Terrace Views

How to “Art”: Wheelhouse Studios Unites Action and Creativity

Jay Ekleberry teaching a class on making clay figures in Wheelhouse Studios. Photo Courtesy of Courtney Kessler and Andy Manis.

While crowds of people line up every day to enjoy food at Der Rathskeller, not many realize that there’s an entire artistic community right beneath their feet. In the lower level of Memorial Union, Jay Ekleberry and his group of devoted students create artwork in Wheelhouse Studios. Walking down to Wheelhouse feels like entering an art exhibit, with large murals and pictures covering the vibrant walls of the main lobby. I got a chance to sit down with Jay and his assistant, Angie, to discuss some of the plans that Wheelhouse has for the summer and future.

Terrace Views (TV): How would you describe Wheelhouse to someone who’s never heard of it before?

Jay: Wheelhouse Studios is an open studio art facility available to the community and free of charge to students. It’s designed to let people engage in the arts at whatever level they see fit. Some people just stop by to look around while others make this their main studio space.

TV: What sort of improvement can beginner artists see if they stick with Wheelhouse for the summer?

Jay: Let’s take a beginner who wants to do pottery, for example. We have a full ceramics studio, and if you took our five week ceramics class and took advantage of open studio time, you’d know how to throw and finish pots, make functional handles for mugs, and glaze your work. Basically, in five to seven weeks you could learn how to make functional pottery.

TV: What sort of summer experiences do you hope to offer for more experienced craftspeople?

Jay: We already have a number of ceramicists that are using this space and creating amazing stuff. We have more and more metal artists coming in as our metal facilities are to improve over the summer, since we’re adding a vacuum casting machine. In our 2D studio, we have a couple of people who, in my opinion, are very accomplished painters and print-makers and are using the space to do screen printing and intaglio printing on the press we have. It’s working well and we’re working all the time to make it work better.

TV: How has Madison affected the artistic directions of your projects and your student projects? 

Jay: Madison is a pretty open-minded and creative community, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the level of execution that we’re seeing right from the get go. The Madison community has pushed us towards the idea that art is a part of the solution, meaning we know we have some societal issues and things we need to deal with, so how do we solve those problems with personal expression? We have now had two projects focused on the Tony Robinson shooting, which had us talking as a staff about “How does Wheelhouse proactively program?” It’s a way for people to react and work with these issues. Protesting is just one way to respond to an issue, and we ask “How can we respond artistically?” We’re even planning on having a student artist resident this fall. Tiffany Ike is a Houston, Texas native who uses art to address the issues in her community and we’re really excited to have her on our team this fall.

TV: What differences are there between Wheelhouse in the winter and the summer?

Jay: We’re not sure what our summers are going to look like quite yet, since we’ve never had one! We’re thirty seconds from the quintessential place to be in Madison in the summer, the Terrace, so we’re going to try to use that to our advantage. We’re going to repeat the Terrace Tapas series, where we bring little projects out to the Terrace for the summer, most of them being inspired by The Terrace itself. We’re also doing Funky Fridays, a more streamlined version of Free Art Fridays which include projects like decorating trucker hats and making bubble wands. We’re excited to have people create and use their art with the great backdrop of Lake Mendota.

TV: If you could have any guest artist teach a class at Wheelhouse, who would it be?

Jay: One of our mantras around here is, “Art is a verb,” which basically means that art is a process. In society, we’ve defined art as the end product, the masterpiece- we stick it on the wall and it’s done. Art is a process of putting things together. The biggest proprietor of this idea was the Broadway actor and author Eric Booth, who I’ve met and worked with. He’s spot-on about how art has a role to play in our everyday lives. No matter what our occupation is- computer programmer, journalist, mechanic, we all assume the role of the artist and bring artistry to our work. It would be awesome to have him down at Wheelhouse where we aim to achieve that idea on a daily basis.



The main goal of Wheelhouse hangs above one of the studio spaces. Photo courtesy of Courtney Kessler and Andy Manis.


I also had the chance to talk with Jay’s assistant, Angie, about some of her experiences with Wheelhouse Studios. She’s been part of Jay’s team since before Wheelhouse ever opened, and has been working to make it the art space it is today.

TV: Can you tell me about a time you’ve personally seen a student thriving at Wheelhouse? 

Angie: One regular artist we have is a graduate student who is currently researching bees. As you can imagine, entering data point after data point about bees every day can be stressful and tiring. So she came to Wheelhouse originally just to de-stress and get some peace of mind by making pottery. She started to come in regularly and I began to notice a significant improvement in her skills. After a while, she was making pottery at a very high skill level, a fantastic progression to witness. This student managed to pick up an entirely new skill in her free time.

TV: Where do you see Wheelhouse heading in the next couple of years?

Angie: Wheelhouse is looking to expand the types of crafts and skills we offer. We have big plans, including glass making, sewing and more metal crafting options. While we can’t offer a full size kiln in our studios, we’re going to have smaller flame setups that can allow people to make pendants, beads, and small sculptures out of glass.

With the endless amount of creative minds flowing throughout the Union on a daily basis,  Wheelhouse will have no trouble bringing students and locals alike to make some truly great art.


What medium of art would you most want to work with at Wheelhouse? Let us know in the comments section below!

Author: Jake Witz

Jake Witz is a UW-Madison sophomore double majoring in English and Computer Science. You can catch him watching his favorite bands perform at the Rath or if you squint really hard you can spot him kayaking on Lake Mendota.

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