This month marks a significant anniversary in Barbara Brown Lee’s life. Forty-six years ago, fresh out of college, she took a job at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Today, Brown Lee’s name is almost synonymous with the museum. She’s worked with thousands of Milwaukee area high school students and continues to carve out time to work. WUWM’s Susan Bence popped into one of Brown Lee’s classes to see the master in action.
“So we’ve been working our way since Labor Day,” Barbara Brown Lee says.
I’m cruising down the corridors with Barbara Brown Lee. It’s almost time for class and she’ll not be late. A high school group works with her once a week. Brown Lee has five months to pour her passion and knowledge into their young minds.
A diminutive person in stature, Brown Lee’s a symphony of color, from her mustard-colored short-sleeved shirt, to the plucky jumper dotted with images of birds. The nametag around her neck is studded with pins: some from far away places she’s visited, another is a recent commendation for lifetime achievement.
“Is that Maddie,” Brown Lee says.
Brown Lee spots Madeline Glaspey, one of the students in this semester’s batch of art enthusiasts.
"I love art history, it’s my favorite in school,” Glaspey says.
The high school senior sits, clutching a bulging plastic bag. Brown Lee says it’s part of today’s lesson. It’s the students’ turn to show and tell her what they’ve learned about a piece of art of their choice.
“You pick something you like, or you want to learn more about and you write about it, you talk about it and you do an artwork inspired by it,” Brown Lee says.
“Yeah, who wants to go first,” she asks.
Brown Lee volunteers student Ryan Butts. He chose a contemporary artist, Kehinde Wiley.
“I’m so glad you picked him. He was in the news, Ryan, because the art market is doing weird things and one of the artists who’s doing very well is Kehinde Wiley. Are you surprised,” Brown Lee asks.
“Not really,” Ryan says.
“He’s not suffering one bit, but you knew that,” Brown Lee says.
Then her eyes and ears are on Ryan as he nervously launches into his report about the larger than life oil painting. It’s an African American man in a bright blue jacket.
“When I walked by I like saw the creases in the jacket and I’m like, man, that’s crazy,” Ryan says.
Brown Lee reacts like crazy too with thumbs up. She fills in more detail, like the way the artist works in his studio.
“He wears a T-shirt, just a white, what I would call an undershirt, and he just wipes his brushes across his chest. Then he turns the T-shirt around and does more. And then he, that’s his paint rag, you know. You should see him doing it, it’s incredible,” Brown Lee says.
There’s an electric charge in the air as Brown Lee shares her enthusiasm. She almost bubbles over when Ryan pulls out the drawing he created.
“I love this, I just love it. It’s cool,” Brown Lee says.
Next in line is student Gage Winkelmann. He guides the class to a somber oil painting.
“Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, I have trouble with his name,” Winkelmann says.
“Everybody does,” Brown Lee says.
Winkelmann describes the bleak street scene the German artists painted.
“It’s very stark and just gives you a feeling of anxiety,” Winkelmann says .
Winkelmann’s apologetic as he pulls crumpled sketches out of his backpack.
“My visual representation isn’t very good,” Winkelmann says.
Brown Lee is blown away by Winkelmann’s effort.
“You got it, you got it and it’s a hard painting to get, I think Mr. Kirchner would be pleased with your report,” Brown Lee says.
Just a few steps away, student Madeline Glaspey points out her inspiration, a bronze sculpture by a Swiss artist.
“I think I’m going to show the visual thing first,” Glaspey says.
She tears open the plastic bag she’s been toting to reveal a female figured fashioned of wire, masking tape and brightly painted papier mache.
“So when I finished this, I was like, wow, this looks like a third grader did it,” Glaspey says.
Their afternoon session is slipping away, but not before Glaspey gets her share of Brown Lee’s attention.
“I think you did it. You got it, baby. You got what he would want,” Brown Lee says.
After she releases the students, Brown Lee and I make our way out of the gallery together. She can’t stop talking about the students.
“I think they’re very good, their perception’s very good. I find them very sensitively correct in what they’re feeling and they’re not afraid to say it,” Brown Lee says.
Brown Lee says years ago, she never imagined she’d be able to make the museum come alive for teenagers or that it would be so much fun.
“I mean I’m like a kid in a candy shop. I can’t bear not being here,” Brown Lee says.