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Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009

Art Along the Milwaukee River

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­­Along the Milwaukee RiverWalk, artist John Ready's installations brightly sparkle under sunlight or starlight. The approximately 60-piece collection titled "River Gems" resembles giant jewelry specifically designed to adorn harp lamps, balconies and historic bridge houses along the river from Wisconsin Avenue north to Cherry Street. While visitors stroll this scenic waterway, they can now admire Ready's earrings, brooches and necklaces that enhance the city's downtown architecture.

These installations celebrate the 20th anniversary of Milwaukee's RiverWalk and the 12th edition of RiverSculpture!, an organization devoted to reclaiming the MilwaukeeRiver for art. More than 75 artists have participated in the annual installations of artwork. This year Milwaukee RiverWalk District board member Marsha Sehler collaborated with Ready to commission the multi-piece sculptural collection, site-specific to the RiverWalk's unique environment.

A former jeweler who received his M.F.A. in sculpture from State University of New York at Stony Brook, Ready played with proportion and materials in fashioning these "gems" for the MilwaukeeRiver. Instead of pearls and precious stones, Ready reclaims bowling balls, Jell-O molds, old wagon tires, vintage lighting, tarnished silver trays and odd Salvation Army donations to create these monumental architectural ornaments.

Subtly embellishing the RiverWalk, Ready's jewelry preserves the integrity of this urban environment. However, as public art the "River Gems" collection needed to receive special permission from the city, property owners and private businesses to fasten these sculptures in their appropriate places, especially vintage bridge houses. All the installations remain on exhibition through October 2010, with about a dozen destined to become permanent RiverWalk art. "Each piece is stable and substantial, handcrafted so that it's OK that they age. I think they become more beautiful," Ready says.

Beautiful also describes the individual "earring" installations securely attached to multiple harp lamps, which become intriguing to study up close. These beaded gems constructed of hot pink Melmac bowls, lipstick-red glasses, crystal plasticware and silver cast-offs confound the imagination as jewelry. Yet every piece reuses something that's been thrown away by modern society.

Ready's sculptures illustrate the wisdom of well-planned public art becoming integral to the existing architecture and environment while at the same time incorporating reclaimed materials to reduce the overall cost of the work. Even his large-scale standing sculptures on the RiverWalk combine recycled materials with rusty colored steel. Now a gallery director and professor at UW-La Crosse, Ready believes that "public art reinforces who we are as people, how we function. That when we live in the city you do need to make it a great environment. These already-used pieces relate to the reclamation of the river that's turned into a really beautiful part of the city
challenging people so they do look at it and respond."

Brochures available along the RiverWalk note the various artwork and the corresponding artists. John Ready's related sculptures are available at Milwaukee's Tory Folliard Gallery.