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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 43.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Art meets anthropology at Gallery 99
Pop-up exhibitions foster cross-cultural mingling with clever projects and affordable pieces
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It was a wintry January night, and Lakeview Bakery & Deli was packed. People were there for bread, but not the kind traditionally sold at the Wilson Street shop. They came for an art show called Baked: Bread Sculptures on the Rise, produced and presented by Gallery 99, a pop-up gallery that organizes art shows around town.

Baked featured bread sculptures instead of edible loaves. Sourdough created a balloon effect, pizza dough a flatter look. The works were inspired by an experience gallery owner Mary Jane Connor had in second grade, when the class got to make art out of dough. Now in her mid-30s, Connor is as lively and curious as a second-grader, and her ideas flow from the same organic sense of play. Part artist, part curator and part whimsical social instigator, Connor has organized a number of shows through the gallery, which she founded in 2011.

The original aim of Gallery 99 was simple: Sell works by local artists for less than $99 apiece, and help artists find homes for their work. In the process, encourage Madisonians to buy original pieces instead of filling their houses with mass-produced junk purchased at big-box stores.

While many Gallery 99 works are meant to be sold, that's not the case for all of them. Sometimes an event's focus is helping artists generate new work, or giving people from different slices of the community an opportunity to interact. No one expected to sell their Baked sculptures, for instance, so other work was also on display. There were paintings, collages, drawings and sculptures made from more traditional materials.

Connor (a former Isthmus employee) has long been interested in helping traditional and nontraditional artists interact. One of Gallery 99's earliest shows, Art Combine, stemmed from this idea. One day, Connor happened upon a pink, polka-dotted farm combine parked on the side of Highway 12. Its sign advertised a "Combine Demolition Derby." Connor saw the rebuilt and decorated combines as nontraditional works of art. She reached out to the derby organizers, who let her bring a group of artist friends to the site.

"We had this meet-and-greet with these hipster artists from Madison and these demolition-derby farm guys. It was awkward at first because we were carrying our cameras and our sketchpads, and they were looking at us like, 'What are you doing?' But we ended up talking, and it was great," Connor says. "It was a real cross-cultural experience."

The Gallery 99 artists made their own art inspired by the derby as well.

A life-changing label

Connor's mind darts from one topic to another as she speaks, a little like a busy bird pecking its way through a garden. There's also a quietude to her, which you can see in the way she peers out from behind her thick tortoiseshell glasses, closely watching the world around her. Her path to the art world has included both aspects of her personality.

Connor grew up in Sun Prairie and attended college in Charleston, S.C. Early in her academic career she studied biology, but she never declared a major and often changed her mind about what her focus should be. A school counselor finally advised her to take some classes just for fun. She recalled that she'd wanted to be an artist as a child and decided to start there. She and art clicked.

Still, Connor wasn't content. She once again changed her mind and decided to study graphic design, transferring to UW-Stevens Point in the middle of her time in Charleston. After uprooting her life and moving 1,200 miles, she decided she didn't want to pursue the new major after all. She packed up her bags and returned to Charleston finish her degree, which was ultimately in studio art.

"At the time, I thought I liked change a lot," Connor says. "But looking back, I was a kid who could never even spend the night at someone's house."

Connor's next big step was to move again, this time to Fiji. When asked why she chose the exotic, faraway location, she points to the water bottle she holds in her hand. That's right: She made a major life decision based on the label of a bottle of water.

In Fiji, Connor encountered art made by Pacific Islanders. She began working with the artists in her community.

"If you look at Pacific Studies literature, it says to become a part of the community and watch and do. The easiest way for me to hang out with the people there was to make art with them," she recalls. "We would sketch together and drink cava all night long. It was fun."

Fiji wasn't a cross-cultural paradise all the time, though. Connor wasn't any more inspired by how art was used there than she was in the U.S.

"The artists said, 'No one cares about art here,' same as the U.S. It made me realize I can work on this stuff at home," she says.

Connor tapped into her Fiji experience when she curated her first show, JuxtaPacific, while pursing her master's degree in art history and museum studies at UW-Milwaukee. She brought large canvases over from Fiji, then mixed their subject matter with art from American tiki culture to show the tension between the two.

"I kind of look at artists as visual philosophers," Connor explains. "I think art is a philosophy on life."

Connor admits that her approach to curating wasn't very conventional. But it felt acceptable to mix culture, art and anthropology in a personal way, an approach Connor calls "didactic."

A carnival of creativity

Gallery 99 is a product of happenstance. In 2010, Connor was working at a nonprofit arts organization in Sauk City. She wasn't feeling particularly fulfilled, but she was getting to know a community of artists. She was also involved with the Chamber of Commerce. When the Chamber mentioned that a free space was available downtown, Connor grabbed it. The building provided the infrastructure and impetus for an art gallery. It also gave her a place to delve more deeply into her curatorial ideas.

Initially, the space proved to be a disaster. It had no running water and no bathroom. It was filled with leftovers from the previous business and was in serious need of a paint job. Luckily, it was only a few doors down from where Connor lived.

"I was always walking back and forth to my apartment, washing things out in my bathroom," she says, laughing.

While Connor eventually let the space go, she didn't give up on Gallery 99. Instead, she transformed it into a pop-up gallery. The format lets her take art projects to interesting and unconventional locations.

On display at Baked was an eye-catching octopus sculpture with long, languorous tentacles, created by blending two types of dough and then carving and painting them. The sculpture was created by artist Sara Meredith, who sells art under the name Smere Tactics. She has worked with Gallery 99 since its inception.

"I participate because it's an innovative idea that connects a lot of communities that wouldn't necessarily have an understanding of or connection to the arts directly," she says. "It makes art affordable to everyone. You can actually have authentic art in your home, and that's valuable."

Meredith has a busy life that includes caring for two children and working at Great Big Pictures. She describes her art as "ghostlike" and "uneasy" and says she prefers the creepy side of things.

Her work seems like a great fit for Gallery 99's annual exhibition, Art on the Side Show. Connor asks artists to create carnival booths and games. Patrons pay $2 to $5 for a round of game-playing, in the hopes of winning a work of art the way one would win a stuffed animal at a fair. For this year's Side Show, which is slated for September, Meredith plans to create large sculptures of creatures found in a freak show. She wants the viewer to wonder if the grotesquerie is real.

Gallery 99 will also host a July 18 event at the vintage retailer Retro-Revolution. Artists will create paint-by-number art that matches the throwback spirit of the place. Visitors will have an opportunity to paint their own masterpieces, too.

Connor sees Gallery 99 as her masterpiece.

"I'm always trying to take everything to the next level," she says. "The gallery itself is like an art project."

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