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Happiness, the Elusive American Dream and Lots of Cardboard

Artist-in-residence Kirsten Leenaars engages children in the search for home and happiness on Milwaukee’s Near West Side.

By Megan Knowles

Students display protest signs exploring the American ideal of happiness and proposals for a new Constitution.

On a vibrant and sunny June afternoon, an enthusiastic bunch of middle school students chatted on an empty lot near 27th street. Holding onto white balloons and gathering around the remnants of a large structure made of decorated cardboard and brightly colored tape, they brought a DIY-scrapbook vibe to a street where underused spaces are giving way to development plans and relatively new arrivals such as Daddy’s Soul Food & Grille.

Overcoming the feelings of awkwardness and skepticism young teens can bring to group projects, the students formed a line, balloons in hand, amidst conversations about TV shows and summer plans. Each balloon carried a piece of the cardboard construction waiting to be sent to the sky, many scribbled with personalized messages ranging from smiling cartoon faces to pointed political messages.

What appeared to be an activity for a day at summer camp was part of a larger ongoing project by Chicago-based performance and video artist Kirsten Leenaars, who was commissioned earlier this year by Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art to continue her project in Milwaukee’s Avenues West neighborhood. The result is a video-based exhibit at the Haggerty that runs through December 23, 2016. Leenaars will join fellow artist Fo Wilson in a public conversation about “House/Home” at 3 p.m. on Thursday, October 6 at the Haggerty.

So why all the cardboard and duct tape?

The American Dream comes in all shapes and sizes, but at the heart of all those dreams is one central concept: Home. Leenaars’ project, (Re)Housing the American Dream, explores the search for home and happiness through the eyes and words of students from two schools on the Near West Side of Milwaukee: Highland Community School and the International Newcomer Center at the Milwaukee Academy of Chinese Language.

Working in the 27th St. storefront studio, students plan construction of a large cardboard structure (see triple-photo panel just below) reflecting their collective ideas about home.

In particular, Leenaars set out to talk with students about their own experiences with home, family and ancestral homelands, examining the slippery ideal of happiness and the ever-present notion of the American Dream.

“The image of the American Dream is owning your own home, white picket fence and everything,” Leenaars says. “What does that mean and how does that all tie together? I think it’s about getting at the notion of home not just necessarily as a building or house or structure, but also thinking about what you need to feel at home or safe, and how are they related?”

That’s where the cardboard construction comes in. During the two and a half weeks Leenaars worked with the students, they shared their ideas of home and imagined their dream houses, crafting and personalizing each piece while thinking up narratives to sell their ideal homes in commercials that would become part of Leenaars’ exhibition.

“I think what was amazing to see is how much both groups loved making. As soon as they were really making something, building those houses, they were completely engaged,” recalls Leenaars, who with support from the Haggerty turned an available storefront space on 27th Street into her studio for this fieldwork phase of the project.

In the video installation, viewers can catch a glimpse of their ideas and dream homes through the form of a quick commercial the students narrate, selling the audience anything from a home with a movie theater and a yard full of trees to a house containing an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

More than that, the exhibit includes video interviews of the students defining the American Dream, speaking to their perceptions of America and sharing snippets of their home lives.

A Highland Community School student observes fellow participants sharing their views on home and the American Dream in a Haggerty video installment.

“Having a house is part of the American Dream because you need a house,” a 7th grader at Highland Community School shared. “Home feels like a place where I feel safe with my family and friends.”

Discussing the home where she’s lived since she was one, the same 7th grader shares a story of stability that’s distinct from some of the other narratives in the video. A number of students lived as refugees moving across multiple countries, such as Malaysia and Somalia, before moving to Milwaukee.

Several refugee students described America as a place they could be with their family and have an opportunity to go to school, but still kept their homelands close. Detailing a castle with bright colors, flowers and trees, one student, who lived in Somalia and Uganda before coming to America, shared, “I hope one day I can build this home in my country.”

For the Haggerty, Leenaars’ exhibition is another example of Marquette’s engagement with its surrounding community, an area with a diverse population and housing that ranges from tenements and small efficiency apartments to grand rehabbed Victorians in the Concordia Neighborhood. Though the neighborhood is just one corner of Milwaukee, it serves as a microcosm of some of the larger problems and challenges confronted by the city.

“In particular, we’re pursuing and developing exhibitions that explore Social Responsibility through Community Engagement. The arts can be a powerful catalyst, elevating and amplifying the voices of those most affected by injustice,” says Susan Longhenry, the Haggerty’s director/chief curator.

“Museums can and should be forums for this dialogue,” Longhenry adds. “And when they partner with an artist whose work embraces collaborative social practice — as Kirsten’s does — the result is powerful.”

Asked what she would like the audience to understand about (Re)Housing the American Dream, Leenaars emphasizes the effort involved in living together. “Living together is within your own house with your family members, within your community or even within the world. It’s a complex, very layered thing, but I think it’s possible,” Leenaars says.

“I think these kids are proof…that there is room for all of these individuals with their own personalities to live and exist and play together.”

(Re)Housing the American Dream will be exhibited on the 2nd floor of the Haggerty Museum of Art through December 23, 2016. Learn more about the exhibit or upcoming opportunity to hear Leenaars discuss the project.

