Max Fernekes’ Wisconsin
May 7 - August 31, 2014
From 1930's urban Milwaukee to rural, rolling hills and historic landmarks, the artwork of Max Fernekes from the Bank Mutual Collection spans five decades with unique Wisconsin scenes. The artist's characteristic lithographic crayon drawings enhanced with watercolor depict iconic scenes of state history, commerce and everyday life.
Artist Max Fernekes, Jr. captures the quintessential qualities of Wisconsin in his paintings: rolling hills and valleys, urban cityscapes, historic landmarks, and more. This exhibition features the late, Milwaukee-born, Mineral Point artist with 35 of his works from the Bank Mutual collection. From 1930s urban Milwaukee to rural farmlands and historic architecture, the collection spans five decades. The artist’s characteristic lithographic crayon drawings enhanced with watercolor depict urban and rural landscapes, commerce, and the varied topography of Wisconsin. Several historic renderings of landmarks in Milwaukee serve as a reminder of places lost to demolition with changing times.
The artist’s father, Max Fernekes, Sr., was an architect of renown in Milwaukee from the late 1890s through the end of the First World War. Because of his father’s influence, Max, Jr., born in 1905, studied engineering at Marquette University, but quit that program after the third year. He enrolled at the old Wisconsin State Teacher’s College (now UW-Milwaukee) where he studied art with Gustave Moeller in a two-year program, finishing in 1929. Interest in architectural and structural elements in the landscape is evident in the artist’s work throughout his career.
Fernekes was one of the few artists of his era to devote full time to his artistic endeavors without aid of other part-time work as support. He and his future wife, Ava Avery, survived the Depression by selling their artworks posted on clothes lines surrounding the fountain in what was then called the courthouse square in front of Saint John’s Cathedral in Milwaukee. The courthouse square art fairs, started in the early 1930s, were the prototype for Wisconsin’s popular outdoor art fairs. “We were never rich but we got by,” stated the artist about his earlier years. One of Max’s earliest assignments as an artist began during the Great Depression when he became one of the illustrators for
The Index for American Design by Clarence F. Hornung. This WPA project was part of an effort to index decorative arts, handmade items, and tools used on the farm before 1880. Max also did freelance work for the Milwaukee Journal by producing sketches which featured old and familiar scenes in Milwaukee. According to a 1942 Madison Capital Times article, Fernekes had already sold more than 200 drawings to the Milwaukee newspaper alone.
Although deeply rooted in Milwaukee, Fernekes moved his family to Mineral Point in 1940 and spent the last 44 years of his life there. One of the earliest resident artists in that community, it was from Mineral Point that the artist enjoyed the unglaciated area of the state for its topography and its historic buildings of another earlier era. Fernekes kept in touch with the Milwaukee art community with monthly trips to the city to sell his and his wife’s artworks. During this period, Fernekes made sketches of immigrants’ landmarks throughout the state for Fred Holmes’ 1944 book, Old World Wisconsin. This was a natural fit for Fernekes’ affinity for sketching architectural subjects.
The Cedarburg Art Museum showing of the Bank Mutual collection of Max Fernekes artwork is the first opportunity for the public to see the paintings that were collected by Michael T. Crowley, Sr. over several decades through a relationship with Milwaukee art gallery owner Robert Veldman. Michael Crowley, Sr. started working for Mutual Building and Loan in 1933 and became President and eventually CEO of what is now known as Bank Mutual before retiring in 2005. Thanks to Mr. Crowley’s vision for collecting an artist who painted throughout our state, the public has a wonderful opportunity to see an overview of Wisconsin’s historic landmarks and its urban and rural vistas through the eyes of a unique Wisconsin artist.