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Glenda Puhek walking in the Milwaukee River Greenway

Glenda Puhek: Artist in residence in the Milwaukee River Greenway

April 6, 2020  |  Topics: featured artist

The Natural Realm presents Glenda Puhek, who is one of 12 artists participating in a year-long residency program called ARTservancy, a collaboration between Gallery 224 in Port Washington and the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, River Revitalization Foundation, Milwaukee Area Land Conservancy and the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory. The mission of ARTservancy is to promote the visionary work of both the artists and conservationists. Each artist has selected a preserve to spend time in and to engage with.

Artist statement by Glenda Puhek

I enjoy feeling that I can take something apart and put it back together again. Clay lets me do that over and over. The medium is great because it’s so forgiving. One has to participate with it, so it feels like a partner in the process.

ceramic platter with pattern of trees
Lacey Cupcake Platter, ceramic

When I’ve made lithographic prints, I would cut them into strips and reassemble them, drawing on sections and stitching them into a single image. It’s a great way to make a pattern and camouflage an image at the same time.

Yellow Orchid, transfer from woven image with acrylic painting
Yellow Orchid,” transfer from woven image with acrylic painting

I suppose I’ve been working towards patterns all along. Now they show up in the small marks I make in clay to describe an image. On my walks along the Milwaukee River I look for trees and plants that somehow leap out of the dense textures and complicated scenery.

"Discovery," ceramic tile
“Discovery,” ceramic sgraffito tile

The more time I’ve spent outside, looking at the world, the easier it is to have those moments when I see something that catches me. I don’t go looking, things just are there.

"Pooh Cat," ceramic sgraffito tile
“Pooh Cat,” ceramic sgraffito tile

I’ve been focusing on trees and owls for several years now, along with pet portraits when requested. Trees seem to have personalities, lives, relationships—whether they’ve been shaped by humans, natural events or have been lucky enough to grow undisturbed. They bear witness. I love the stories that trees seem to tell. Along the river, there are many extremely old, gnarled trees and many that have fallen over; they’re so dramatic.  

Cornice, residential commission, painting
Cornice, residential commission, painting

The ARTservancy residency has come along when I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of time to think about what I want to make. Every artist needs time to meditate on their work if it’s going to be truly personal. Although I can’t recall a time in my life when I was not making art, now I’m at a place where I’m able to follow my own ideas without the interruption of commercial work. While I’ve enjoyed the challenges inherent in commercial work, now I want to challenge myself. Being able to focus on one place, in one medium, for an entire year is a gift.

Birch vase, ceramic
Birch vase, ceramic

My ARTservancy site includes four connected parks that border the Milwaukee River— Gordon, Turtle, Caesar’s and Riverside. Each is distinct to me. Gordon Park has many very old trees that make me feel as if I’m in their neighborhood. Turtle Park is a lively place, thoughtfully tended and accessible to hikers, dog walkers, kayakers and fisher-people. Caesar’s Park is an open, flat transitional space that affords a brilliant view of Turtle Park and rolls right into Riverside, which has the Urban Ecology Center, large scale sculptures and the recently established Rotary Centennial Arboretum. The river is mesmerizing and I’m working to find a way to express that.

"In Memory," ceramic sgraffito tile
“In Memory,” ceramic sgraffito tile

I’m working in ceramics for this project, so I photograph onsite and work in my home studio. Taking pictures has changed for me. This landscape is one I’ve lived near since 1988, but I hadn’t sought it out. During that time, the River Revitalization Foundation formed and has made the riverside a great place to learn and explore. It’s easy to move through now with all the work they’ve done clearing trails and opening up the view, hanging bat and bird boxes.

"Parfrey's Glen," acrylic on panel
“Parfrey’s Glen,” acrylic on panel

I love exploring this place and learning its moods and meanings. Knowing the trees. I appreciate the long-lived ones, those that have fallen and curled up with their bark splitting away, making homes for tiny creatures. Among my favorite check points are the molds and mosses growing on large logs along the trail. I’m interested in how they will withstand the seasons. I’m anxious to see what effect spring and summer will have on their lovely scalloped forms.

Turtle platter, ceramic
Turtle platter, ceramic

The beavers have been at work on the trees. It breaks my heart a little because girdling a tree kills it. On the other hand, those furry architectural engineers will bring more life to the river and that is thrilling! The beavers and I keep different time schedules, so my likelihood of seeing one is rather slim, but I like learning about them. Something I never would have done before the residency and my recent treks through my Gordon, Turtle, Caesar and Riverside parks.

Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, commercial commission, mural painting
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, commercial commission, mural painting

We find what we seek. I recently read an article about phenology: the science of noticing. So, I have a new identity: I’m a phenologist. It’s the most natural part of my art practice. I want to share what I notice and art is my delivery system.

Gallery of additional works

Canine pet portrait commission, ceramic sgraffito tile
Canine pet portrait commission, ceramic sgraffito tile
Untitled, embroidered wood block print
Untitled, embroidered wood block print
"Songs," ceramic platter
“Songs,” ceramic platter
Door mural after Hopper, residential commission
Door mural after Hopper, residential commission
"Owl," ceramic sgraffito tile
“Owl,” ceramic sgraffito tile
Woodland Pattern, 10 ft x 48 ft exterior mural
Woodland Pattern, 10 ft x 48 ft exterior mural
"Secret Place," ceramic lidded container
“Secret Place,” ceramic lidded container


Glenda Puhek is a graduate of Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. She has worked as an illustrator, graphic designer and mural painter. Her long-time gallerist, Cissie Peltz of the Peltz Gallery was fond of saying, “I never know what you’re going to bring me.” It could be drawings, paintings, embroidered prints.

Nature, including animals and botanical subjects occupies all her work, both commercial and fine art. She served as Botanical Artist at the Mitchell Park Conservatory (Domes) and as a freelance graphic designer for George Watts & Son.  She’s had a previous stint as an Artist in Residence for Racine Parks & Recreation, which involved guiding merit students in painting a city bus with a Zoo theme.

Puhek has received a Wisconsin Arts Board Development Grant, which enabled her to produce lithographs with John Gruenwald, a renowned printmaker. This resulted in a solo exhibition at the First Unitarian Society Gallery in Milwaukee.

She was introduced to ceramics by Marina Lee, who takes on large scale civic and educational projects. Lee enlisted Puhek to help with her project for Snails Crossing, a Riverwest Park.

For more information about the Milwaukee River Greenway, click here. This residency is being sponsored by the River Revitalization Foundation, which is also a partner organization to A Wealth of Nature.

This is the latest in our series of featured artists, which is intended to showcase the work of photographers, artists, writers and other creative individuals in our community whose subjects or themes relate in some broad sense to nature, urban nature, people in nature, etc. To see a list of previously featured artists, click here. The work of the current ARTservancy artists in residence will be exhibited at Gallery 224 in September 2020. To meet the other ARTservancy artists in residence, click here.

Photos of Glenda Puhek by Eddee Daniel. All other images courtesy of the artist.