Published: June 22, 2021
Talk to Laura Bickford, curator at the Art Preserve, the newly opened branch of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center devoted to exhibiting artist’s environments, and the conversation will eventually lead to the concept of totality. The Art Preserve is the first and only exhibition space in the United States devoted to a multitude of artist’s environments, or those places that blur the line between studio, gallery and home for artists whose creations spill forth from their dwellings. The idea of totality is representative of an all-encompassing refuge for these creators who manifested their visions into extraordinary and unique landscapes. As the Art Preserve opens in Sheboygan, Wisc., on June 26, we sat down with Bickford to learn about this unique wonderland and the machinations that set it in motion.
When did the museum put its first foot forward in establishing the preserve?
It was always a dream of Ruth DeYoung Kohler’s. From the beginning with the Arts Center, she knew she wanted all of our artist-built environment collections to be shown together at one time. Those conversations started in earnest in 2007 with an exhibition and catalog called “Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists.” That was the start of this effort, and then the recession happened and it got put on hold. Around 2016, this conversation started again. We started searching for a site, bought the land, got architects and went from there.
So this has Ruth Kohler all over it?
Yes, in so many ways. Her passion for artist-built environments, since her first exposure in the late 1970s, pervades the collection. Just the flexibility and creativity that is required to deal with collections and artwork like this has seeped into every facet of the Arts Center. It’s a very experimental and collaborative organization across the board that values individual expression. That is all from Ruth’s vision and world perspective.
What happened to get Ruth moving in the late 1970s?
That was Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park. In her writings, Ruth talks about growing up, taking these weekend drives with her family to find these vernacular expressions. She talks about the Virgin Mary bathtub shrines – they’re still common – and she remembers driving around looking for these. She always had this curiosity to take the back road, the idea that great things made by ordinary people could be found everywhere. So her first exposure to an artist-built environment was Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park, she met him and was a deep admirer of his work. She knew Fred until he died and was involved in the ongoing care of that site.
Is Fred Smith represented in the Art Preserve?
Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park is still extant in Phillips, Wisc. In the Preserve, we own three large-scale sculptures of his, and then we have some smaller components. As a nod and homage to Fred Smith and the tone of the building, the first thing visitors encounter when they enter the Preserve is a functioning bar that was modeled from photos of Fred Smith’s bar. The back of the bar features some of his relief carvings. Visitors can sit down for a beer, brewed by a Milwaukee artist with a Milwaukee brewery. Right away, we’re upending people’s expectations of the space they’re walking into – the first thing they encounter is a bar. Bar culture in Wisconsin is huge, and Fred was a tavern keeper. Bars are often places of communality and socializing, so it’s a way of making people comfortable. The Art Preserve is a place of exploration, community and curiosity, it’s not stuffy in any way.
What is the central mission to the Art Preserve?
The Preserve is a laboratory designed to preserve, interpret and display our collection of artist-built environments. The Art Preserve is part of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, whose mission is to generate a creative exchange between artists and the public.
Are there any other environment-centric museums? How does one acquire an environment?
This is the first of its kind, Ruth was really filling a need and that’s what the Arts Center has continued to do. The Arts Center was actually a non-collecting institution by design until 1983, when Eugene Von Bruenchenhein died and his work was brought to the attention of Ruth. But not only the work, also the dire circumstances of his widow, Marie. There was an urgency to simultaneously help Marie and save the bulk of his work. Instead of waiting, Ruth stepped in and made that acquisition. From the beginning, it’s been that way. Most of these sites come to the center’s attention when they’re under threat. There’s not a lot of time and someone has to step in. The Arts Center has been working with Kohler Foundation, Inc., to do that work for decades.
What can we learn by looking at artists in their environments that we can’t by looking at their work removed?
The kind of criteria for entering these works is the idea of totality, the relationship of each part to the whole and then the relationship between the parts. I think for many of these artists it was a total reimagining of all aspects of the world. When you start separating individual pieces of that, you can get an idea or a suggestion of what they were saying, but in order to truly step into the world they created, you have to have a bulk of the work there. For most of these artists, they didn’t think they were making a piece. They were making a total work of art, a painting or a painting-like object, but they weren’t thinking of them as a discreet object meant to be separated. It was a total viewpoint.
When you get a critical mass of these environments, you start to see relationships and patterns and it starts to become an established way of working. On the building’s second floor you can stand in front of The Beautiful Holy Jewel Home, an entire house covered in glitter by Loy Bowlin. From behind that, you can start to see the relocation of the New York studio of Lenore Tawney. In this building you can start to see a relationship between the environments and forge connections, it serves to break down the art historical boundaries that we’ve created.
What kind of relationship do these artists develop towards their environment?
For many of them, there’s a deep sense of homemaking – to make a place that feels like home. Almost all of these were originally domestic spaces. The idea of home takes on a very layered meaning. It was this place of living and making, and they can’t be separated. Most of these artists don’t go to the studio the way other artists do. They wake up in the place of making, both physically and in the mindset. Some of the artists were dissatisfied or discontent by what was available or offered to them and they chose to redesign or recreate something that suited them in accordance with what they wanted or believed.
Are philosophies apparent in the environments?
For all of them, you could interrogate some kind of philosophical viewpoint of what the artists were doing. Lenore Tawney was a weaver, that was the work she practiced. She likened weaving to practices of meditation, so her apartment/studio was very calm, full of natural materials, stacked rock, wood and leather furniture, not a lot of bright pieces, a lot of bones and eggshells. She made a lot of her own clothes. She had this whole philosophy of slowing down, taking stock, deliberateness, being present in the moment and the physical world.
