Interview: Reginald Baylor
Reginald Baylor is a Milwaukee-born artist and painter whose bright, geometric work is rife with pop-culture references and depictions of life in post-war America. Currently he is involved with the landmark renovations of the Finney Library building in the Sherman Park neighborhood.
Open View: You were involved with the Finney Library during theTypeface Project in 2013 and recently you’ve become involved with the renovations there. How so?
Reginald Baylor: I got connected with the owner of the Finney, Matt Bohlman, when he purchased the building and the Typeface panels had to come down. The building has been vacant but it’s structurally immaculate and has been historically preserved. It’s in a fantastic corner of Milwaukee and that's really the foundation of it. So it was really a no-brainer looking at the options [moving spaces]; it made total sense. I had been in love with the building prior to the Typeface project too and would drive by it often, having grown up in the city. I am excited.
OV: And there are plans for it to be an arts incubator of sorts?
RB: I am not a fan of the “incubator” term, but will we be opening small businesses? Yes. We’re also looking at including public entertainment space, textile, two retail venues, a woodshop and a kitchen. The idea is that the building is branded as a destination, similar to what happened in Marshall Building when we had the Plaid Tuba space, or during the Pfister or Mandell residency. These ideas of programing space are something I am comfortable with now and am looking forward to making better and better. I think the Finney is going to be extremely special.
OV: What is the significance of doing this work in Sherman Park?
RB: If you go back and look at my artwork you’ll see I’ve done a lot of paintings of neighborhoods. I think neighborhoods are beautiful shelters for a community. So going back and looking at Sherman Park, I see my earlier works. Looking at the neighborhood architecturally (architecture is really the foundation of my aesthetics), it’s fantastic. It’s architectural make-up is as diverse as its community and the people that live there. And I think that’s refreshing — to have such a neighborhood in a city that is so segregated. Sherman Park is a relief from that weight which makes it an ideal place to be a part of.
OV: What has shaped your definitions of art and how might your definition differ from others in the Milwaukee area?
RB: Everything starts off as a drawing. So right there it sort of negates everything after that. Alright, you drew a chair and you drew an abstract painting. So you’re like Superman because you drew an abstract painting and this guy drew a design for a chair? You both had a pencil and a piece of paper — let’s talk about that first. Thinking about that first makes [that definition] extremely inclusive. Music for example is vast because it’s wide open and accessible for people to critique. Fine art seems to be tucked away in this tight bubble that makes it difficult to critique. I think the way to balance it out is to throw it all in at once, whether it’s fashion or architecture or something else. To wrap creativity around a culture, not an object. To wrap creativity around values, not the thing we make.
Behind is probably the best way to say it. The art world is a bit behind. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. I applaud what the museums, and Basel, or houses like Sotheby’s are doing. You see some of the other stuff people buy... Am I mad at [people buying] “yachts”? No. I might be a little jealous.. (laughs) but what I am mad at is if there were yachts, but there were no canoes, or jetskis, or paddle boats and pontoons and all that other stuff. And so to speak that’s what is wrong with the art world — we don’t have enough “boats” on the water. And we have to quit saying, “I only succeed if I make a yacht.” No — make canoes. Make canoes and be happy that you got someone on the water.
OV: What do you think of the art scene in Milwaukee? How have you seen it change?
RB: I don’t know if it’s necessarily changed. I think there’s always been this sort of insider, behind-the-scenes movement in Milwaukee that has been very consistent. What I do see as a problem is that we haven’t been able to reach the culture of the city. For some reason whatever we are doing in the back room is not resonating with our audience enough to support what we want to keep doing. And I honestly believe that there is such a value to that. If we honestly believe that this is valuable, than we should be making it more accessible. Most people don’t know where “there” [the Milwaukee arts scene] is or that there is a “there.” And if there is a “there,” they only imagine it as the cultural perception, as weird, because they don’t really know what’s going on. It’s on the people in the scene to convey that image. Which means that everything has to change.
The beauty about Milwaukee is that we still have the opportunity to change the dialogue and communicate that this is also an economy. For example, what if we started charging for experimental shows more often? Our creativity is an asset, and it’s such a good asset that it’s worth being paid for so that it can be sustained and so that it can grow. I find that sustainability to be 75% of the equation.
OV: Do you attend many fine art shows in Milwaukee community? Why, why not?
RB: Great question. And yes, I do. In fact, Niki Johnson’s Threshold exhibition at the Charles Allis was probably one of my favorite shows I have seen since I’ve been in Milwaukee. It was one of those shows that anyone and everyone should have checked out. It was really good: very well thought-out, space was utilized properly. The very fact that the museum allowed it, I applaud them for that. And it’s a good example for me when you talk about progress. I would also rate our progress in terms of the kind of people that are committed to Milwaukee. We are all the same people that attend these same shows. (laughs) There is so much talent that is hanging around here and really hustling.
OV: How do you see art functioning as a vehicle for economic development and neighborhood sustainability?
RB: I think creativity will rebuild blue collar America. I just do. Blue collar America was built on craftsmanship, manual labor, and working with your hands. And the creative community loves to make. We take resources, raw materials and we make something new and imaginative that didn’t exist before. If it’s new, then it can be manufactured again, redistributed, and resold.