(Please visit mfastudios.art.wisc.edu to read more alumni memories and to see photos and a map of current and former studio locations.)
Once upon a time, in a dilapidated house that belonged in a second-rate crime novel, a group of UW-Madison graduate students discovered some unwelcome visitors.
“We all-of-a-sudden noticed in the stairwell there were a lot of bees… like big bumble bees,” said painter Carlos Melian, MFA 1982.
The horde had crept into the Lake Street studio spaces through a window frame and the exterminators had to tear out part of the wall to find the source.
“There was a hive about eight to 10 feet long and they took out gallons of honey,” Melian said. “We all got to take home pure honey from the walls.”
The bees are now gone. So is the Lake Street house, along with many other condemnable houses and storefronts that have housed MFA studios over the past 40 years.
The old houses on Dayton and Brooks streets and shabby storefronts on University and Randall avenues have been demolished to make way for new campus developments.
Aspiring artists also have used former engineering labs, a State Street attic and basement, a poultry research lab, abandoned physics offices and a campus photo lab as places to think, research, plan and create.
Over the years, Art faculty and staff have warned incoming students about the studio spaces that the department has been able to secure.
“The ideal studio situation we want to model in department is to parallel what students will have in real world… but that doesn’t mean we should make them work out on the street,” said 2D Professor Derrick Buisch, graduate chair of the Art Department.
Compared to many other top art programs, the MFA studios at UW should come as no surprise to prospective students, Buisch said. However, other schools have been putting up new art buildings with state-of-the-art studios for their graduate students.
Like graduate students in the sciences or other fields, fine art students need a place to think, research and reflect, Buisch said.
“Any space we give an MFA student is important… a place where they can set up shop and work on their craft,” he said. “Giving them studio space when they arrive is an acknowledgement of their potential.”
But the Art Department, once housed entirely within the Education Building and Humanities Building, has struggled for 40 years to accommodate an expanding enrollment by housing MFA students in a plethora of buildings across campus: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
When a space emptied, the Art Department said ‘we’ll take that’ – often despite its condemnable condition, said John Paine, associate director of facilities for the School of Education.
“If it had four walls and a roof, we occupied it,” Paine said.
Faculty and MFA students will begin moving this December into state-of-the-art studios in the renovated Art Lofts. By end of the current school year, the Lofts and Humanities will house all MFA studios.
The Art Department, School of Education and campus facility planners have proposed a single building to house student and faculty studios and labs every other year for the past 30 years. They were rejected every time, Paine said.
“The Art Department’s been the whipping boy of campus – they took it to the chin every time,” he said.
Not until Governor James Doyle and Chancellor John Wiley’s administrations has Art received capital planning support from the state.
“It didn’t have the sophistication of sciences, so art was not the glamour boy of campus when came to funding,” Paine said. “It’s amazing what our students have put up with… and what they’ve produced coming out of here.”
Chris Waters, MFA 1977, kept the windows of her Education Building studio open because it lacked air conditioning and proper ventilation for painting chemicals.
One summer night, she forgot to close the windows. The next day, she found the big, red painting she’d just completed covered with bugs.
“I had to wait for it to dry so could brush them off… (But) I always knew there were little bug feet in that painting,” Waters said.
Best Seats in the House: The Education Building and Quonset Hut
Over the years, Waters and other MFA residents of the Education Building delighted in having spaces on beautiful Bascom Hill — in their eyes, the best studios on campus.
From her fourth-floor studio, Waters could watch the changing seasons. She even got up early to enjoy the views, she said.
“I hated going up the stairs,” Waters said. “(But) the view from there was really quite lovely.”
When she and her peers needed a break, she said, “We had contests for how far we could throw paper airplanes down Bascom Hill.”
Helen Klebesadel, MFA 1989, used to crawl out onto the roof from a tiny fourth-floor studio to watch the Fourth of July fireworks across the lake.
Like many women who worked or studied in the Education Building, Klebesadel took the shortage of women’s restrooms into her own hands.
“I used to periodically paint a ‘wo’ in front of the ‘men’s’ on the glass window of the bathroom door, in the search for potty equity,” she said.
