On Display: Peninsula School of Art’s Eclectic Exhibition Program

The Peninsula School of Art runs an intriguing exhibition program that isn’t afraid to dive into a topic and then explore it with an often eclectic selection of artists and their work. The opening exhibit this year was To the Letter: Text in Art.

The exhibits’ creator is Crystal Chesnik, director of public programs and exhibitions. The themes, which she works out with Catherine Hoke, the school’s executive director; and Elysia Michaelsen, director of education and residencies, cross lines and combine disciplines, often in imaginative and quirky ways.

Art by Number, which ran last October and November, brought together art and mathematics, opening with a 1919 quotation from the philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty.”

“A 2014 study showed that for mathematicians, looking at an elegant equation activates the same area of the brain activated when others see a beautiful painting,” Chesnik wrote. “With the math aspect, we got a couple of middle school and high school math classes.”

Chesnik, who studied art education at UW-Madison, writes the description for each show: usually a four-page handout that packs in extensive art history and provides some context for the work.

The 2020 exhibit New Media: Art and Technology quoted Bill Viola on the Renaissance as a meeting of art and science. It also cited a 1950s Bell Labs artist-in-residence program that brought together engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman, who formed a collective called Experiments in Art and Technology in 1966. 

Last summer’s exhibit 2.5D: Breaking the Surface looked at work by artists who mostly work in two dimensions and explored what happens when they break the surface by “pushing the surface forward in low relief; by cutting, layering, looping and draping; by bending and assembling.”

One example was by Mary Ellen Sisulak of Ellison Bay, who “stretched leather over a manipulated wood panel to form the surface of her large-scale painting ‘Rebirth,’ in addition to raising areas of the leather with added layers of wood beneath.”

Reply All, whose productions lasted for several months last year, could be described as a sequential collaboration, done remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last summer, we invited 21 artists to participate in a structured chain of artistic response,” Chesnik said. “Reply All: A Visual Thread is the result.” 

The program began with Dylan Thomas’ poem “The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,” whose title is also its first line. Then artists created prints; paintings in watercolor, acrylics and oil and cold wax; pencil drawings; and collages on 14-inch-by-14-inch panels. As an artist completed a work, she or he would email the image to Chesnik, who would pass it on, allowing it to inspire the next creator in a visual game of telephone.

The exhibit’s unusually long, 28-page program showed the work that each of the 21 participating artists created and included a bit of art history about how artists have often drawn their inspiration from earlier work.

Although Reply All featured mostly Wisconsin artists, other Peninsula School of Art exhibitions draw participants from across the country and occasionally from outside it. Chesnik said she finds artists through contacts, a database she has developed and by “a lot of online looking when I have a theme. If I find an artist I think is interesting, I’ll put a couple of images of their work in the database.”

Can’t visit the exhibits in person? Some are available to tour online. Visit to learn more.

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