BY CATHERINE CAPELLARO
NOVEMBER 7, 2019
It’s the “magic hour” when the sun is setting and Hanna Bruer swipes the first layers of paint on a canvas in the lobby of HotelRed. Enormous glass windows look right onto Camp Randall, which glows in the waning sun. Perhaps inspired by the pink-orange tone of the stadium’s stone facade, she adds a layer of pink to a canvas propped up on an easel near the front door.
It’s Gallery Night, the twice-yearly event when museums, galleries and businesses throw open their doors for roving crowds of art lovers. HotelRed’s hip red and gray interior has high ceilings and cement floors, and when Bruer starts to paint, it’s nearly deserted. But Bruer is relaxed and taking her time. She plans to take the whole evening, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., to create her painting.
Finished canvases are set up in a semicircle around her and drop cloths lie on the floor around her easel. Her finished acrylic-ink paintings are abstract, and layered with dynamic swipes and drips of color and elegant, illegible cursive writing. They radiate life.
“I use my paintings kind of as a journal that no one gets to read except for me,” says Bruer, standing with one foot on the foot of the easel, one tattooed arm reaching up to grasp the top of the painting. “I can write legibly; I just choose not to.”
For the last five years, Bruer has been taking what is typically a private pursuit, into public spaces for “live painting” events. Mostly, she has painted at music clubs while bands play. She discovered this mode of working after seeing an ad for a live painter for a show at the Majestic. “I was like, ‘What is that? That doesn’t even sound decent,’” remembers Bruer. “That’s something that you do in the privacy of your own home. It’s a very personal thing. But I put my name in, and said I would do it.”
She did it five times that summer. “And now I’ve done it 8 million times...well, not quite,” says Bruer. “It’s a way to be interactive and entertained while you’re doing the thing that’s very vulnerable, because it’s your art.”
Bruer is deliberate, stepping back and assessing the work-in-progress before smearing most of it away and stopping to chat with visitors and her husband, Jake Swenson, who sits nearby.
Live painting has transformed her relationship to her art, says Bruer. “I’ve gotten more comfortable with it. I used to be very private,” she says. “I have an art degree but I would not sell them, not show them. But I decided to just throw myself out there, and started doing live painting, which was very uncharacteristic for me. It just kind of changed how I feel about it. I’m very comfortable. It’s a little nerve-wracking still, but it is very freeing.”
In college at UW-Stevens Point, Bruer studied photography and “hated” painting. But seven years after she graduated, a landlord in Middleton offered her some paints left behind by a previous tenant. “And so I just had all these paints sitting in my apartment, and one night I just went for it and I kind of fell in love.”
By 7:30, the painting has more color, and some inked words. But Bruer is dissatisfied, dabbing and wiping parts that don’t feel right. “I hate it, so I paint over it,” she says, adding that she’s “in it for the long haul.”
She’s enjoying the process, too. Minus one irritant: the bland R&B piped in over the hotel’s sound system. “I’m definitely a ’90s grunge person,” says Bruer. “So this is not my jam. This is piercing me right to the brain.
“What I tend to do is to listen to a whole song, over and over, through the whole painting. I’m definitely a big Nirvana fan. I’ve always loved my dark gritty rock. I’m a big Marilyn Manson fan as well….It helps me get out all my frustrations, and it’s really visceral. I love it.”
Records Bruer usually listens to while painting: Failure: Fantastic Planet; Cold: Self Titled; Placebo: Without You I’m Nothing; Marilyn Manson: Antichrist Superstar; Nirvana: Bleach; Zao: Self Titled.
Average times she listens to the same song while creating a painting: 50
Times she has painted live at the Majestic Theatre: 8
Times she has painted live at the Malt House: 9
Pairs of “painty pants” she owns: 6
Colors her hands are after Hotel Red work: 5
Paintbrushes she uses in her paintings: 0
Rolls of blue shop towels purchased this year: 14
Price of the painting created at Hotel Red: $800
Next live painting event: Nov. 18, High Noon Saloon: FlowPoetry’s Compression book release and rock and roll show.
Hanna Bruer is an abstract artist in Madison, WI. Her expressionist paintings prominently feature illegible text embedded in abstract layers and atmospheres. She has permanent installations throughout the midwest, including Northwestern Technical College and Dane County Credit Union. Bruer has worked with the National Alliance on Mental Illness for their Healing Art Shows, earning Best In Show Finalist in 2015. She has provided live painting performances at venues such as the Majestic Theater and Memorial Union Terrace in Madison, as well as for Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Gallery Nights. Her work and story have been featured in the Isthmus and Cap Times publications, as well as NBC15 News.