The site-specific sculpture inspired by the Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse is the largest work
Maggie Sasso has ever made. It might also be the loneliest—for the lightkeepers, conditions were
tough, isolated, and could be very dangerous—but it is likely to encourage viewers to learn more
about the landmark. The lighthouse has long been an object of fascination: there was something about its distant glow that made land-dwelling folks curious and perhaps a little jealous. Once an active and necessary beacon in Lake Michigan’s Milwaukee Bay, later a mysterious, deteriorating Art Deco artifact, today it is an historic landmark about to embark on a new life as a “lakefront attraction.”
The Breakwater, constructed in 1926, was designed to protect sailors, but in doing so it isolated the people who inhabited it. This spectacle of a space that can be viewed by all but accessed by only a few, and the history of the lighthouse, resonate with the way that our public spaces are sometimes segregated, allowed to fall apart, and occasionally rescued and revived. Today’s world is vastly different from the world of 1926; we lead lives that are materially easier and more efficient. But we’re also increasingly separated from one another, in what Sasso describes as the “isolating architecture” of our living spaces, and in our consumption of culture and news, which has grown more tailored and atomized in the age of the Internet.
Sasso’s installation draws its narrative content from nine decades’ worth of communal memories. It combines a lighthouse constructed from steel and outdoor-grade fabric, a signaling buoy made from marine vinyl, and a cloth sailboat—an impossible object—that hangs in an adjacent room. Specific moments from the lighthouse’s history are captured in textiles. Audio and special effects convey the experience of a fierce storm, the lighthouse and buoy mutually signaling as though they were two brave souls attempting to keep track of one another during the tumult.
As an artist creating a major work for an exhibition, Sasso hasn’t time to kill, which makes it all the more compelling that she fabricates the work on her own small home sewing machine: “I like to push the craftsmanship so far that it’s made better than an industrially manufactured object.” In a recent work, “Haul Away Home,” she invented sea-themed merit badges that appeared professionally made, their embroidery was so exact. Yet their perfection was a result of hand-skill, not machine work.
Sasso’s fascination with flags, maps, and the material world of sailing has led to an unexpected fusion of her craft-intensive art school training in metalsmithing and woodworking with a sphere of activity not generally associated with craft in the popular imagination. Yet craft is everywhere in this world—from the construction of ships and sails, to scrimshaw, flags, and sailor’s knots—much of it labor-intensive and bespoke, the result of skilled handwork, elaborate precisely because sailors often have time to kill. The maritime milieu has what Sasso calls a “flexible aesthetic.” It can be funny or serious, decorative or plain, and embodies a wild variety of associations: excitement, discovery, and victory, as well as tragedy, sorrow, and loss.
The personal narratives in my work function as allegories, collapsing the space between artifact, theatrical set, and artwork, and relying on humble textiles to tell powerful stories. Frequently the cloth plays a comedic role, using its soft edges and abject insubstantiality to reshape and humanize serious subject matter. Too Much Sea for Amateurs investigates longing, loneliness, dependability, and the certainty of death: universal realities of maritime life. It presents the lighthouse, a visible yet inaccessible Milwaukee landmark, as a symbol for the dysfunction of a contemporary urban life that prizes self-containment over camaraderie, isolation over obligation, and comfort over valor. By rendering a chaotic moment at sea in fabric, I make this re-imagined scenario, with the Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse as its central character, tactile and penetrable, inviting us to simultaneously explore the past and consider our collective future.
About the Artist
Maggie Sasso has had solo exhibitions in Madison, Milwaukee, Portland, Oregon and Lexington, Kentucky, and her work has been included in many group shows throughout the United States and Canada. She received her MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her BFA from Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky where she was born and raised. She was a visiting artist and instructor at the Oregon College of Art and Craft and currently teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.
Collaborators: Ben Jones, robotics and engineering; Laura Meine, historical research; Fred Bell, model; Claudine Nuetzel, photographer.