Museum Staff Draws Out Creative Veteran Voice for Award-Winning Soldiers Home Renovation

The newly renovated Soldiers Home located on the campus of the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee received an award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP). The Milwaukee Soldiers Home, Milwaukee is the recipient of the 2021 ACHP/HUD Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation. Staff at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum is honored to be one of the many partners contributing to its success.

The Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation recognizes developers, organizations, and agencies for their success in advancing the goals of historic preservation, while at the same time providing affordable housing and/or expanded economic opportunities for low- and moderate-income families and individuals. View a video about the project here.

This spring the renovated Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home, located on the campus of the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center, to once again house veterans. The home first opened in 1867 to Civil War veterans and continued to house veterans until it closed in 1989. As part of an Enhanced Use Lease (EUL) agreement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, The Alexander Company and Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee are leading a team to rehabilitate six of the district’s vacant buildings. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is pleased to be part of the team that selected artwork for the interior of the Old Main and Administration Buildings.

During the past year, Yvette Pino, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum Curator of Veteran Art, reviewed the museum’s collections to find imagery that hints to the military experience but does not overtly disclose it. For this project, it was important to remember that the artwork would be displayed in a residence, not in a museum or a gallery. Therefore, Pino sought pieces that were aesthetically pleasing and also represented the Wisconsin veteran experience. Some images chosen are literal representations of military comradery, and yet most offer a more abstract approach to the documentation of place while in military service. Many of the images would likely never be seen in a military history exhibit because they may not offer anything beyond capturing a moment in time without a specific story attached.

The visual translation of the veteran experience contains imagery that reveals two separate stories. The first identifies the environment in which a military mission takes place and often it acknowledges the passage of time. The second is a unique slant on the tourist experience. Deployments, often in areas of conflict, transport service members to places of the world they never would have visited. The visuals contain images of curiosity, sometimes seen through an anthropological lens.

Trained artists in military service must master mediums of convenience and use supplies they have at hand. They embrace color palettes from their surroundings, provide portraits of exotic cultures, and acknowledge architectural wonders. Frequently seeking solace from living in a conflict zone, veteran artists document of the beauty of war revealed when human nature guides the spirit to elements of calm, whether in a literal visualization or in a serene compositional hand. Sometimes the lens points toward areas of escape; sometimes it drifts toward humor; other times settles on restful slumber, capturing a rare moment of relaxation.

Within the Wisconsin Veterans Museum’s collection, the creative lens can be focused beyond the confines of a trained artist’s hand to the depths of service member’s scrap book. For years Pino has sourced through these images and saved a list of what she calls “unintentional art.” These selections include improperly cropped photos that make beautiful abstract compositions, mission-based photography that captures surreal landscapes as well as beautifully composed atmospheres from a surveillance and reconnaissance lens, and finally, images with bursts of color amidst the uniformity of camouflage. Choosing from   this list and from the veteran art within the collection, the most difficult part was narrowing her choices.

Pino feels privileged to have collaborated with the Alexander Company, the Interior Designers at Ramlow/Stein, and the history panel designer Mark Kuehn. Additional staff members who contributed to this effort are Archivist Russel Horton, Collections Manager Andrea Hoffman, Curator of History Kevin Hampton, Processing Archivist Brittany Strobel and Museum Director Christopher Kolakowski.

In this photo gallery are images of the Soldiers Home by photographer Denita Long.