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Music as Muse

Miller Art Museum event unites jazz and painting

“Ekphrasis,” or a detailed written description of a work of visual art, is one method of blending two distinct art forms to create something new. 

Another way to merge mediums doesn’t have a cool Greek name – or any name at all, for that matter – but the fusion is just as unique.

Instrumental jazz music and abstract-representational painting will come together May 17 during a performance at the Miller Art Museum, titled Music as Muse. During the performance, Sturgeon Bay artist Ernest Beutel will paint along to live music performed by a jazz quartet.

Needless to say, this isn’t Beutel’s usual painting setup. He normally works alone and has never painted in front of a crowd before. But his fast-paced, improvisational art style lends itself well to a performance. 

“I never start with a plan,” said Beutel, who is represented by the Pearl of Door County Gallery and Rock Shop in Sturgeon Bay. “I just spontaneously start painting and whatever comes out, comes out.” 

What comes out is often reminiscent of brightly-colored graffiti, sketched out quickly so that a sense of motion still clings to the canvas. Vibrant squares, stars or even written words form the backdrop for many of Beutel’s works, making some look more like collages than traditional paintings.

Though Beutel doesn’t plan his paintings ahead of time, he has some ideas for the upcoming performance. He might start off with a rest note, or an unlikelier image that has been floating around in his head and making an appearance on the event posters he has been handing out: a gorilla. Gorillas made their way into Beutel’s paintings when he first moved to Door County 20 years ago. At that time, he was inspired by stories he heard about Samson, a silverback that lived at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

“Howling,” acrylic on canvas by Ernest Beutel. This 2006 painting was made shortly after the artist moved to Door County and heard stories about Samson, a gorilla who broke the glass of his Milwaukee County Zoo enclosure four times. Created as an homage to Samson, who died in 1981, “Howling” is on exhibit at Bad Moravian and the Ephraim Coffee Lab.

The upcoming performance at the Miller is a celebration of a new player in the Sturgeon Bay music scene: Muse, a music venue and school that broke ground in September on the northeast corner of 3rd Avenue and Jefferson Street.

This school’s executive director, Kaira Rouer, taught flute to the woman who became the brainpower behind Music as Muse. That woman, former Sturgeon Bay High School Spanish teacher Patty McKinnon, started studying with Rouer in 2018, and after years of at-home practice, wanted a way to share her skills with others. 

More specifically, she wanted to perform “Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano,” a four-part composition by Claude Bolling.

“It’s a fusion of classical and jazz, which seems strange, but it really works,” McKinnon said.

Patty McKinnon. Submitted.

So with this piece in mind, she started working backwards to put together a quartet she could play it with. She phoned a friend who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s music department, and that friend connected her to pianist and UW-Green Bay graduate Rissel Peguero.

Peguero was eager to play with McKinnon. She performs with Pegasis, a self-proclaimed “genre-less” band in Green Bay that draws from styles as diverse as bolero, classical, EDM and jazz.

Another member of Pegasis, Andrew Bader, plays upright string bass and joined McKinnon’s group along with Peguero. The fourth member of the freshly-formed quartet, drummer Adam Seifert, was brought aboard by a phone call from McKinnon, who had played alongside him on a church worship team. 

While the unnamed jazz band plays during Music as Muse, Beutel will work on a 3-by-8-foot canvas he built. A brief intermission will give him a break from his fast-paced painting, as well as an opportunity to explain his process and what inspires him.

One major source of inspiration for Beutel is his father. When he died in 2019, he left behind a large CD collection that Beutel later immersed himself into. His father’s music taste was diverse, and his collection included plenty of one genre that previously never appealed to Beutel: jazz.

He soon started to enjoy it – and later, started to notice its impact on his work. 

“My style was changing a little bit,” Beutel said. “I think it was partially because of the influence from my father’s jazz collection.”Music as Muse will take place May 17, 7 pm, at the Miller Art Museum, 107 S. 4th Ave. in Sturgeon Bay. Door County Northwinds, a woodwinds duo composed of Kaira Rouer on flute and Gary Ciepluch on clarinet, will open for the quartet. Donations will benefit Muse.

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