Artist Allegrea S.B. Rosenberg scavenges Janesville materials for her dark visions

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Neil Johnson
Monday, October 14, 2013

JANESVILLE—Janesville artist Allegrea S.B. Rosenberg's mission statement is emblazoned in black marker on the back of an olive drab military trench coat, an heirloom handed down from her artist grandmother.

It reads: “See me fall out of the town that never was.”

Rosenberg, a 33-year-old Janesville native who calls herself “Lil' Miss Mayhem” doesn't sleep when she's creating art. Instead, she wades in the Rock River in hunt of drowned artifacts. She scours the woods and forages beaver dams in and around Janesville to find relics left behind. 

It could be a grimy porcelain bowl, a handful of crow feathers and dead leaves, a swamped bicycle with the patina of years awash in river water or a beautician's mannequin head.

Whatever Rosenberg finds in her hunts, whatever haunts fall out of the town that never was, Rosenberg recycles and mixes them into the dark cauldron that is her artwork. It's art meets eco-conscious recycling meets piracy meets river rat culture.  

Take “Paint it Black,” a mixed media sculpture Rosenberg is showing at Janesville art gallery Raven's Wish. The piece, which oozes with references to the Rolling Stones' song “Paint it Black,” is adorned with shopworn radio components, tube amps, river driftwood, a small red door and a rearview mirror that reflects lyrics from the famous Stones song.  

“I find things like rust, broken glass and dead leaves pretty,” Rosenberg said while sipping espresso coffee on a Friday morning on the outdoor deck of Mocha Moments coffee shop in Janesville.

Rosenberg's body oozes with tattoo ink, and is adorned with lip and nose-piercings and spool earrings that jangle with dangling trinkets. Rosenberg herself is a work of pirate-art, her face a portrait of dusty beauty that matches the flavor of her work.

In provincial Janesville, Rosenberg and her artwork stick out like a thistle in a fruit bowl still life. That's the way she likes it.

The Janesville Craig High School graduate, who works at Basics Cooperative grocery store, is a vegan and an environmental and animal rights activist who owns two rescued parrots, Odie and Smurfie.

She is the kind of person who'll demonstrate outside a puppy mill pet store, standing on the hood of her bumper-stickered, beat-to-death Kia while brandishing a sharpened wooden staff.

“I speak my mind even when my voice shakes,” said Rosenberg, a 93-pound pixie who is strong enough to carry 80-pound boxes of grocery supplies at work. “I challenge people to shout me down. Somehow, they never do.”

Rosenberg's artistic ambition, to fall out of Janesville, keeps her at work day and night. She paints wall murals and advertising signs on contract. Often, those works push her away from her nature—the dim, dour side of art—and force her into the bright side.

“I've done flowers and fish in bathrooms. You've got to have bread and butter and try to make money, so the two things fight—the organic process, my art, and then the commercial job.”

Rosenberg's non-commercial work has a sensibility she says is tinged by death and human loss. An adopted child who comes from a two-generation background of artists, Rosenberg said she only got to know her biological father, Janesville woodcarver and leather smith Dan Boughton, in his later years, when he was riddled with terminal cancer.

His birthday is in November—the same day as Día de Muertos, the Mexican holiday that celebrates the dead.

Rosenberg has a spot along the Rock River where her father used to pick through the waters for artifacts. She thinks about her dad whenever she forges into the river in her stiletto heels.

A small-town artist with boundless ambition, Rosenberg's been showing work locally for a little over a year. Around Janesville, it's slow to sell.

“Here, art work and spending on artwork is a pretty low priority for people,” she said. “It's like a couture gown. It takes the right person to fall in love with a piece and pay. I don't mind waiting for the right person to find my work.”

Although Rosenberg lives and works in Janesville, she's had some luck getting her work to—as she says—fall out of town.

“You've got to get stuff out of town to sell it. I try to keep track of it all. Some of it I don't have a clue where it is,” she said.

In her personal journal, which is full of poetry, sketches and angry rants—she keeps a ledger of all the places she's sent artworks.

Rosenberg's got pieces showing in Florida art galleries in South Beach and Miami. Sleek and sexy sells in Miami, and she chose pieces for that market, including her “Nimble Neurosis in a Nutshell.” It's a clean, slick sculpture of a female acrobat in which she used recycled materials, including pistachio shells.

In the industrial city of Chicago, Rosenberg seeks to market her more grimy, dark pieces. She's also sold some paintings and sculptures in Norway.

This month, Rosenberg's work has taken a darker turn. She's been working up severed torsos, heads and body parts on contract at Shockwave Haunts, a haunted house running at the Fuzzy Pig, a boutique mall at 8660 Clover Valley Road south of Whitewater.

In November, Rosenberg is showing some of her newest pieces “Still Crazy After All These Years,” a show at the Beloit Fine Arts Incubator that she and her mother, Janesville artist Val Saxer, have organized.

Rosenberg plays the washboard and the piano and gives piano lessons to 3-year-old children, who she says are the only people in the world too young and full of wonder to be terrified or judgmental of her tattoos. She's an acrobat/gymnast, and a poet too. Next week, Rosenberg and Saxer are starting a series of painting classes to show new techniques in mixed media.

“Often, my plate is so loaded with projects, I need a side dish to fit more,” Rosenberg said.

She said she plans to sleep three or four hours a night the next two months as she continues to scour Janesville for lost, glimmering emeralds among the ashes.

If a misfit feather falls out of the sky in Janesville, Rosenberg likely will pick it up and turn it into something beautiful—a piece of fallout from the little city that fuels her love-hate, death-muse relationship with art and her life as a vegan starving artist.

“I'm doing everything I want to do now,” Rosenberg said. “I just have to figure out how to make more money doing it.”

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