Oct 6: Artists Kirsten Leenaars and Fo Wilson in conversation + catalog presentation at Haggerty Museum



090716_Leenaars_009.jpgImage from Kirsten Leenaars: (Re)Housing the American Dream  Photo Credit: Clare Britt

House/Home: Artists Kirsten Leenaars and Fo Wilson
in Conversation

Moderated by Dr. Jasmine Alinder
Thursday, October 6, 3 p.m.
Haggerty Museum of Art

Join us for a public conversation with artists Kirsten Leenaars and Fo Wilson, moderated by Director of UWM’s Urban Studies Programs Dr. Jasmine Alinder. This program is presented in collaboration with Imagining America’s 16th Annual National Conference, themed At the Crossroads.

Kirsten Leenaars: (Re)Housing the American Dream, is a three-channel video installation on view at the Haggerty Museum of Art, and is the result of Leenaars’ year-long exploration of the notions of home, belonging and happiness in context of the American Dream in Milwaukee’s Near West Side. Leenaars created this piece in collaboration with students from two neighborhood schools—Highland Community School and the International Newcomer Center at the Milwaukee Academy of Chinese Language. Personal stories from the students serve as metaphors to explore the real and imagined reality of this Dream. Delving into the complex notions of place, person, community, family, country, origin, land, or a moment of time as a site of identification, with being a person. The video installation ponders the enduring question of what it means to be human and how this has become inextricably from the question who we are to each other? How is the American Dream both an individual and collective dream? These young residents of Milwaukee imagined and (re)envisioned the American Dream and what is most required to allow this dream unfold.
Chicago-based artist Fo Wilson’s installation Eliza’s Peculiar Cabinet of Curiosities is currently on view at the Lynden Sculpture Garden. This full-scale structure is both wunderkammer and slave cabin; it imagines what a 19th-century woman of African descent might have collected, catalogued and stowed in her living quarters. Informed by historical research, but represented in the past, present and future simultaneously, Eliza–animated by an Afro-Futurist vision that embodies a hopeful version of an African American future–presents an imagined collection of found and original objects, furnishings and artifacts.

The program will be followed by a reception and presentation of the exhibition catalog (Re)housing the American Dream with an essay by Steven L. Bridges. Design: Sonia Yoon.

(Re)Housing the American Dream Exhibition Catalog


 VIEW: Exhibiton Catalog (Re)Housing the American Dream

Design: Sonia Yoon
Essay by Steven L. Bridges
Release Date: October 6, 2016

This catalog was published on the occasion of the exhibition Kirsten Leenaars: (Re)Housing the American Dream. Chicago-based performance and video artist Kirsten Leenaars has created participatory works of art that explore a quintessential American ideal: the pursuit of happiness. (Re)Housing the American Dream is an extension of Leenaars’ earlier investigations. Commissioned by the Haggerty Museum of Art (Milwaukee, WI), this latest work is the result of Leenaars’ year-long exploration of the relationship between home and happiness in Milwaukee’s Near West Side. Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University

Learn more »

Boulvard Dreamers at the Poetry Foundation



Pegasus & Mermaids Opening: Boulevard Dreamers
Friday, September 23rd, 6:00 PM
Poetry Foundation
61 West Superior Street
Free admission

The Poetry Foundation presents Boulevard Dreamers, a performance and opening event for Pegasus & Mermaids, a group exhibition featuring work by Poetry magazine cover artists depicting Pegasus and mermaids from poetry immemorial. The exhibit will be displayed in the Poetry Foundation Gallery through December 16, 2016. Boulevard Dreamers is a traveling installation and variety show responding to the specific narratives and communities of the sites and venues it visits. This collaborative project by artists Lise Haller Baggesen and Kirsten Leenaars consists of three parts: a site-specific stage set, a series of performances, and an installation of the growing collection of portraits of Boulevard Dreamers. Boulevard Dreamers questions and celebrates the production of self in a society dominated by one spectacle alone: desire. Through a little glamour, a little glitter, and with a little help from their friends, Baggesen and Leenaars explore how we are moved by the agency of desire and the magical allure of being in the spotlight. Performers include: Rebirth Poetry Ensemble, Michael Green and Adam Sonderberg, The Pillowhammer, Ego Mechanics, Junior Magician, Riya Jain, Lucía Mier y Terán Romero, Henry Barrett, Chiara No, and Anni Holm.

(Re)Housing the American Dream, solo show opening at the Haggerty Museum of Art

Director Susan Longhenry invites Friends of the Haggerty Members
to a reception previewing the museum’s fall 2016 exhibitions

Image from Happiness-Home-Milwaukee: (Re)Housing the American Dream

Gendron Jensen Series on Resurrection in Nature
Religion and Neo-medievalism in Rouault’s Miserere
Jason Salavon The Master Index
Watermarks An Atlas of Water and the City of Milwaukee
Kirsten Leenaars (Re)Housing the American Dream
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
6-8 pm

Gallery talks by exhibiting artists
Kirsten Leenaars, Mary Miss and Jason Salavon

Beer, Wine and Appetizers

To register for this event, to become a Friends of the Haggerty member, or to update your membership please contact Mary Dornfeld at 414-288-7290 or


Support for these exhibitions and accompanying programs is provided by the Milwaukee Arts Board and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin, the Marquette University Strategic Innovation and Andrew W. Mellon funds, Spirit of Milwaukee, the Astor Street Foundation, and other supporters.
Copyright © 2016 Marquette University, All rights reserved.
Our mailing address is:

Marquette University

Haggerty Museum of Art
P. O. Box 1881

Milwaukee, WI  53201-1881