New Kohler Art Reserve houses works from ‘Artist-Built Environments’
In the new Sheboygan Preserves art, Surrounded by hundreds of objects created by the late Mary Nohl, a visitor will find her Weathered Tool Wall, a carefully organized set of tools that cut, scrape, puncture, file, grate and modify wood and other materials. The tool wall is an artefact that puts the job back into the work of art.
Since the 1980s, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, led by the late Ruth DeYoung Kohler, collected and studied “artist-built environments”, from Nohl’s house and courtyard at Fox Point to sculptor Nek Chand’s rock garden in Chandigarh, India. He saved works from erosion and destruction. The Kohler also spurred scholarship on these transformative artists.
But the acquisition of over 25,000 pieces of artistic environments by 38 artists created a challenge for the Kohler these artists know well: what are you doing with all this art?
While the arts center has incorporated works into its exhibition calendar and loaned some to other institutions, much has remained in reserve.
The new $ 40 million art reserve, a three-story building on a leafy hillside near the Sheboygan River, makes Kohler’s entire collection open to visitors and academics. You won’t have to wait five years for a new exhibition at JMKAC to see the sculpted beasts of Levi Fisher Ames or the chicken bone thrones of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein. You can see them from Wednesday to Sunday at the art reserve, as often as you like. During your visit, you may also see a conservator working on a sculpture or a scholar examining a painting.
The art reserve will open its doors on June 26. Even a cursory visit should leave you in awe of Nohl and the other artists as prodigious creators who have maximized the raw materials at their disposal.
But wear comfortable shoes. You’ll want to take your time.
Thousands of objects, recreated spaces
Kohler defines the environments built by artists as “spaces and places that have been significantly transformed by an artist to embody and express aspects of their history, place and culture, ideas and imagination”. These environments can include hundreds or even thousands of objects as well as architectural and landscape elements.
For many reasons, including fragility and climate, “they can not always be saved where they were created,” Kohler notes in “Art Preserve Reader”, published on the occasion of the opening.
This great umbrella covers many different manufacturers. Consider the two artists from the Milwaukee County Art Preserve, Nohl from Fox Point and Von Bruenchenhein from Milwaukee. She studied at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago; he was self-taught. She had the means; he and his wife barely made a living. But both have turned their homes (and, in Nohl’s case, his courtyard) into artistic sites. (JMKAC continues to look after Nohl’s home and property at Fox Point, which is not open to the public.)
Often, these artists have erased any border between their artistic and living spaces. Vietnam War veteran Gregory Van Maanen (one of the few known living artists in the art reserve) made so many paintings, drawings, sculptures, skulls, amulets and objects that he struggled to live with in his New Jersey apartment, until the Kohlers acquired the entire job to date with a promise to keep it together.
The first floor of the Art Preserve features nine Wisconsin artists, including Door County bird sculptor Albert Zahn and Fred Smith, creator of Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips.
Why has Wisconsin produced so many artist-built environments with exterior elements? One theory, reported Kohler Associate Director Amy Horst, is that some were influenced by the Dickeyville Cave, built by Mathias Wernerus in the 1920s. Cortney Anderson Kramer’s research on concrete sculpture gardens in the Midwest, which also indicates that growth in tourism in Wisconsin in the 1930s and 1940s is a factor. (The Dickeyville cave is not part of the art reserve, but it is a member of the Wisconsin Wandering consortium of sites with which the Kohler collaborates.)
The amount of work of each Kohler artist varies. It has more than 8,800 photographs, paintings, sculptures and ceramics by Von Bruenchenhein. To display part of this work, he built a replica of his tiny house at the Art Preserve. Visitors look out the windows to see pieces of his art inside. The Kohler has all of the remaining creations of artist Menomonie Frank Oebser, playful kinetic sculptures of farm animals and people. But that’s only five works; the rest either disappeared or disintegrated.
The second floor exhibits broaden the image of the artists who create such environments. For example, it includes not only paintings and collages by Ray Yoshida, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but also many works that he has collected from over 100 other artists, including Howard Finster, Mose Tolliver. and Zahn from Wisconsin.
The Stella Waitzkin area of the Art Preserve partially recreates some of her apartment at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, including furniture and photos. His “Details of a Lost Library” is an installation of his polyester resin sculptures of old leather-bound books.
On the top floor, the Art Preserve presents immersive groupings of three artists: more than 150 concrete figures sculpted by Chand with encrusted stones, glass and rubble recovered from razed villages; “The Healing Machine” by Nebraska artist Emery Blagdon, a conglomerate of metal, string and other materials, much of which hangs from the ceiling or walls; and the Dr. Charles Smith African American Heritage Museum + Black Veterans Archives, over 200 figures representing black history. Smith is the other known living artist of the Art Preserve.
Kohler has invited (and will continue to invite) contemporary artists to respond to the collection with new works. Four artists, including Beth Lipman and Michelle Grabner of Sheboygan Falls, worked with materials experts at Kohler Co. to create themed toilets. Lipman’s “Wild Madder” incorporates ceramic copies of Sheboygan County flora; Grabner’s Patterns and Practicalities recreates the look of household fabrics.
Connection with the natural environment
In designing the Art Preserve, Denver Architects Tres Birds tried to maximize affinity and connection with the natural environment while protecting fragile works of art from potentially damaging exposure to direct sunlight.
The largely concrete building is topped with white and red Wisconsin pine lumber and strategically angled balsam fir, which feels like walking through a forest to enter this magical kingdom – and which provides sun protection for pieces of art. Geological locavores will be happy to learn that 80% of concrete is aggregated from locally sourced river rocks, according to Tres Birds.
The art reserve is a distinctly non-square building, with “coves” and fortuitous views of nature outside as you wander through the collections.
Suitable for a collection with many artists who have set up their work outdoors, the Art Preserve plans to develop a permanent outdoor sculpture garden on the grounds over the next five years, Horst said.
Ruth DeYoung Kohler collaborated with the construction team on a playful construction detail. Hobo symbols are encrusted in the walls of the stairwell, simple graphic representations such as a capital “M” which denotes the message “Tell a Hard-Luck Story Here”. The “Art Preserve Reader,” released to mark the opening, links these symbols to the childhood experience of DeYoung Kohler who saw them and spoke with bums in Sheboygan.
DeYoung Kohler died in November at the age of 79, but she was able to tour the new building every week until shortly before her death and saw much of the art installed, according to Horst. The facility could have opened to the public earlier, but the creative team took advantage of the pandemic to polish the site.
The Art Preserve is located at 3636 Lower Falls Road, Sheboygan, approximately 3 miles from the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. The first visiting hours will be 10 am to 4 pm Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 am-7pm Thursday, 11 am-4pm Sunday. Entries will be timed. The Kohler suggests making reservations at jmkac.org/art-preserve or by calling (920) 453-0346. Free entry; donations will be accepted at reception.
For now, masks will be mandatory, social distancing encouraged and the direction of movement through the building will be indicated by signs. Horst said the Art Preserve will closely follow CDC guidelines, so those restrictions may soon be relaxed.