TOO MUCH SEA FOR AMATEURS
The site-specific sculpture inspired by the Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse is the largest work Maggie Sasso has ever made. It might also be the loneliest—for the lightkeepers, conditions were tough, isolated, and could be very dangerous—but it is likely to encourage viewers to learn more about the landmark. The lighthouse has long been an object of fascination: there was something about its distant glow that made land-dwelling folks curious and perhaps a little jealous. Once an active and necessary beacon in Lake Michigan’s Milwaukee Bay, later a mysterious, deteriorating Art Deco artifact, today it is an historic landmark about to embark on a new life as a “lakefront attraction.”
The Breakwater, constructed in 1926, was designed to protect sailors, but in doing so it isolated the people who inhabited it. This spectacle of a space that can be viewed by all but accessed by only a few, and the history of the lighthouse, resonate with the way that our public spaces are sometimes segregated, allowed to fall apart, and occasionally rescued and revived. Today’s world is vastly different from the world of 1926; we lead lives that are materially easier and more efficient. But we’re also increasingly separated from one another, in what Sasso describes as the “isolating architecture” of our living spaces, and in our consumption of culture and news, which has grown more tailored and atomized in the age of the Internet.
Sasso’s installation draws its narrative content from nine decades’ worth of communal memories. It combines a lighthouse constructed from steel and an outdoor-grade textile, a signaling buoy made from marine vinyl, and a fabric sailboat—an impossible object—that hangs in an adjacent room. Specific moments from the lighthouse’s history are captured in fabric. Audio and special effects convey the experience of a fierce storm, the lighthouse and buoy mutually signaling as though they were two brave souls attempting to keep track of one another during the tumult.
As an artist creating a major work for an exhibition, Sasso hasn’t time to kill, which makes it all the more compelling that she is fabricating much of the work using traditional sewing machines: “I like to push the craftsmanship so far that it’s made better than an industrially manufactured object.” In a recent work, “Haul Away Home,” she invented sea-themed merit badges that appeared professionally made, their embroidery was so exact. Yet their perfection was a result of hand-skill, not machine work.
Sasso’s fascination with flags, maps, and the material world of sailing has led to an unexpected fusion of her craft-intensive art school training in metalsmithing and woodworking with a sphere of activity not generally associated with craft in the popular imagination. Yet craft is everywhere in this world--from the construction of ships and sails, to scrimshaw, flags, and sailor’s knots—much of it labor-intensive and bespoke, the result of skilled handwork, elaborate precisely because sailors often have time to kill. The maritime milieu has what Sasso calls a “flexible aesthetic.” It can be funny or serious, decorative or plain, and embodies a wild variety of associations: excitement, discovery, and victory, as well as tragedy, sorrow, and loss.
Sarah Archer is a writer and curator based in Philadelphia.
UNMOORING THE PAST: ART, HISTORY, AND THE MILWAUKEE BREAKWATER LIGHTHOUSE
History is about remembering but also about understanding. Examine a place or an object or an event, turn it around: create meaning from of a plain set of facts.
Maggie Sasso has traditionally incorporated an historical element in her art practice, and her past work demonstrates her awareness of how objects transform once their origin is known. For her Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse installation, she wanted a broader foundation of historical knowledge, and approached me about a research-based collaboration. As Sasso pointed out, “The studio can be very isolating. It’s vital to my practice that I draw upon and learn from the expertise of others.”
While Sasso began conceptualizing her piece, I dug into newspaper clippings, city directories, and historic photographs, pulling out fragments I hoped would inspire. Together, we dove deeper into the history of the lighthouse, identifying themes and concepts that would provide the foundation for her installation.
As a Milwaukee lighthouse superintendent said in 1931, “No government activity outranks the lighthouse service in romance or heroism.” My research findings echoed this sentiment: an 1893 manual specifying lighthouse keeper’s uniforms down to the silver-embroidered anchors on lapels; the story about keepers’ children receiving chests of books from the Milwaukee Public Library each season; the tale of a seventy-six-year-old keeper crawling on hands and knees over an icy bridge to activate the foghorn.
A story of a troop of capsized Sea Scouts suggested the theme of guardianship and the cost of heroism, while a newspaper article about a tugboat chopping through the ice of Milwaukee Harbor to reach a trio of marooned keepers became a meditation on loneliness and isolation. Tales of storms lashing the three-foot thick walls and breaking every porthole served as reminder of the limits of the power of architecture to protect. A photo of the installation of a radio beacon in 1927 sparked thoughts about the uneven progress of technological change.
For my part, the collaboration was an opportunity to deconstruct and unmoor the solidity of historical fact. The Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse is a place where real people worked, cooked, slept and, in more than one case, died. However, through Sasso’s vision, the unmovable past can change shape, become mobile and full of new emotional resonance, just as a steel-framed structure can become unriveted and transform into billowing cloth.
Laura Meine is active in Milwaukee’s nonprofit community, with past experience at Public Allies and the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. She currently works at United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County and volunteers with Historic Milwaukee, Inc. as a researcher and neighborhood tour coordinator. She explores and writes about public spaces and their hidden histories at wisconsinparksproject.com.