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The genesis of this exhibition was inspired by the work of Milwaukee photographer and painter Steven Sellars. Steven spent several weeks in Special Collections at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) conducting image research. Fascinated by his investigations of the imagery found in seventeenth-century natural history publications, I decided to put out a general call, and issue a challenge, to other Milwaukee-area artists, inviting them to conduct their own research on a topic of their choice that could be supported by the resources in Special Collections. The research could take any form--visual, conceptual, literary, historical, technical--and could make use of any one or combination of resources from our broad collections. The challenge to them was to create at least one original work in any medium based on that research. Over a two-year period many artists responded to the call. The fourteen artists represented in this exhibition catalog successfully completed work based on their research. Their responses to their studies are as varied as the resources they used and their own individual perspectives.

The purposes of this project were many fold, but the overriding objective was to bring a sharp focus to the connections between active research and the creative process. Art is not, and has never been, created in a vacuum. There is a popular misconception that art is a self-contained, self-generating process that comes directly from the inner being of the artist, like Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus. The artwork, artists’ statements, and resource materials on display in the exhibition and documented in this catalog clearly demonstrate, however, that artists make use of the same lines of inquiry that accompany research in other disciplines. Art, like all other endeavors in life, is informed by investigation and experience.

In the original call for artist researchers, I established four stated purposes for The Shape and Color of Research Project:

  • Graphically demonstrate that art, like many other pursuits, is an active intellectual process that requires time, effort, resources, money, and intelligence.
  • Dramatically reinforce the understanding that as a publicly-held collection, the resources in Special Collections are available to everyone in the community; that they are bound only by limitations of security, preservation, and staffing; and that they serve to support traditional, innovative, and alternative research.
  • Foster new work by community artists and strengthen ties between the academy and the community at large.
  • Inspire other research collections to promote the active use of their collections by their own regional art communities.

It is for the attainment of this last goal that I hope this exhibit may serve as a tool.

Halfway through the project I had the happy fortune of receiving a Wisconsin Humanities Council grant to help bring the concept of The Shape and Color of Research Project to a wider audience. The grant helped produce a catalog and brought the services of Dr. Myrna Packard, a professor of art education at Alverno College, Milwaukee. Professor Packard interviewed all of the participating artists and wrote the introduction to this catalog. The grant also allowed us to create a traveling, photo-facsimile version of the exhibit, which is available upon request, and to produce a series of six artist-scholar dialogues at different venues throughout southeastern Wisconsin. During this series, Professor Packard, who maintains a research interest in how artists learn, interviewed before an audience a different participating artist at each venue about their experiences with research, process, and product. Afterwards, the dialogue was opened up to the audience to broaden the discussion. The artists and venues in this series were:

  • Steven Sellars, University of Wisconsin - Waukesha, Waukesha, Wis., April 26, 2001.
  • Stephanie Copoulos-Selle, Woodland Pattern Book Center, Milwaukee, Wis., June 1, 2001.
  • Valerie Christell, Milwaukee Public Library, Milwaukee, Wis., June 16, 2001.
  • Jo Anna Poehlmann, Charles A. Wustum Museum, Racine, Wis., June 19, 2001.
  • Cheryl Olson-Sklar, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wis., June 29, 2001.
  • Artist dialogue between Steven Sellars and Max Yela, Carlsten Gallery, University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point on February 12, 2002.

The exhibition itself, "The Shape and Color of Research," was on view in the Fourth Floor Exhibition Gallery of UWM’s Golda Meir Library, April 20 - September 28, 2001, with an opening reception on April 27, 2001. The exhibition then traveled to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where it was on view in the Carlsten Art Gallery, College of Fine Arts and Communications, January 22 - February 17, 2002, with an opening reception held on January 28, 2002.

The Shape and Color of Research Project has gone a long way toward raising an awareness of the relationships between art and research, and it is my hope that this exhibit, as a digitalized version of the project, will serve to continue this process beyond the project’s original audience. At the very least, I hope that this catalog will clearly demonstrate that art, as a creative product, is a presentation of the synthesis of information filtered through the imagination of the individual artist. Art, as a human artifact, is a re-creation of the understandable and the imagined. Understanding and imagination are achieved through scrutiny and reflection—this is the shape and color of research.

Max Yela,
Head, Special Collections,
Golda Meir Library,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee