World renowned artist to repurpose raw materials in honor of Godfrey

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When the Urban Ecology Center acquired 4.5 acres in the heart of the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum last December, the nonprofit also acquired a football field’s worth of recycled wood, brick, stone and other raw materials.


Those materials previously belonged to former property owner Pieter Godfrey, a well-known Milwaukee craftsman, urban ecologist and historic preservationist who passed away in 2011. Throughout his career, Godfrey built up a reputation of collecting old materials and repurposing them for buildings and project sites.

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“He had a very unique array of materials that you couldn’t find elsewhere,” said Ken Leinbach, executive director of the Urban Ecology Center. The Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization is dedicated to protecting natural areas and educating urban youth on science and nature.

After completing a quiet capital campaign late last year, the center purchased the 4.5 acres for $2.4 million to revitalize the land. But the organization wasn’t quite sure what to do with all the materials from Godfrey’s collection, which have been stored in two dated buildings on the property.

“We were in a bit of a quandary as to what to do,” Leinbach said.

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The organization wasn’t even sure how to place a value on some of the materials, according to Leinbach.

In recent months, the Urban Ecology Center struck up a relationship with internationally-known artist Theaster Gates, who now plans to repurpose most of Godfrey’s materials into a work of art that will honor his legacy.

Gates, a Chicago-based artist and founder of the nonprofit Rebuild Foundation, focuses his art on “space development” and “object making,” according to his website. He also specializes in pottery, sculpture, musical performance and installation, according to Leinbach.

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His exhibits have appeared all over the world, including at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and he has also been featured in The New York Times.

On top of showcasing his art, Gates uses his nonprofit to implement his pieces into neighborhood revitalization efforts, currently in Chicago, St. Louis and Omaha. The project he tackles with Godfrey’s materials will align squarely with those efforts.

“Pieter was about helping, and he was a big advocate for those living in the central city,” Leinbach said.

“And a lot of the work that Theaster does is about sort of revitalizing neighborhoods and giving people hope, and that’s what Pieter was about, too,” Leinbach said. “It’s a perfect marriage of two visionary thinkers.”

Leinbach added that Gates and Godfrey’s work reflects the mission of the Urban Ecology Center as well, as the center aims to revitalize neighborhoods through the context of nature.

Gates has purchased most of Godfrey’s collection at an undisclosed price and in the coming months will move materials back to his home base in Chicago, where much of it actually originates.

“A lot of this material is going home,” Leinbach said.

It is not yet certain what form Gate’s artwork will take, but Leinbach said there has been talk of a collaborative project in the region.

Nor is it certain what the Urban Ecology Center will do with its new 4.5 acres. The nonprofit purchased the land largely to prevent development in a natural space that it has worked so hard to restore.

“We bought the property defensively, but we do have offensive plans brewing,” Leinbach said. “But we haven’t had the opportunity to really sit back and reflect as a leadership and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’”

While the center knows that one of the two buildings on the property is structurally unsound and will need to be deconstructed, it is still brainstorming ideas for future use of the entire space. One idea, Leinbach said, entails creating a sort of Urban Ecology Center institute to host visitors from other cities who are interested in replicating the nonprofit’s model in their own backyards.

But right now, that option is nothing more than an idea, Leinbach said.

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