J. Fred Woell, MFA 1962, counted himself “lucky enough to be in the metals studio in the basement.”
He said the beautiful, ground-level space had good light and a view of the campus.
“We use to walk out the doors of the studio onto the grass in the fall and spring and have lunch. It was like having a studio in a garden park.”
Dave Beck, MFA 2007, “got lucky” when Professor Aris Georgiades gave up a lower-level Education Building studio so Beck and a fellow sculpture student could have space to work.
“I couldn’t have asked for a greater studio,” because of its size and proximity to the Art Department, he said, adding that his work might have been much different if he had worked somewhere else.
Beck and his studio-mate could use the computer station in the main lobby, play music in the studio and put in quality time on their artwork.
“I felt very comfortable there… everything was locked and secure,” he said.
Next to the parking lot behind the Education Building, the last remaining World War II-era Quonset hut on campus housed a string of Art professors and students, until it was razed in 2004.
Michael Young, MFA 1980, who came here to work with Don Reitz, was possibly the first student with studio space in the corrugated metal shell.
“That space just had so much character… it was a phenomenal space,” he said. It did, however, lack insulation against Wisconsin winters and interior walls for hanging and viewing artwork.
Young spent long hours working and hanging out in the Quonset hut, especially because he was “poor as a church mouse” and lacked money to socialize anywhere else, he said.
He and his two studio-mates formed a community with the ceramics students across the lot in the main building.
“There were always people coming and going, and coming and going,” he said. “We had a fridge, and there would always be a cold beer in there.”
But the best MFA studio on campus, according to Davy Mayer, MFA 2003, was the fifth-floor walk-up in old Education.
“The penthouse… the small room had lake and Capitol views but not much else,” Mayer said. “It was more of a place to sit and think, rather than do.”
Extremities – Linden Drive, Charter and State Street
That brutalist hunk of concrete called Humanities has caused much consternation among Art Department faculty and students over the years. Both its long period of construction and the safety problems resulting from poor construction have forced MFA students into temporary quarters at the far reaches of campus and beyond.
While the Humanities Building was under construction, Winifred “Winnie” Godfrey, MFA 1971, worked in two different studios in a State Street storefront with about eight other people.
“I thought it was great. It was decrepit, but we were students – we didn’t care,” she said. “You could mess it up and it didn’t matter.”
With anti-war protests spreading up State Street as a backdrop, Godfrey’s work reflected the social and political climate.
“Frequently, we’d get stuck in the middle of things like that,” she said, adding that she and her peers witnessed rallies and turmoil from their studios. “The police would take students back in that alley and hit them.”
About 30 years later, the air quality in the top two floors of Humanities had become so dangerous that the state evacuated the place and paid to overhaul the ventilation system. Many MFA students were shuttled out to even more nooks and crannies around campus.
Amy Newell, MFA 1999, and some of her peers relocated to a windowless basement in a cinderblock building on Charter Street. While the facilities “left something to be desired,” Newell met some of her dearest friends there.
“We all bonded together as the ‘displaced’ grad students,” she said.
Once, a fellow studio-mate who had stopped by ended up rescuing Newell.
“I remember using some spray adhesive and epoxy in there – I probably wasn't supposed to be doing that – and getting high as a kite because there was nowhere for the fumes to go but into me,” Newell said. “I was laughing all the way out the door… I didn't realize how bad it was until I got some fresh air!”
Meanwhile, Paul Fuchs, MFA 1999, ended up in a poultry science lab-turned-art studio at the far end of Linden Drive, which he avoided as much as he could.
“It was smelly something fierce. Most people would figure the pigs – but it turns out that chickens are the smelliest animals on a farm,” he said. The hallway was crowded with “art gunk” and veterinary supplies. “I can still get a sense of it in my gut to this day.”
The studio was “enormously inconvenient” to reach, especially when hauling equipment and supplies. Professors had to schedule visits with their students strategically in order to avoid having to make multiple trips.
