Apartment 4 is the first in the Open House Project series, an ongoing Arts Center initiative providing a platform for emerging and underrepresented artists and art forms. Artists and organizations are invited to collaborate and experiment with new ideas and original content in exhibitions that use the galleries in the John Michael Kohler home as a place for artistic inquiry. The home, built in 1883, is a unique setting for the generation of new curatorial explorations of topics ranging from the familiar to the phenomenal.
Florence Hasard, the fictional character developed by artist Iris Häussler, occupied Apartment 4 from 1926 to 1942, in what is known today as the Walker’s Square neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Florence, a French immigrant who emigrated from Paris, rented a modest flat and used it as both a domestic living space and a studio for her art production. She left the front portion of her home—the living room and bedroom—virtually untouched, with the exception of a small area dedicated to her professional work as a seamstress. Her studio, on the other hand, was a snapshot of Florence’s inner being. The studio became a space for Florence to emotionally process her experiences serving as a nurse during World War I. Using art as a tool to express her most guarded emotions of anxiety and stress, Florence transferred these feelings into artworks that took the shape of figurative drawing, painting, and sculpture.
Florence approached art making with a particular pragmatic resourcefulness, repurposing everyday materials for surfaces on which to paint. With paint and charcoal, she covered every surface of her belongings and personal artifacts—anatomy books used to capture the nuances of the human body, prop dummies inscribed with early twentieth-century passages from French novels as well as rag-printed wallpaper that sheltered her studio from the exterior world. Florence layered material on top of material, creating monochromatic bases of deep burgundy and orange for her to apply a foregrounded composition. With every surface covered, Florence’s body of work hints at a certain kind of concealing, or shielding, of herself from the painful inflictions caused by her past.
When Florence arrived in Milwaukee, she was eager to blend in and start a new life. Yet, she endured intense trauma, an emotional response to the deeply unsetting experiences she encountered during the war. Over time, this trauma surfaced in her artworks. While Florence may have tried to her best to conceal the pain, recent research conducted by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., on the effects of trauma argue that the human body registers this emotional response in ways that are unrecognizable even to the victim. In his 2014 book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, van der Kolk writes that the psychological damage we endure, whether that be as subtle as toxic relationships or as outwardly damaging as exposure to the frontlines of war, creates an invisible permanent mark on the body. Van der Kolk refers to this marking as the inflicted body keeping a “historic score.” He notes that in trauma survivors, the parts of the brain that monitor dangerous situations remain over activated. Even the slightest sign of danger can trigger a stressful response that is accompanied by intense emotions and overwhelming sensations, such as sensitivity to light and uncontrollable shaking.
Florence’s oeuvre during her last three years in Milwaukee, from 1939 to 1942, is perhaps the most evident of the historic score of trauma on her body. These years were marked by the emergence of WWII, a tragic global event that likely prompted the resurfacing of her psychological wounds. Florence unknowingly became her own art therapist, translating the tremors of her body onto a type of “second skin” made by using discarded clothing collected from her work as a seamstress. Florence disassembled dresses, shirts, and skirts, turning the garments inside-out to create a blank canvas for her fabric-based paintings. Each article of clothing had its own variation of a simple line, following the contours of a body. Florence’s line work appears shaky and often darts, zig-zags, and detours off course—a visual record of the hand’s movement on the garments surface.
Florence’s studio practice was informed by introspection that allowed her to work through the personal trauma she experienced healing wounded patients. Often, she brought the outside world, inflicted with violence and war, into the intimate relationships and home environments she occupied. Her blending of seamstress work, a connection to the outside world, into her art reveals a visual manifestation of trauma through the human hand and an engagement with the vulnerability of the body. Her material decisions and resourcefulness allow us also connect Florence’s last years in Milwaukee to a time of intense healing. The works she produced during this time visually gesture to her methodical use of the line and her attention to acute details such as the seam work on her garment paintings, while also empowering herself to mend the pain felt in both her mind and body.
This exhibition is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. Funding was also provided by the Chipstone Foundation, Kohler Trust for the Arts and Education, Kohler Foundation, Inc., and the Frederic Cornell Kohler Charitable Trust. The Arts Center thanks its many members for their support of exhibitions and programs through the year. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is a 501(c)(3) (nonprofit) organization; donations are tax deductible.