News & Politics » Miscellany

Artists at Home

These Parts--Manitowoc, WI/John Shimon and Julie Lindemann left Wisconsin to become big-city artists Eventually they returned and dropped the big-city part.



When John Shimon and Julie Lindemann moved back to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, three years ago, they brought with them a decade of acquired urban crust, tens of thousands of photographs, and enough secondhand stuff to fill a warehouse. Fortunately, they moved into a warehouse.

Both John and Julie grew up in the rural sprawl surrounding Manitowoc, but they'd left the area right after high school. John grew up on the family pig farm, which his father converted to a turf farm when he found out that sod sold better than pigs. John didn't want to be a turf farmer, he wanted to be an artist. Julie grew up a few miles away, near the small cheese-packing plant her family owned. Mindful of Julie's milk-smooth skin and healthy good looks, the family dreamed that someday she'd win the "Alice in Dairyland" contest. Julie didn't want to be Alice. After spending her childhood in a darkroom developing family portraits, she wanted to photograph the world.

They met at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, 100 miles from home. John put himself through college by selling used guitars that he found in pawnshops, and he started a band, Hollywood Autopsy. John knew scores of guitar players but no drummers. He asked people to recommend somebody "who's never picked up a drumstick and has no sense of rhythm." A friend introduced him to Julie.

Their partnership grew. John was painting and Julie was shooting pictures, and as they pulled tighter John tried on Julie's cameras. They fit. They went from playing in the band together to shooting pictures together, and they left school together. They pressed a record with the band and took it with them to New York.

The record got a better reception than they did, and it sold a whole 12 copies. It was 1982, and New York was in the midst of a real estate boom that helped turn thousands of city people into street people. Fresh from the dairy land, John and Julie quickly discovered that New York was not an affordable town, so they settled across the harbor, in a fleabag apartment in Jersey City. They were lying in bed contemplating the view one day when the door swung open and the landlord burst in. He glanced at their meager furnishings and muttered, "I didn't want people like these," and slammed the door on his way out. He raised the rent soon after.

They lasted a year in the New York area, then picked up and moved back closer to home, to Milwaukee. They took thousands of photographs, they gathered more degrees. They became well-known there. Because they were the only photographic team of note on the art scene, art critics referred to them as "the dynamic duo" and "Schmindemann." They took photographs obsessively, of their friends in the art world and of strangers who became friends. They ranged coastal Wisconsin, though not as far north as Manitowoc, seeking and finding the extravagantly odd, the grotesque, and just plain folks. They documented everyone and everything. When they weren't taking pictures they wandered through thrift shops and rummage sales, never going home without at least a little something. Their Milwaukee apartment was jammed like a subway at rush hour. The walls were closing in when they heard about a sweet deal in Normal, Illinois.

It was an Illinois State University documentary project involving central Illinois farms, calling for something like what they were already doing in Wisconsin. The grant would pay a salary and provide a place to live and a darkroom. When John and Julie found out that they'd won it, they moved right away.

They were resented and shunned from the start. People in the art department seemed to feel that a Normal artist should have gotten their grant. One fine-arts student told Julie one day, "I clean your stinking darkroom while you traipse the countryside taking pictures." By the time the grant ran out they'd already put the down payment on the warehouse in Manitowoc.

It was just across the street from Kornely's Drinkatorium and a block away from the lakefront. Manitowoc is an old port town, but with the decline of its shipping industry there hadn't been much need for storage in its downtown, so the warehouse had been empty for years. Located in a cluster of old buildings huddled near the lakefront, it had last been used as a thrift shop. Land values were depressed and they got the warehouse cheap--less than what you'd pay for most cars.

The low cost was the engine that drove them back, but it wasn't the whole train. Manitowoc had its own allure. Its decay appealed to their aesthetic sense, and the area had shaped them as kids. They were familiar with the obsessions of the people behind the farmhouse and ranch-house facades and had returned to their background again and again for inspiration. The building had a storefront window, and with a whole warehouse they could have their own studio, even their own gallery. It wasn't so far from Milwaukee that they couldn't commute to part-time jobs teaching photography at the University of Wisconsin there, but it wasn't anywhere near close enough to be called a suburb. Manitowoc had an identity of its own.

