Not long ago, I attended the outdoor Bronzeville Art Festival on North Avenue and ML King Drive. At the corner, I encountered Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) Professor Brad Anthony Bernard and his four student interns. They were focused on painting a spectacular 8 ft by 24 ft mural, Homage to Bronzeville, A Legacy in Paint. The colorful collage celebrates the history of Black and brown artists in Milwaukee, their art, music and culture.
ML King Drive was once Third Street. Back in the 1950s, it was thriving with Black-owned businesses, bars, stores, and restaurants. Doo Wop singers performed on the street corners. It was totally segregated, but also festive and functional.
“I’m aware of the history,” Bernard told me. “The Homage to Bronzeville mural pays tribute to the historic cultural and creative contributions of Black Milwaukeeans. It’s also an inspiring collaboration between myself and a group of dedicated MIAD students who are earning elective credits as paid interns . We are here today putting on the finished touches. This mural will also be great on the resumes of my students as professional experience”
The mural was propped against a brick wall next to the now former location of the Department of Natural Resources building. Bernard told me the DNR building will eventually be leveled, and replaced by the Bronzeville Center for the Arts, which will break ground in 2025. When I asked him who designed the mural, he referred me to his assistant project manager MIAD communication design major Ladasia Bryant.
Designing the Mural
I found Bryant leaning over a table crowded with containers of paint and art supplies. Her loose brown sweatshirt was dappled with paint. I asked Bryant how she went about designing the mural. She got out her smartphone and showed me a digital file of her original design. “My goal was to design a mural to highlight the history of Bronzeville’s art and music heritage. It illustrates a combination of artists, organizations, and historic events.”
In her design, she included art from the Milwaukee folk artist Della Wells using a cutout of her piece A Storm in a Teacup as well as screen shots from her video with Blackbox Visuals called “Della Wells and Mamboland.” Dasia added visual pieces from community murals including a cutout of an arts installation by Jazale’s Art studio run by artist Vedale Hill and located in Bronzeville. The cutout piece depicts multiple hands decorated by community young people.
At one end of the giant mural, I noticed an enormous African mask-head. She explained, “The Yoruba head symbolizes the historic African World Festival in Milwaukee that celebrated African culture from the Atlantic slave trade all the way up to the modern era. It was a way to highlight global contributions by people of the African Diaspora and give voice to the Milwaukee Black community.”
Among the Yoruba people in southwestern Nigeria, the head is the wellspring of wisdom and seat of divine power. The head is divided into the external head, emblem of individuality, and the interior head, the emblem of spirituality.
Bryant added, “The Yoruba head was used as a sign of pride in a mural by Reynaldo Hernandez located on the former Milwaukee Inner City Arts Council space on North Ave. and Seventh Street. It was also part of the logo for the 2021 Wisconsin conference on Latinx Art and culture. In another part of the mural, I included the Pan-African flag, which represents people of the African Diaspora and Black liberation in the United States.”
One of the larger images in the mural was a painted photograph of Jabbo Smith, the great Milwaukee jazz trumpet player. Bryant pointed out that Jabbo Smith represents Milwaukee’s musical culture and deep jazz roots. I asked about the huge sunflower that surrounded him playing his trumpet.
She said, “That sunflower I took from work by Aaron Boyd, a Milwaukee artist who has paintings at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, and also the Bronzeville Center for the Arts. The sunflower represents adoration, loyalty, and longevity in the Bronzeville community.”
I asked Bryant if she grew up in Milwaukee. “No, I am originally from North Lawndale, a Black and brown community in Chicago,” she said. “Growing up there, I saw the changes and development not only in my own community but in other Black and brown neighborhoods of Chicago. I remember how I loved looking at neighborhood art and murals, how they represented our culture throughout the different communities. You could tell when local muralists looked into the neighborhoods and showed care in their art. As an artist, I have always studied and focused on painting and drawing.
“But when I came to MIAD, I took up graphic design because that was something new, and it fit best for my career path. I’d like to create magazines and anthologies that celebrate cultural diversity and history. But recently, I’ve come into my senior year wondering how I can loop in my history of painting and drawing with my skills and love for design. When I was asked to help create this mural, I realized I could create a large-scale painting using graphic design. That was a huge eye opener for me.”
I asked, “Can you combine all these collage pieces together and tell me what the mural might mean to the public?”
“I think the mural represents pride in the art and culture of Bronzeville and also pride in Milwaukee’s Black and brown people,” she replied. “We are creating the neighborhood’s history through images I’ve seen in today’s Bronzeville Milwaukee community, as well as in its past.”
Image of a Dancer
I moved down the mural where I found Bernard drawing an image of a dancer inspired by the Ko-Thi Dance Company. Founded by Ferne Caulker in 1969, it is the oldest African American arts organization in Milwaukee. He told me, “Ko-Thi celebrates ancient and contemporary African dance through drumming and music. It definitely belongs on this mural.”
As we talked, his students would interrupt to ask questions. I could feel the rapport he shared with these young artists. Through the deep voice of a stage actor, Bernard speaks with authority and confidence but in a gentle way. He introduced me to the other two artists, Brandon Luster, a sophomore, and Hailey Roddy, a senior, both aspiring fine art majors. When we were alone again, he kept on with his drawing of the dance woman. He wore a gold shirt of African symbols under a prominent necklace of beads. He had a professor’s beard.
I asked about this background.
“My family was originally from Louisiana,” he said, “but my parents moved to Madison in 1965. I was born in Madison. I’m 54 years old. My mother was the first Black woman hired to teach by the Madison public schools. My dad was a private investigator in law enforcement and managed a private security agency. I graduated from Madison West High School, which had a diverse student body, and a thriving arts program.
“After high school, I attended Madison MATC in commercial art illustration, then transferred to MIAD where I graduated in ‘93 with a BFA in Painting. After college, I co-founded ‘Collaborative Effect’ a Milwaukee non-profit and worked in the community of artists. In 2000, I went to grad school at the University of Mississippi ’03. Some years later, I returned to Milwaukee in 2008 to accept an assistant professor position at Mount Mary College where I taught for six and a half years. But as fate would have it, I went back to Mississippi to teach at a small rural HBCU (Historically Black College & University) for four years. Then, I accepted my present position at MIAD to teach painting and drawing as a current full professor.”
I asked, “How do you go about teaching your MIAD students? What is your approach to learning?”
“I think of it as challenging skill set development,” he answered. “I emphasize practical application and conceptualization. I want my students to be competitive in their fields in order to get jobs. When you get a MIAD education, you face high expectations in your skill set.”
I told him that when I lived in Minneapolis and worked in advertising and video, I gave a talk at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design. I was surprised that the students were not well trained in commercial art. I told them that they could have created the best design idea but if they couldn’t make a strong sales pitch for that design, it wouldn’t matter. You have to sell your idea.
“I know,” he said. “And the artist or graphic designer needs to be exceptional at something and pretty good at a couple other things. Above all, you need to be marketable, have a competitive edge about you.”
I left him to his artwork, stepped back and studied the nearly completed mural, I could see Bernard’s students had learned his lessons well.
On Sept 1, the Homage to Bronzeville mural will be unveiled at the Milwaukee Public Museum in the North Africa exhibit.
Bernard’s own art and paintings can be found at his website, bernardartstudio.com.