“This is a framework we’re going to use to make art, organize events, and try to get some energy going. Ultimately, it’s how we’re going to activate the space. Right here.” Jeff Zimpel recounts the pitch he and Nick Schilz gave to Cardinal Stritch University to earn a studio space via artist residency in the university’s Communication Arts building to house their project, Create Space MKE.
I receive the enthusiastic reenactment as I sit with him in his organization’s current base, a single room with high ceilings; long, clean wooden tables at its center; and countless large paintings that form layers of canvas encircling the space. It’s in this studio that Jeff regularly assembles Milwaukee’s civil activists and local front-runners in social innovation to offer them his seminal concept, “What does Milwaukee look like?”, and a regimented six-step process—stated problem, research, brainstorm, ideation, presentation, and reflection—through which to explore its potential.
Jeff’s brainchild turned urban arts collective aspires to confront social inequities and foster vision through a visual arts framework. Aside from teaching two-dimensional design coursework, Jeff dedicates his current capacity at the university to nurturing leaders’ explorations of this idea with the hope of activating human potential in the city he loves.
While Create Space MKE may seem miraculous, what is perhaps more marvelous is that, upon further examination, Jeff’s current positioning is the clear fulfillment of half a lifetime’s accumulated potential. Along with his co-curation of the Arts@Large 50th Anniversary of the March on Milwaukee Exhibition with four Milwaukee Public Schools, in the last year, Jeff has made a career for himself at the intersection of empowerment, art, and education. In doing so, he has begun living out a capacity for mentorship and inspiration that has been long waiting on the horizon.
Raised in Green Bay, Jeff came to Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee to play baseball and study graphic design. An initially disengaged student, Jeff’s approach changed when he started reading novels outside of his coursework during the latter parts of his undergraduate career. He was introduced to works of controversy and intention when he began working his way through the “Banned Books” section of the Whitefish Bay library.
Jeff’s mental framework changed drastically as he grew genuinely passionate. “I got very angry and bitter when I was a junior in college. I was reading all these books that were just knocking me out. I got angry because I started to look at these structures that were guiding me through my life and seeing a lot of deception. I thought this is a crime! I could’ve been turned on then. Where would I be now?”
In that moment, Jeff was responding both to his discovery of joy in learning and his resentment that it hadn’t been actuated by any of his teachers before then. It was at this point that Jeff knew he needed to teach. He had found motivation late in his academic career and wanted to point younger people in the direction of inspired engagement.
After completing transitional post-baccalaureate internships in graphic design that left him further unfulfilled, in 2009 Jeff earned his Wisconsin teaching license and began Stritch’s Master of Arts in Teaching certification program. In the same year, he read Letters of Vincent van Gogh and was moved both to begin painting and incorporate components of careful planning and process into his graphic-design practice.
Two years later, Jeff began teaching at Shorewood High School, a six-year legacy wherein he would not only drive students toward visual arts, but also toward a comprehension that they could be creators of their surroundings and life outcomes. During his time with the district, he brought A.P. Art History to the high school, curated a summer tour of Europe for students to visit historic art sites, and co-wrote and facilitated a preprofessional course in Visual Journalism.
Despite dedicating most waking hours on academic or extracurricular programming, Jeff still carried out personal artistic practice throughout his time at the high school. “It’s the closest thing I’ve experienced to religion. It’s that structure of life. You go to it every day. You develop spaces around it. You practice it. You talk about it. You even try to sway people into it,” he says, explaining the depth of his love for painting, which roused him to remain devoted to it during his stay at Shorewood.
Perhaps ironically, his period at Shorewood lent itself to a prolific era of inventive portrait painting. Jeff found inspiration again in his students. “I paint people who inspire me. I wanted to paint what being excited about thinking about ideas looks like. People are really interesting to do with that. You can do that with landscapes, but it’s significantly more dynamic when you have humans and all that they can represent. You can play with their display,” he says.
Though he is still functionally a portrait painter, it feels almost inappropriate to label Jeff the artist as such. In the last several months, his work has transformed largely as a result of his incorporation of Create Space MKE’s methodology. Usurping normal dimensional spacing, his subjects exist in a plane unbound by conventional limits. The painter overlays them with both visions of a new city and reflections of Milwaukee as it stands today. Moreover, a collection of symbols and hieroglyphs representing the values of the new city, as Jeff’s group of leaders envision it, appear on these ever-changing pieces of the artist’s opus.
Aside from his work, Jeff is currently applying to University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee to complete his Master in Fine Arts. His academic intentions are to dedicate his three-year program to refining Create Space MKE. He plans on using his time to continue exploring his theory of activating people through activating spaces. Through mobilizing individual schools within UW–Milwaukee by activating their physical spaces artistically, he hopes to reinvigorate factions of the campus toward collective action.
Jeff has an ongoing show of paintings at Cardinal Stritch University in Bonaventure Hall throughout the school year as an arm of his artist residency. Additionally, the opening of the product of his co-curated March on Milwaukee 50th anniversary exhibit with Arts@Large opened April 20. To otherwise stay up to date on his artwork and development with Arts@Large and Create Space MKE, visit createspacemke.com , search for Jeff Zimpel on behance.net , and check out his Instagram @j.zimpel.
Elissa Koppel is a freelance writer and a local artist.