When guest artists visit Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee, they’re treated to a preperformance ritual: a hearty dinner of homemade soup and pie at the home of the center’s founders, husband and wife Karl Gartung and Anne Kingsbury. After the meal, each dinner guest is presented with an unfired white ceramic tile, and encouraged to fill the space as he or she sees fit.

Writer Margaret Atwood’s six-inch-square tile features a drawing of a woman lounging on an oversize oval, captioned “Siren on Egg.” Lovely abstract lines grace poet Wanda Coleman’s tile. Musician Jim O’Rourke enhanced his with coffee stains, a stick figure, and the signature “Mike, age 9.”

There’s novelist Leslie Marmon Silko’s tile, complete with tidy desert landscape; performance artist Laurie Anderson’s rough green sketch of a plummeting airplane, with a thought bubble exclaiming “Hi!”; and scores of others by a variety of artists, including Lyn Hejinian, Wendell Berry, Kathy Acker, Harryette Mullen, Tom Raworth, Bei Dao, and Michael Ondaatje.

“At first I had a master plan to tile our kitchen so that people would fight for the privilege of doing dishes,” Kingsbury confesses, “but the collection soon outgrew that scheme.” Instead these squares commemorating shared words and meals litter the couple’s dining room. And currently, like an alternative Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Woodland Pattern is exhibiting select tiles to kick off a yearlong celebration of its 20th anniversary.

The roots of Woodland Pattern can be traced to a small group of Milwaukee artists who practiced guerrilla bookselling at early 70s political events. Eventually the group set up a loosely run, volunteer-staffed bookstore/gallery in the same building as Milwaukee’s Theater X, and by 1976 they’d hired their first paid employee: set builder and poet Gartung. Their new charge had the idea of adding live events like music and performance art to the store’s offerings, but sharing a space with a busy theater company didn’t always lend itself very well to his mission.

In 1979 the building was sold, rents went up, and both the bookstore and Theater X were forced to move out. That same year, ceramist Kingsbury lost her job teaching art at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee: “I was a tenure casualty,” she says. She used her pension to help purchase the single-story, three-storefront building Woodland Pattern currently inhabits, and she and Gartung launched their own venture.

Gartung was finally realizing a dream: a local, not-for-profit cultural center where books, performance art, sound works, readings, and visual art could cohabit. The new building gave Gartung and Kingsbury the space to host the kinds of events they’d usually had to visit bigger cities to find. Woodland Pattern’s powerhouse first season was something to stay in town for, featuring a performance by Laurie Anderson, a reading by poet Paul Metcalf, and a screening of work by filmmaker Tom Palazzolo.

With about 50 events a year on its calendar, Woodland Pattern has been a premier venue for experimental music and sound, presenting such innovators as John Zorn, Fred Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, Derek Bailey, and Jaap Blonk. Since 1995, instrument inventor and photographer Hal Rammel has curated a series called “Alternating Currents Live” at the store; before Rammel, the mind behind the music schedule was musician Thomas Gaudynski.

The front of the building has served as a giant canvas for muralists, including Diana Barrie and Edgar Heap of Birds, many of whom incorporate text into their work. At the moment it features a collaborative mural by Lane Hall and Lisa Moline: a digitally enhanced series of fly carcasses.

And Woodland Pattern is a book fiend’s nirvana, specializing in small-press, fine-press, and self-published books, with rows of chapbooks and drawers of handmade artists’ books. Unlike the many chain bookstores that routinely return books after two to six weeks on the shelf, Woodland Pattern keeps books until they find their audience. Book sales don’t bring in much income, but for Kingsbury and Gartung bookselling remains a form of activism, an important service to underpaid writers and hungry audiences.

A Paul Metcalf poem provided Kingsbury and Gartung with the name “Woodland Pattern,” an archaeological term describing the native culture of makers and traders that existed south of Lake Superior in pre-Columbian times. With over 27,000 titles in stock, the center has grown into its name; dig a little, and you may come away with finds that make you feel you’ve discovered a lost civilization. It’s possible to unearth gems from the 60s, 70s, and 80s–all at original prices.

Woodland Pattern also helps literature make its way outside the walls of the store. When public art proposals for Milwaukee’s new convention center were solicited, it was Kingsbury who submitted the top choice. (The other one chosen for permanent installation was that of conceptual artist Vito Acconci.) In collaboration with sculptor Jill Sebastian, Kingsbury oversaw the permanent installation of 50 Wisconsin authors’ writings throughout the center–words attributed to Black Hawk curving over the ballroom entrance, short poems by J.D. Whitney alongside banks of public telephones, and a whole wall of Lorine Neidecker’s poetry. Kingsbury has been pleased with the response: “I recently received a phone call from a man who had been there for a sewer conference and wanted to know more about one of the poets.”

In April, performance artist Holly Hughes of NEA Four infamy came to Woodland Pattern to perform and to lead a master class in autobiographical performance. With sponsorship from local gay and lesbian organizations, Hughes’s visit evoked such positive response that a second show was added and quickly sold out. After homemade soup and pie, Hughes attacked her tile with underglaze pencils in blue and green, and Kingsbury added it to her growing stacks.

Woodland Pattern Book Center’s artist tile retrospective continues through July 9 at the store, 720 E. Locust St., Milwaukee. The gallery and bookstore are open noon to 8 Tuesday through Friday and noon to 5 Saturday and Sunday. Call 414-263-5001.

–Terri Kapsalis

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.