“I didn’t make any friends there – I hardly ever saw anyone when I was there,” he said. “There were only one or two people (from school) I really keep up with on a regular basis and none of them were chicken people.”
The studio had one redeeming quality: a drain in the middle of the floor.
“It suggested all sorts of possibilities in using the space because it could all simply be hosed off,” he said.
Storefronts and Dilapidated Houses
The romanticism of the ‘starving art student’ may only exist upon reflection but memories good and bad will soon be the only remnants of those scattered, tattered studio buildings.
Barry Carlsen, MFA 1983, was surprised that the department couldn’t guarantee studio space for incoming students and that the spaces they had were substandard.
“But I came anyway because of Jack Damer,” he said.
Carlsen snagged the last remaining space, a 7-by-10-foot studio in 734 University Avenue, a building now scheduled for demolition.
Bats and birds invaded often. Heaters broke down now and then, but they survived, Carlsen said.
The space imposed limits on the size of artwork they created, but they made the most if it. “We saw that as the value of being here,” he said. “It’s still one of the best times in my life.”
Graphics alumna Melanie Kehoss, MFA 2007, appreciated the fact that her 734 studio was close to the department and led to some close friendships with studio-mates.
“But the basement stairs were scary and the basement was nasty,” she said. “You could scavenge for scrap materials in the basement and the attic, if you were willing to brave it.”
The students had to make sure they closed, locked and sealed all the doors, because squirrels, chipmunks and mice often snuck in and got into the art supplies, Kehoss said.
Carlos Melian actually petitioned for a spot in the tiny painting studios in the tattered Lake Street house.
“It was a home away from home situation,” Melian said. “It was a fun time… Nobody had any money so all you could do was go to the studio and hang out.”
He and his studio-mates played darts and had drinks or coffee as a break from their work, which sometimes kept them there around the clock.
One studio-mate’s work gave the entire building a rotten odor.
“We finally realized it was Alfredo’s fish,” Melian said. His friend had incorporated a dried fish into a painting.
At one Dayton Street house, the best student perk was the driveway, said Cheryl Hochberg, MFA 1988.
“If I remember correctly, I think that if God enrolled at UW-Madison, he wouldn’t have gotten a parking space – but we had one,” she said.
Valerie Mangion, MFA 1993, joined a group of painters in a Dayton Street house while Humanities was vacated for asbestos removal.
“Our house was just as crappy as you can imagine – the main features I recall after 14 years were tiny rooms, bad light, sloping floors, crumbling walls, disgusting bathroom, and a severe mouse problem,” she said. “I learned never to leave food in my studio.”
Mice ate crayons and cray-pas, and saw any paper product as fair game for nesting materials, she said.
“I also had an alarming experience when I was alone in there,” she said. “The developmentally disabled janitor scared me when he suddenly SCREAMED – he’d gotten a big splinter in his hand, which I tried to remove for him.”
Robert Neitzke, MFA 1992, will never forget the time FBI agents visited his Dayton Street studio.
“About a week after Lisa Grunsweig [sp?] claimed her new studio next to mine… the feds were in town asking lots of questions about the red life-size dollar bills that she had found in her space.
Eric Katter, that great lithographer and previous studio occupant, had been making an anti-war protest sculpture during the first gulf war in 1991 and he had lithographically printed these big paper sheets of nice red American one dollar bills which he incorporated into the piece along with neon-orange missiles.
After Katter moved on, he left some of the red dollars in his studio closet that, in turn, Lisa found and used one to put her name on and then pinned it to her door to let others know the space was now claimed.
Apparently the building custodians spotted and reported the illegal money and... Voila! The feds appeared out of thin air.
The feds seemed to find a lot of curious dead ends: ‘Where is the person who is responsible for making these?’ ‘Eric is living in Hawaii now.’ ‘Where is his major professor?’ ‘Oh he’s out on sabbatical currently.’ Hmmmm...”
Regardless of all the critters, crumbling walls, broken heaters and other nuisances, many former MFA students look back fondly on their studio time at UW-Madison.
They formed communities, made close and life-long friends, shared ideas and supplies and, most of all, created some incredible artwork.