They brought their reputation with them. The photographs they'd taken in central Illinois--of farm children with their animals and larger-than-life country people standing out in the empty expanse of prairie--had been well received. John was invited to exhibit some paintings at the Manitowoc branch of the University of Wisconsin. He realized that Manitowoc was a conservative town--it still had prayer in the schools--but he didn't know how conservative until he decided to give the school some nudes.

The paintings were taken down. They were the subject of a demonstration by a Christian students' group, and the chief of police himself went to the university and made sure that the display was removed. John and Julie started to wonder about the wisdom of moving there. Would self-appointed guardians of the public morality have ripped their work from the walls of a university in a larger city? It didn't seem possible.

They kept a lower profile in town after that, whitewashing the windows of their storefront and taking pictures of people from other places. They investigated inland towns. They set up a studio in the back of the warehouse and invited their old Milwaukee friends to sit for portraits. They lived in Manitowoc but were not of it. John and Julie became something more than a team, they became almost a world unto themselves.

Setting up the studio shots, they functioned like one person, a clockwork display for visitors. They peered into giant view cameras--Julie's inheritance from a great-uncle who'd owned a photo studio in Manitowoc and had left all his ancient equipment and many of his larger portraits to her when he died--while Music for Harlequins and other instrumental recordings from the 50s played in the background. "Sometimes you have to look back to look forward," Julie would tell visitors. Occasionally she'd put on a vocalist, Perry Como or Dean Martin. She felt that Dean Martin was underrated. "Probably because of all those drinking jokes and the Golddiggers," she'd explain.

Through one photo subject, a resident of a nearby town called Saint Nazianz, John and Julie were introduced to Elvis Presley. He lived in Valders, another town nearby.

He's not an Elvis impersonator, and Presley is misspelled "Prseley" on his mailbox, but the former Herbie Baer legally changed his name after Elvis died. He had to get permission from the Presley estate. When Baer had been a teenager he'd been taunted with the name "Elvis" because of his hairstyle. Several years later he assumed Elvis's identity as a form of revenge: if they were going to call him Elvis, he'd go them one better and be Elvis.

In her passion to shoot more pictures more easily Julie bought one of those idiot-proof aim-and-shoot cameras and started taking snapshots all over Manitowoc. Just around the corner from their place she spotted a sign: "Museum of Sculpture, Two Blocks" with an arrow pointing north. That was where John and Julie met Dr. Rudy Rotter, a dentist who'd retired at the age of 76 to devote himself full-time to sculpture. The museum contained over 6,000 sculptures Dr. Rotter had done in his spare time.

Dr. Rotter is what is called an outsider artist. He's had no formal training, a fact he considers an asset. Though John and Julie are 40 years younger than the doctor, the three became great friends. They dropped in often, shooting his picture, bartering photographs and paintings for sculptures. As artists and outsiders, they had a lot in common. Like them, Dr. Rotter had a passion for found objects. He created sculpture from things like chopped-up telephone poles. He carved an Aztec head out of a green bowling ball. He used his old tooth casts sparingly, but he worked them in. He once mistook his wife's new dress for scrap, and strips of it wound up adorning a few sculptures. "It's such nice material. I'll have to buy her another one," he told John and Julie cheerfully. Like them, Dr. Rotter did not have much of a social life in Manitowoc; now 79, he toils constantly, making five new sculptures a day in his museum workshop.

But if Dr. Rotter could have a museum of his own in Manitowoc, John and Julie thought, maybe it wasn't so bad. Julie took her aim-and-shoot camera out almost every day. John and Julie searched the neighborhood for local subjects, and found a hole-in-the-wall bar advertising itself as "The Friendliest Nightclub in Town" just two blocks from their house.

