State office building murals by pioneering feminist artist in jeopardy

But that’s the way these things go. Public art projects become part of our environment, taken for granted until we learn we might lose them. Kreilick’s work is also less known than, say, Edmund Lewandowski’s mosaic exterior for the War Memorial Center for the obvious reason that it’s inside.

“I think it had more effect than one realizes,” the 93-year-old Kreilick says of her mural series. She lives in Madison and came to Milwaukee to look at the murals with me. “I think people are walking in out of the cold and suddenly they are doing a double take,” she says. From Rome to Milwaukee

On every floor, the elevators open up to a different 15-foot-wide mosaic.

The Midwestern landscape is described with abstract forms. They hint at a coniferous forest covered in snow, a field of maize bending under its own weight and a prairie fire with billows of smoke and licks of fire in reds and gold. The curved mosaic in the lobby, with its jagged, Richter Scale-like lines, is named for the state motto, “Forward.”

“I look at it all day,” says Rohan Behari, a security guard at the State Office Building, speaking of "Forward." “We’re not really supposed to be on our phones, so you’ve got to look at something. So I look at that. I like the different colors. I see mountains and waterfalls when I look at it.”

Kreilick was the second woman to win the prestigious Rome Prize for visual artists, which allowed her to design and produce the murals during a two-year fellowship in Italy. She and a small team worked to break the marble into small, teeth-like shapes and meticulously pieced them together before shipping the murals in giant crates across the Atlantic and down the Saint Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes and Milwaukee. It took about a month for Kreilick to install the mosaics with her “mud men,” she recalls.

To reproduce similar mosaics today would cost $1 million “at minimum,” says Lillian Sizemore, a mosaic artist and art historian with expertise in midcentury, architectural mosaic. Sizemore, whom some call the “mosaic detective,” was working on a book about women mosaicists, including a chapter on Kreilick, when Walker announced plans to sell the State Office Building. She brought the murals to my attention and shared her research.

So, what should happen now? Thankfully, there is a distinct window of opportunity for public action, before specific plans are made. The state is investing $4 million to select a site for a new State Office Building with the hopes of starting construction as early as next year. A new building feels like a foregone conclusion, which means the uncertain future of the old one is too.

Right now, the state plans to leave the fate of the 1963 building and the land entirely to the purchaser, says Steve Michels, director of communication for the Wisconsin Department of Administration, which oversees state-owned buildings. But it could offer the property for sale with conditions, ensuring the building was redeveloped – rather than razed – and the murals kept in place.

It will be a few years before the building, which was assessed at $9.7 million about a decade ago, is officially placed for sale. That’s time enough for it to be nominated and designated as a historic landmark, said Carlen Hatala, a planner with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. If it were designated, the preservation commission would have to weigh in on any plans to raze or alter the building.

Nominations for buildings of midcentury vintage, which are just reaching eligibility for preservation status, are rare in Milwaukee, says Hatala, and many people don’t realize that the commission cannot initiate the designation process. Nominations have to come from the community, she says.

It wouldn’t be the first time a midcentury mosaic got a second life, Sizemore says. In 2015, for instance, a mural by Max Spivak was discovered beneath paneling in the 5 Bryant Park office tower in midtown Manhattan. The original plan was to cover it back up, but after reports in the New York Times raised awareness, the building owner was persuaded to restore the murals.

It warrants noting, too, that Wisconsin has in recent years invested deeply in the renovation of the State Capitol and its art, including mosaics by Kenyon Cox and a circular mural by Edwin Blashfield, says George Tzougros, executive director of the Wisconsin Arts Board.

The case for preserving the State Office Building murals would be easier if Kreilick had the name cachet of a Curry. But she’s not a famous artist. She was a woman in a boy’s club, those who worked on muscular, architectural projects at midcentury. Female artists were often encouraged to teach rather than to make in that era, and she was dedicated to her teaching as a professor of art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Still, Kreilick had notable commissions, for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for instance, and other public and private buildings, mostly in the Midwest.

At a minimum, there should be public debate about the fate of this little-known, taxpayer-funded art project, the likes of which are rarely undertaken today. And that discussion should include Kreilick, who says the destruction of her work “would be just stupid.”

“This was a major commission for a female artist in the state of Wisconsin,” says Polly Morris, chair of the Milwaukee Arts Board’s subcommittee on public art , which is taking up the issue at its next meeting, at 3 p.m. Tuesday in Room 303 of City Hall. “We don’t have a lot of work by women artists in public space, and it would be painful to lose it. The fact that the artist is still alive is significant, too, I think.”