

As you view Velliquette's art, there's no doubt about what he means. His sculptures and low-relief works are composed of brightly colored, meticulously layered paper -- a process Velliquette calls "additive sculpture" -- that transports the viewer into a totemic, mythological and even cosmic realm. Imagine a Chinese dragon danced to life or a Tibetan Tonka painting made with hand-cut construction paper. There's something instinctively spiritual about Velliquette's work, but it's whimsical, too. His gods and goddesses inspire awe, but they can also make you laugh.

"There's an impulse I call devotional decoration," Velliquette explains. "Like decorating a Christmas tree...that's a kind of devotional decoration because it's not just throwing stuff on the tree, but a thoughtful composition. It's connected by spirit."

Three established galleries, DCKT Contemporary in New York, David Shelton in Houston and Tory Folliard in Milwaukee, represent Velliquette. But in spite of the exposure from MMoCA, he hasn't sold any work locally.

"I've struggled with being an artist here and feeling that this is a viable place where I can be nurtured and supported," he admits. "One of the downsides of Madison is it doesn't have a viable commercial market to support what I do."

Velliquette is not unique in this sense.

"There are many artists living here that have active careers outside [Madison] but go under the radar," he says. "The contemporary art scene here is like multiple bubbles with very little overlap."

Another issue, as Velliquette sees it, is the lack of state-sponsored support for the arts following Gov. Scott Walker's cuts to the state budget. In 2011, Walker proposed cutting funding for the Wisconsin Arts Board by 73%, doing away with programs like the Percent for Art (PFA) project, which charges city-funded construction projects a small fee that is later used for public art. By contrast, Velliquette recently won a New York State PFA grant to create a mural for a new high school in Queens. Ironically, all of the awarded money is being spent in Wisconsin.

Says Velliquette: "It's an easy political move to position art as a frivolous expenditure that doesn't do the economy any good, but the PFA money given to Wisconsin artists was spent on Wisconsin businesses. Artists don't get talked about in terms of supporters of the economy."

For the foreseeable future, Velliquette is based in Madison. He has multiple shows on the horizon, including his first solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. The Power Structure sculpture? Recycled. Too large and costly to store, it will be "reincarnated" in one of his future works.

The Prizewinner

Each year, the Chazen Museum honors one outstanding MFA student. This year's prize went to Emily Belknap, a reserved artist whose quiet voice doesn't undermine her drive. The environment, landscape and issues of control are all of central concern in her work, which the Chazen displayed this spring in an exhibition titled "Backyard Dilemmas."

"I make work because of my interest in the subject matter rather than my interest in being an artist," she says.

Belknap, 28, is a product of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design but sought out the UW for her graduate work to feed her thematic interests, particularly around "borders." Belknap's mother is a Marquette University professor whose research deals with migration. This early cultural education influenced Belknap and "meshed together into a landscape language," she says.

Her work, some of which has evolved into meticulous tabletop miniatures, examines manmade borders and how they function (or don't). The pieces are rife with metaphor. They're poetic, at times desolate, and the larger conversation centers on order and disarray. It's a dichotomy Belknap sees in her own life. She feels most comfortable living and creating in a highly ordered fashion, but she critiques this desire at the same time.

Take her piece The Rescue Box, which inspired her work for the Chazen.

"The Rescue Box started from an experience I had when I found a chimney swift with a broken wing," she says. "I put it in a shoebox to take to the wildlife rescue center. The whole time, it was spastically moving in the box. There is that kind of idea of trying to help or contain a problem but the whole time worrying you're making it worse."

Chazen director Russell Panczenko describes Belknap as "very serious, very hardworking, very thoughtful."

He says she's different from many young artists he's come across. Her art isn't simply about herself; it is both realistic and abstract, something he considers rare.

"So often you encounter young people who think art is simply letting out their soul," Panczenko explains. "Emily is expressing herself, but at the same time she's thinking about it."

With the Chazen show down and graduation behind her, Belknap is moving back to Milwaukee, where a teaching job and a bigger studio are waiting for her. Though she appreciates the opportunities she's received in Madison, particularly the chance to work with the Chazen, she is excited about Milwaukee.

"Milwaukee has a long way to go before becoming a really fantastic art city, but it does have a self-generating nature where young people are setting up studio spaces and making short-term pop-up galleries that are really exciting," she says.

Belknap isn't sure if the same type of excitement exists in Madison. Most of her time was spent at the university, which she views as set apart from the visual arts community at large.

"It seems like there's a divide between people at UW and those who aren't," she says. "I wish Madison was a more integrated city. I'd be curious to know what it would be like to be an artist here and not at the university. I think it would be difficult."

But she hasn't ruled out Madison for the future.

"I don't know if I can predict where I want my career to be in 10 years, but I'm confident I'll be working in the arts," Belknap says. "I don't know if I felt that way before the MFA."

The Scientist

Nina Bednarski's work involves an unusual process called reverse painting, in which paint is applied to glass and the image is viewed by turning the glass around. She's seen the technique in Chinese bottle paintings and in the ornate stained-glass windows of Catholic churches and cathedrals. The result is definitely art, but it's not mere personal expression. To Bednarski, 34, the process is more scientific than expressive.

"My studio is like a laboratory," she says. "It's got to be totally clean. Everything has an articulated spot, and you can't get a hair or anything on the glass when you're working. There's a 24-hour dry time between every color. And you're painting the details first and the background last. It's very laborious."

Bednarski's subjects come from the natural world. Images of a Joshua tree, or unique flowers grown in arboretums, appear on the glass in delicate line work, popping with color. She recently completed an aviary series titled Bird Heroes. When asked about the connection between birds and heroes, she notes that her birds are "cut off at the bust, and they're Napoleonesque, sitting up straight with these proud expressions."

While nature is at the center of Bednarski's work -- the early glass paintings were inspired by watching pigeons through her studio window -- she isn't trying to create beautiful images of the natural world. Her background is environmental science and urban design. In fact, Bednarski never studied art formally, and she handles her own marketing and sales. Working in Madison has added to the challenge.

"I really believe that more artists in Madison work in isolation than they do as a collective," she says. "The music scene here collaborates a lot more, and they have a better support system. The visual arts community has a long way to go."

Bednarski echoes Velliquette's sentiment that many successful Madison artists exhibit outside the city and find their buyers elsewhere. Bednarski has sold her work in major U.S. cities and Europe, and she was represented by the now-defunct Leo Kesting Gallery in New York City. Unlike Velliquette, she has sold pieces locally. She just completed a commissioned piece at the new downtown coffee bar Cortadito Express. She painted its walls with stark, contrasting colors; tribal patterns; and two red-tailed hawks. The striking result shows off her design skills.

Because studio rents are expensive in Madison, Bednarski relocated to Lake Mills. She now lives on two acres, in a prewar home with an entire upper floor for a studio.

"The space is designed for creation, growing gardens, a greenhouse. It's a good, inspiring space. A place to manifest ideas, get together with other artists and imagine things," she says.

Bednarski calls Wisconsin "a gem of the grasslands." Its beauty can draw and captivate artists, but more work must be done to help them thrive.

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