The Riverwest neighborhood is a gathering place for artists, writers, dreamers and those who choose to live slightly outside the norm. It is one of the few truly interracial neighborhoods of Milwaukee and has a vibe that is both welcoming and accepting. Many people who have lived in Riverwest for a long time consider it to be part of their identity.
But Riverwest was not always the creative hub that it is today. In the 1970s, if someone wanted to be at the center of the poetry scene, they would look to places like New York or California. So, in 1979, Karl Gartung, Anne Kingsbury and Karl Young started the Woodland Pattern Book Center to create a spoken-word scene in Milwaukee by hosting writers from around the country. They felt that Milwaukee needed a physical space where artists and idealists could come together to share knowledge and collaborate.
In Gartung’s manifesto, he wrote, “We exist to prove the living artist. We exist against isolation,” describing how important it is that the artist not make work in isolation. To allow the work to come alive, the artist needs an audience, whether that is a small group of people in a workshop or a large audience. And that is what Woodland Pattern has provided to the community since the very beginning.
The team made it their life’s work to strengthen the Riverwest neighborhood with Woodland Pattern at the heart of it all. After more than 30 years of helping build a community of poets in Milwaukee, Kingsbury, who remained the executive director, decided to retire. In March of this year, Kingsbury and the team at Woodland Pattern hired two dedicated and hopeful poets to take her place: Jenny Gropp and Laura Solomon. New to Milwaukee, Gropp and Solomon moved from Georgia as soon as they saw their dream job open up. “We are here because of the mission; that’s why we wanted to come,” Solomon says. They strongly believe in the idea of making art by sharing and listening to one another’s emotions.
In addition, Gropp and Solomon were attracted to the book center’s uniqueness. Woodland Pattern is nationally known for its collection of more than 26,000 small press titles, including hand-made letter-press books by writers from around the world. Many of these books are made for live readings and meant to be handed out to the audience.
In the coming year, Woodland Pattern plans to open its own record label to record the live readings on vinyl. The book center regularly brings in spoken-word performers from around the country who create a safe space for emotions and ideas to be shared with the audience. “The space sort of functions as a sanctuary,” explains Gropp.
Woodland Pattern Book Center continues to make efforts to inspire the next generation to become leaders. “A lot of what I’ve learned from this place is respect and examination of what has come before and for the community that is all around us,” says Gropp. The center’s history is a large part of the neighborhood’s story. That story is one of a community open to trust, sincerity and acceptance.
Woodland Pattern Book Center is located at 720 E. Locust St. For more information, call 414-263-5001 or visit www.woodlandpattern.org.
View the article on the Shepherd Express website, part of my regular Hero of the Week column.