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Tony Wise: Creating, Exploring and Making a Difference

Tony Wise has always liked taking things apart and putting them back together, learning about their obvious and subtle connections. Growing up, he confronted and persevered through the fear the possibility that things he disassembled would not come together again; he enjoyed the opportunity to analyze and create. 

So many of us unlearn or never truly embrace this confidence in creativity and the making process. We internalize the “you can’ts” and the “you’re not supposed to do thats.” It’s a stanza that quells creativity and likely ends many artists’ careers before they begin. Thankfully, Tony works to keep fearlessness and play in his practice on a regular basis. Undoubtedly, he heard the same inhibition-inspiring refrains throughout his life, but he continues to build, to learn and to explore the art of creating.

“I had great mentors early in life that could see how I could put things together additively and reductively, Tony said. “They encouraged me to continue to explore those abilities and to create things.”

Tony’s love of creating things led him to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree from Utah State University and a master of fine arts degree from Texas Tech University.

He continues to approach connections and creating confidently today as an artist and operations director of Wheelhouse Studios, an open art studio at Memorial Union on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Tony also advises the student-led Wisconsin Union Directorate Art Committee, which brings exhibitions to the Wisconsin Union’s galleries and advances visual arts in the Madison community. In addition, he serves as communications director for the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts.

“Going from this love of creating to a career came about, for me, by making the most of opportunities and by accepting the guidance of strong mentors,” Tony said. “I really try to stay open minded about where my artistic passions take me and about opportunities that come my way.”

Tony’s art vividly reflects his early passion for exploring connections and beauty in the everyday. The artist, designer and craftsperson has earned residencies across the United States and internationally, his work speaking a complex yet approachable language of connections and rhythm. 

“The more that I learned how to make things throughout my life, the more I’ve appreciated this universal language that art gives us,” Tony said. “Art can connect with people in a really impactful way.”

His work continues to earn accolades and inspire those who experience it. Most recently, Gary Garrido Schneider, executive director of Grounds For Sculpture, selected his work, “Drift in Delineations,” for inclusion in the juried 2020 Faculty Exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art. His work debuted at the Museum Jan. 31 and will remain on display through May 10 along with other selected work by University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty and emeriti. 

“Drift in Delineations” incorporates the self-discovery and creative process that continue to fascinate Tony. As he worked with wood-fired stoneware, porcelain and reclaimed wood to create the pieces, he thought about how he’s grown over time, how he’s evolved and those ways in which he continues to evolve. He contemplated the arbitrary delineations of time and growth in people’s lives and how his and others’ journeys cannot be defined by linear marks of time but are instead zigzagging collections of divergent paths that ultimately make up someone’s story, priorities, and identity.

The titling process, itself, for this work enveloped Tony in a journey during which he considered the space his pieces took up, the variations within each piece and across his creations, and work’s visible delinations of growth. He sat back and took in how the patterns he created and those that existed naturally in his materials are not defined by clean lines and drift in and out of step with one another. 

While he says pieces form their own identities in the art-making process, he makes deliberate, thoughtful choices about the materials that live on in his work, such as the reclaimed wood. 

“I’m drawn to this idea of materials having a second chance, that wood that could have been discarded can live on as something new and take on a completely different meaning and purpose,” Tony said. “When you use recycled materials, you are transferring the history imbued in those materials into your art.”

Tony believes that art is in the eye of the beholder and that art exists all around us. He encourages people to take purposeful time to look for it, to look deeper at the places and things we encounter each day that peak our interest. This encouragement is part of his never-ending passion to inspire not only the appreciation of art but the nurturing of the artist in everyone. He also believes in the important role of community spaces, such as Wheelhouse Studios, in fostering creativity. 

“I believe that everyone should have access to make things,” Tony said. “Wheelhouse Studios gives me a lot of opportunities to provide the community with the means to explore many kinds of art, from the art of movement to pottery.”

At Wheelhouse, Tony works with staff to provide guests with drop-in art opportunities and classes for everyone from professional artists to first-time artists.

Tony describes his role at Wheelhouse as more than a job; for him, his position provides a way to make a difference in lives and the arts the way his own mentors did for him. 

“My mentors were people who saw things in me that I didn’t know were there. I’ve met incredibly genuine people that, at no benefit to them, were kind, generous and patient with me as I learned about how I wanted to create,” Tony said. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to pay the kindness and art mentorship I’ve experienced forward, and Wheelhouse is a place where I can do that every day.”

Author: Shauna Breneman

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