You could go to the other end by looking at Eddie Owens Martin, St EOM, he was living in New York and received a vision to start a new religion called Pasaquoyanism. He moved back to Georgia and converted his family home into a colorful temple compound to practice this religion.
What kinds of layers exist in an environment?
Generally, we kind of think of them as monumental, either in size or scale or quantity of objects. They’re designed to be permanent or semipermanent. There are three main geographical hotbeds across the United States: the Southeast, the Southwest and the Midwest. There are many environments outside of those areas, but those have a concentration. In the Midwest, many are made of concrete, either adorned, encrusted or embellished with glass, stones or found objects or painted. The first floor of the Art Preserve is all about the Midwest tradition.
Why was concrete so common in the Midwest?
There isn’t one definitive reason for that, but there are a few suspected reasons. There’s a place called the Dickeyville Grotto, made by Father Matthias Wernerus, a German Catholic priest. He made this in the grotto tradition of Germany, it’s a large-scale shrine made of embellished concrete. It was a huge tourist attraction coinciding with the advent of the automobile. At the same time in the 1940s and 1950s, there was widespread availability of concrete. So, in the Midwest you have this Germanic tradition that after the farming season, when winter came, people would make these grottos and grotto-inspired objects. Artists like Fred Smith or Madeline Buol did this.
Did Southern environment builders use a common medium like Midwest concrete?
It’s a bit more diverse, perhaps because the South has a bit more cultural diversity. There is a huge tradition in the South of African American yard shows. There are a lot of different kinds of yard shows: some involve arranging trees or rocks, or swept yards, more ephemeral. There exists a huge swath of religious visionary sites in the South, like Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden or W.C. Rice’s Cross Garden, which served to proselytize in that Evangelical tradition.
Is there a line drawn between studio and environment? How are they alike and different?
I don’t think there’s a hard line. Generally, these environments are places where artists make art, which is essentially what a studio is. But they’re not just a studio, they’re lived workspace – the physical structure of the place they’re making work becomes integral to the work that’s being made. In our collection, we have two artists who had the most typical idea of a studio: Lenore Tawney and Ray Yoshida. Yoshida is probably more famous as a teacher than a painter, he taught most of the Chicago Imagists. In addition to being a teacher and painter, he was a voracious collector as he put together his apartment’s ecosystem. He had this democratic, nonhierarchical way of collecting. A Jim Nutt next to a hand-woven basket next to a Mexican papier mache work. They all lived together and worked as source material. He lived and worked in his house, the studio was a place where he kept his paintings and materials, but he didn’t travel somewhere separate to work.
How many sites has the Kohler Foundation preserved? Are they all on show?
We have representations of environments by 38 artists. For some of those, we have works that number in the thousands, others we have only four or so. They’re all on show.
I imagine some of those conservation and preservation quests are fraught with struggle.
Once we get a work into our collection, it has already been conserved, usually by the Kohler Foundation. Our struggle is then to preserve this work in perpetuity, and nearly everything is a conservation challenge. Very few things were made with fine art or archival materials. Bowlin’s Beautiful Holy Jewel Home, this house is adorned with construction paper, Elmer’s Glue and glitter. As anyone can attest, as soon as you use construction paper, it fades. Almost every surface of the house is held together with Elmer’s glue, which is chemically eating the paper – glitter falls off, the paper fades, the structure wants to sag. We have four original walls, including the drywall, but the rest was disassembled into about 700 pieces. It will be a challenge forever to figure out how to preserve it.
Conservation is a sort of rescue mission, then?
It is. A triumph here was with Emery Blagdon’s Healing Machine, he was working in rural Nebraska on a project behind his house with hundreds of mobiles made with baling wire, paper and cardboard. He was trying to harness the electromagnetic powers of earth to cure cancer. The local pharmacist, Dan Dryden, became his friend and knew about his art. He had moved away and visited shortly after Blagdon died, and surreptitiously there was an auction the next day of Blagdon’s estate. He bought it all and spent years paying for it, storing it, and trying to get anyone to pay attention to it. He was just there at the right time and place, believed in his convictions and knew this was important. And that’s how a lot of these get saved, it’s one person or a group of people who believe wholeheartedly that these matter as they fight to save them.
Walk me through some of the installations.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein is one of our most well-known artists. He is prominent in the art market and has been included in a number of exhibitions and art fairs, but we have the bulk of his work. We have thousands of photographs, dozens of sculptures, bone thrones. Being able to see how multifaceted his work was, and how complete and total his vision was, it is really powerful. It changes the understanding of his work.
It is hard to describe the power of Blagdon’s Healing Machine. The way we have installed it is a completely immersive environment. It is in a self-contained shed and is totally transportive. Everyone says it feels different in there. If people take away anything, it is that experience.
There are many examples of artists throughout the building where we are the only known repository of that work. Frank Oebser was a farmer who built his Little Program in an outbuilding on his farm featuring dozens of mechanized animals in a county fair theme: a farmer milking a cow or a big bird flapping its wings. We have all that is left: five sculptures. That’s all that remains of his lifetime of work, and that kind of responsibility for the institution is exciting. For our visitors, I hope work like this has the sense of making the everyday into magic. Creating the potential for ordinary things to be extraordinary, and it feels real. You can make wherever you live to be whatever you want it to be. Although it might not have been validated broadly, these are people who have made things that matter – important things that speak to the heart of our country and the time and place they were living and working. In Oebser’s case, that happened to be in Menomonie, Wisconsin.
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