The Music Bar was a strip joint, owned by a man named Ray who played the organ and sang dirty songs from World War II while dancers strolled the bar in G-strings, getting dollar bills from the men for a feel and a lick. "People are so cheap here," Julie commented. They became bar regulars.

They grew friendly with Ray's daughter, who sewed all the costumes for the dancers. They asked the dancers if they could take pictures, and though some said no, the ones who said yes showed all. Wendy invited them to her trailer. Duchess posed in the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Oblivious to the family picnickers sitting nearby, she pulled open the top of her gown and bared her breasts. No one complained, and the police must have been occupied elsewhere. A woman named Pumpkin posed near a grain elevator. Pumpkin commuted to her job at the bar from Milwaukee, though she wouldn't say why. John and Julie showed the portraits at a Milwaukee gallery, titling the show "Beautiful Women." They didn't bring it to Manitowoc.

Isolation is a fact of life in northeastern Wisconsin--it's the price people pay for having a lot of room. Many people gather together through their churches and clubs, but for John and Julie rummage sales became a way to integrate themselves into the life of the town. There are rummage sales everywhere in this part of Wisconsin. Everybody has a lot of old stuff lying around, and they'll sell almost anything. John once found a box full of used lip balm, stickered for a quarter. He passed. Even the brand-new mall--massive, built right on the waterfront--draws a crowd only on weekends, when a rummage sale takes over its central strip. John and Julie had plenty of room for the Virgin Mary statuettes, the bowling figurines, the homemade paintings, all the cast-off stuff they found around Manitowoc. Every weekend they checked over the rummage-sale ads in the local papers. Their fondness for stuff brought them together with Dodo.

Dodo owns a bar with her husband, Little Joe, in Two Rivers, the town next to Manitowoc. John and Julie made it a practice to stop by Little Joe's for a Bud and a 7-Up and to check with Dodo to see if she'd heard of any sales they'd missed. Little Joe might be busy preparing fish for the weekly fish fry, but he always said hello, holding Grubby the puppet on his shoulder. Grubby is a real puppet, a big old monkey puppet with a stitched-on smile and a missing nose, who's called Grubby because of his matted fur. Dodo also cuddled Grubby sometimes. "But," she admitted, "Little Joe is so much better with him than I am." John and Julie took their family portrait.

When the PBS affiliate in Milwaukee decided to come up to Manitowoc to shoot a documentary segment about John and Julie, the film crew followed them all around. The documentary was shown on Milwaukee television last February, but John and Julie didn't expect anyone in Manitowoc to see it. Yet afterward, on their weekend forays to rummage sales and thrift shops and over coffee at the confectioner's near their house, John and Julie were accosted by strangers. "I know you, you're the weirdos I saw on TV!" It seemed most of the town had been watching PBS when the segment was aired.

After two and a half years in Manitowoc, John and Julie's warehouse renovation was nearly done. They had a comfortable living space that held all their stuff, they had the studio. They didn't have a working TV and didn't want one; a thrift-shop version decorated their living room. But they still hadn't opened the gallery.

They decided to line the walls at the front of the warehouse with thrift-shop paintings. They didn't put up any nudes, though. They started thinking about removing the whitewash from the storefront windows. They plan to open the gallery to the public in June but won't show their own work--not yet. The first show will be paintings of pop-culture icons--the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, the devil--done by a pair of Milwaukee artists, Jimmy von Milwaukee and Scott Sinclair.

The second exhibit will feature the darker side of Wisconsin life. Madison artist Daniel Colleran will show sculptures and paintings related to Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Lori Esker, the Dairy Princess (she used a belt to strangle the woman who took her boyfriend away). Invited to the opening will be Dr. Rotter, Ray and his daughter, Wendy, Duchess, Pumpkin, and the other dancers, Little Joe, Dodo, and Grubby the puppet. Elvis will get an invitation to a different show. Curiosity seekers from Kornely's Drinkatorium should be able to take a look now through the storefront window.

For information on the Manitowoc-Two Rivers area, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner, J. Shimon and J. Lindemann.

Add a comment