Work as art: MSOE’s Grohmann Museum specialty


September opens with Labor Day, the holiday that acknowledges our toils to pay the bills, snag a promotion, gain independence, feel worthwhile and maybe leave a tangible mark on the world.

For one-half century, industrialist and German immigrant Eckhart Grohmann has collected artwork depicting the dirt, danger, brawn, pride and craftsmanship that are a part of employment. Especially blue-collar jobs.

Think forging, foundries, farming.

Paintings and sculptures in his “Man at Work” collection at the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Grohmann Museum date back to 1580. The museum and its 1,400 pieces of art are all about the worker, from the colorful mosaic floor in the entryway to the rooftop garden (where 9-foot-tall bronze sculptures of laborers are inspired by smaller versions indoors).

Now the focus widens to include notable and historic results of local labors.

Opening this month is “The Magnificent Machines of Milwaukee and the Engineers Who Created Them,” inspired by a book of the same name by historian Thomas Fehring, in collaboration with the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

Fehring, a retired Wisconsin Energy Corp. engineer, writes about people whose inventions helped establish Milwaukee as “The Machine Shop of the World,” particularly during the Industrial Revolution.

“I have attempted to focus on the companies that built truly innovative machines, and upon engineers who have made significant engineering innovations,” he writes.

The special museum exhibit taps into a fraction of Fehring’s research and presents unusual industrial artifacts as a collage of Milwaukee’s ingenuity.

Some is what you’d expect to see: The evolution of Harley motorcycle styles, for example, is smoothly squeezed into one lovely framed painting. Lesser known: the Merkel motorcycle, made in Milwaukee mere months before the first Harley.

Why did the “Flying Merkel” – as the product eventually was known – fade into obscurity within a few years, despite its reputation for good quality?

Company owner Joe Merkel “diversified too early – he was everywhere,” designing cars too and moving his company to be closer to steel production, explains James Kieselburg II, museum director.

Kieselburg’s sleuthing is what discovered often-rare items for this exhibit. This includes a Merkel motorcycle, tracked down to a private museum in New Jersey.

Still elusive is Padlock No. 1400, the only one of 12 historic Master Lock models missing in a display on loan from Kewaskum. Steel laminated – “like a bank vault door” – is what set founder Harry Soref of Milwaukee apart from his competition.

It’s no huge secret that Nash automobiles were produced in Kenosha, but lesser known is the “Nash dash cluster,” also referred to as the Nash Uniscope. The invention placed the speedometer and other gauges are in one spot instead of scattering them in a vehicle.

At work quietly near the museum is DESCO (Divers Equipment and Supply Company), whose production of deep-sea diving equipment began in 1937. Kieselburg says the company was a pioneer in this area and also makes helmets that are standard issue for employees at nuclear power facilities around the world.

Inventions from at least 30 companies make the cut for “The Magnificent Machines.” My personal favorite? That’s a no-brainer.

As the longtime operator of my Word Factory, I was smitten with a flowery manual typewriter. Sholes and Glidden of Milwaukee produced the first commercially successful typing machine, eventually sold under the Remington brand.

The quirky QWERTY key layout – created to avoid jams between heads of the letter bars – was a first for the world because of Milwaukee too.

The machine looked like a piece of art – so much adornment. The keyboard was covered with a flowery panel when not in use – “a piano approach,” as Kieselburg called it.

Such a logical approach to both music and word composition. And one of many ways in which artistry shares the stage with the practicalities of work.

Admission is free to the Grohmann Museum, 1000 N. Broadway St., Milwaukee. The museum’s 12th anniversary is in October.

“The Magnificent Machines of Milwaukee and the Engineers Who Created Them” opens Sept. 6 and closes Dec. 22.

“Milwaukee Made” is how the city’s tourism office is grouping the Grohmann display with three other temporary exhibits.

“Building a Milwaukee Icon: Harley-Davidson’s Juneau Avenue Factory” shows how the motorcycle manufacturer structurally grew from a small-time company to a global leader.

In this Harley-Davidson Museum show are architectural drawings (in pencil) and old-time photos of building and cycle construction. Now the building is the company headquarters and on the National Register of Historic Places.

The museum at 400 W. Canal St. opens this special exhibit Sept. 6. It stays up one year. Access is included with $22 museum admission (less for children, students, seniors, military, H.O.G. members).

“MKE Generations” is a father-son art show of abstract watercolors by Willie G. and Michael Davidson at Union Art Gallery, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The father is the retired chief styling officer at Harley-Davidson Motor Company, and son Michael is a UWM alum whose artwork has gained wide exposure.

This is the first time the two generations have displayed their work in a side-by-side exhibit. The show ends Sept. 13. Admission is free.

Screening of the 60-minute documentary “Willie G. Davidson: Artist, Designer, Leader, Legend” begins at 6 p.m. Sept. 12 at the gallery. (search “mke generations”).

At Milwaukee Art Museum, a photo show of 100-some images from the 1930s through this decade show a range of people, businesses and neighborhoods that give the city character.

“Portrait of Milwaukee” opens Sept. 6 and closes March 1. Access is included with the $19 museum admission (less for students, seniors, military, children, teachers). Admission is free on the first Thursday of the month.