Painting en plein air: Artist alum uses his brush to benefit Field Station

Mark your calendars for April: There is a new art exhibition coming to the Milwaukee area, featuring scenes from the UW-Milwaukee Field Station. As thanks for serving as the inspiration for the art, profits from the sale of the paintings will funnel right back to the Field Station to support its mission in conservation and education.

The exhibiting artist is Jeffrey Kunkel, who is something of a Renaissance man. Kunkel is an ordained minister, a published author, a trained painter, a philanthropist, and, importantly, a UW-Milwaukee alumnus.

Most recently, Kunkel was the artist-in-residence at the UWM Field Station, which sits on the edge of the Cedarburg Bog. He spent a week last spring and a week this October exploring the bog with his easel and paints in hand, painting the gorgeous landscapes in front of his canvas.

“I had a chance to find the most interesting scenes and perspectives in the bog,” Kunkel mused. “I walked all over until I was too tired to lug my easel around and did paintings.”

A residency born of philanthropy

Kunkel and his wife, Rev. Mary Elyn Bahlert, met while they were students at UWM. The pair married, followed their faith and made their careers in California, and eventually decided to give back to the institution that had helped them in so many ways.

“We were impressed with all of the things that UWM was doing to become, really, a near-equal to UW-Madison. There was good leadership, useful research, and we’ve always had a good sense of (what UWM does) for firstgeneration students or students of color who maybe didn’t have a lot of options,” Kunkel said.

He and his wife wanted to help, so they set up two scholarship funds to benefit students in the College of Letters & Science and the School of Freshwater Sciences. As donors, Kunkel and Bahlert developed a relationship with a UWM development officer Diane Grace. Whenever the couple visited Milwaukee, Grace would show them some of the new and exciting happenings on campus.

Last year, Kunkel had a request: Could he and Bahlert check out the UWM Field Station and Cedarburg Bog? Grace arranged for UWM Field Station director Gretchen Meyer to meet them for a tour. Kunkel was delighted.

“This was coming home into an old landscape for me,” he said. “I used to hunt and fish and trap in marshes just like these, and I’ve always loved it.”

Now, he was itching to paint those same landscapes. So, he put forth a proposal for Meyer: He would become the Field Station’s first artist-in-residence.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea,” Meyer said. “I had never even considered trying to do something like this at the Field Station before. I immediately said, yeah, let’s try it.”

The Field Station

The UWM Field Station is a research outpost to support the work of faculty and students that can’t be conducted in a lab – think songbird surveys or pollinator studies, for example – and also hosts classes focused on biology and conservation.

Located on the edge of the Cedarburg Bog in Saukville, Wisconsin, the Field Station also plays host to visiting researchers from other universities and works with an organization called the Friends of the Cedarburg Bog to protect its natural areas.

As its director, Meyer oversees all research and classwork at the Field Station.

“We’re needed heavily for the natural sciences, but I’ve always wanted to expand beyond that,” Meyer mused. She’s hosted creative writing workshops at the Field Station before, and even nature sketching classes, but “We’ve never brought in an outside painter to make paintings and have a public display.”

As part of the residency the Friends of the Cedarburg Bog contributed money toward Kunkel’s expenses. Kunkel and Bahlert spent their two visits to the bog in an old farmhouse that the Field Station uses to house visiting researchers. Kunkel smiled as he recounted hearing coyotes howling at night and seeing the beautiful scenes of the bog each day.

“It’s not just a bog or a marsh,” he said. “It includes wonderful meadows, springs, a lake, and wonderful wooded uplands – beech and maple forests. I’m happy to head into these wooded uplands to capture some of the shadows and sunlight breaking through.”

And capture them he did.

A coming exhibition

As the resident artist, Kunkel was tasked with creating 25 paintings, the sale of which would benefit the Field Station, which he noted “does a lot of things on very little budget.” Those painting will be shown at the Cedarburg Cultural Center next April-June, thanks to some connections between the FCOB and Cedarburg Cultural Center boards.

As a bonus, Kunkel said, retired Field Station director Jim Reinartz will create 25 custom wood frames for the display.

The financial support is welcome, of course, but Meyer says the upcoming exhibition has another benefit.

“That’s a whole new audience of people who may not be aware of the Cedarburg Bog and what we do here,” she said. “It helps bring knowledge of these natural areas. … I’ve been very impressed by his paintings.”

Painting landscapes en plein air is a challenge; the entire work is supposed to be completed outside. Kunkel is drawn to that challenge.

“You’ve only got a couple hours, really, if you want to finish the painting out there. So, you’ve got to move fast,” he said. “My natural inclination is when I get nervous about doing something, I slow down. I get careful. Well, that is a good way to kill a painting, in my mind. … Art filled with energy is generally not careful.”

Kunkel’s un-careful paintings will be on display at the Cedarburg Cultural Center from April 22-June 4, 2023. Portions of each sale will benefit the UWM Field Station and Cedarburg Bog. You can view Kunkel’s work on his website.

A brief biography

Jeffrey Kunkel grew up in the Milwaukee area and eventually entered college at his hometown university. At UW-Milwaukee, he majored in English and history with plans to enter law school after graduating, but a higher power must have intervened.

Kunkel experienced a spiritual awakening at UWM. Instead of law school, he entered seminary and become an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. He and his wife, Mary Elyn Bahlert, herself a minister, found their congregations in California and moved from the Midwest to the west coast.

After a while, Kunkel found himself growing bored and restless, so he began writing more seriously and took an interest in visual art as well. He enrolled in the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) and learned to paint.

Over the years, Kunkel took on a number of artistic projects alongside his ministry work. He is the author of two books on the history of Alaska and two collections of stories for adults. But Kunkel’s audience is broad: He’s worked extensively with children to develop their artistry and creativity. The result is several collections of stories illustrated by the kids in his ministry’s churches, clubs, and schools.

Kunkel’s latest endeavor was his residency as an artist at the UWM Field Station. Kunkel and Bahlert live in California and still occasionally visit Milwaukee.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science