In the pantheon of Milwaukee art gallerists, there is one name that was the leader of subversive showings intended for queer audiences: The Leo Feldman Gallery. It was the brainchild of Jimmy Von Milwaukee, and though the art he presented was shocking to some, others thought the works inspired freedom of expression. To call it an “underground” gallery would be an understatement, but it was a place where sexuality wasn’t a dirty word, and skewering the traditional art scene was its cornerstone.
Early Life & Training
James Mark Skyberg (Jimmy Von Milwaukee) was born in 1954 in Duluth, and was raised in an intellectually liberal family along with his older brother, David Paul (who was also queer). From an early age, his Norwegian parents and grandparents taught him to love and accept everyone. He was inspired and influenced by the fact that his mother’s favorite writer was Truman Capote, and she liked Liberace. The family moved to Waukesha, where he graduated from high school. “They had an incredible art program there with teachers that were artists, too. I was in the school’s art independent study with Jeff Schlueter, and he turned me on to ARTFORM and Richard Diebenkorn, who was my first favorite artist,” says Skyberg.
He went to UWM in 1974 to study drawing and painting with Lawrence Rathsack, the Gestalt-thinking professor. He was his mentor, friend, and patron. Rathsack bought his first art piece called, “Mary.” The piece won top prize in the Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors competition in 1981. Buoyed by this stamp of approval from the panel of NYC judges, an art career was born.
During this time, he went to his first gay bar, The Factory, where Milwaukee’s Skylight Theater is today. He says, “It was big and spectacular. The streets were deserted, and it felt so underground then in 1973. It inspired me in my art and art gallery later. I also went to C’est La Vie the first time with Presley Haskel. I thought it was the best punk bar in Milwaukee. I would party with Ginger Spice in front all the time.”
He was thriving in school but dropped out after UWM terminated a professor who was a filmmaker with international awards to hire a man who’d never made a film—because of his famous parents’ theater connections. Seeing this as an affront to art education, he started Leo Feldman Gallery as a reaction to the lies and hype that UWM displayed when it made this unbelievable move. James legally changed his name to Jimmy Von Milwaukee in a nod to a parody he created of Judy Chicago, and it stuck when he ran for mayor of Milwaukee in 1988.
The gallery was started with a $100 unemployment check. Skyberg made everyone take the alley entrance to the subterranean gallery instead of the main one behind Peter Bentz Antiques on Jefferson Street, so patrons would have to walk past the hustlers behind O’Connors Bar. Leo Feldman Gallery had no track lighting, and it served Country Time Lemonade instead of wine. There were no footnotes under the art. It showcased only self-taught art outsiders including works by people of all ethnicities and lifestyles in what was essentially a basement room.
The location was chosen in defiance of Frank Lloyd Wright’s assertion that “Basements are full of mold and decay.” Wright didn’t have basements in many of his iconic homes. The Leo Feldman Gallery showed artists like Pete the Beat who was both a poet and collagist. Beat would later die from AIDS. Skyberg’s curatorial talent roster included his best friend Moe Meyer, who was the first performance artist at the MAM, and de KRAMO (Daniel Kramoris) the painter. Sister Cashbox, Jerome Voelske, Ringo White, Francis Ford, Sally Kolf, Matthew Wytch, and many other Wisconsin artists were also given space to show their work. Even the enigmatic Theatre X did a performance there with Swedish artist Jord Circus for the very first Earth Day Celebration.
Holly Brown, trans star of La Cage’s long-running Holly & Co. was championed by Skyberg. He was thrilled to be a frequent judge for Holly’s talent competition “Claim to Fame” in the late 80s at La Cage. The Milwaukee Journal art critic James Auer wrote a review of Brown’s exhibition that featured her paintings from the Isle of Capri.
Feldman Gallery hosted annual XXX-Mas and Craft Shows that featured weird and wonderful crafts with special appearances by Milwaukee drag queens. BJ Daniels performed as Lorena Bobbit, and also did modeling for photographers Shimon & Lindemann in numerous other guises.
Milwaukee drag legend Goldie Adams performed the Nutcracker in a tutu along with punk band “Hollywood Autopsy” from Manitowoc. Another infamous moment was when artist Andy Nelson’s “Ed Gein Dollhouse” piece was taken off display in the gallery by the FBI in order to examine it. They had it for two days. But according to Skyberg, his proudest moment was showing the work of America’s Most Wanted, Lawrencia Bembenek. The gallery also held a fundraiser for the ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). The Milwaukee Sentinel never reviewed the gallery during its run, with the exception of art writer Janice Paine.
In 2006 Jimmy was diagnosed with Caposi’s Sarcoma, and discovered he was HIV-positive. “When I first found out, I went into hiding,” he said. But his disease, along with a drunk driving arrest, prompted him to clean up his act. He went on to curate exhibits with assistance from artist Christina Ward for River Rat Gallery, which showed art in urban alleys and alternative spaces such as the C’est La Vie bar on South Second Street. Artists shown there include David O’Leary, Michael Kasun, and Amanda Tollefson.
Still creating art today, Leo Feldman/Von Milwaukee is more interested in using his real name Skyberg now. “I come from Viking stock. When I was a kid I wanted to be Sal Mineo in Tonka. I want to channel that in my art again. I want to have a show in Norway. I loved Oslo. I lived ‘The Scream,’ and now I want to paint it.” I have no doubt Jimmy, none at all.