SHEBOYGAN, WI — The new Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Art Center, designed by Michael M. Moore of Denver’s Tres Birds, is a building fronted by giant timbers that soar to impossible heights. Wooden beams, ranging from 20 to 50 feet tall, lean, tip and tower like a forest. It is as much a sculpture as a structure. As the nation’s first storage facility and museum dedicated to art environments, this unique institution will formally open to the public on June 26.
Ruth DeYoung Kohler II, matriarch and former director of Sheboygan’s John Michael Kohler Arts Center from 1972 to 2016, began contemplating this new museum 15 years ago. She saw the need to house the art center’s growing collection of work by environment builders. Art environments are homes, yards, or places creatively transformed by individuals who traded society’s placating forces for the potency of invention. Like the new 56,000 square foot museum built from humble materials such as sticks, rocks, concrete, and earth, the approximately 35 practitioners presented here also erected monuments from modest means.
Ruth Kohler saw most of the museum materialize before she died last year at age 79. She had spent many lunches and dinners at a table with Moore, imagining how form and function would ignite in this building. Speaking over email to Hyperallergic, Moore recalled Ruth’s reaction to seeing design renderings: “These drawings do not look like a building…and I like that,” she once said.
Criss-crossing shadows and a tangle of wind accompany one’s entrance through the front timbers. This passage could not be more transformational (from daylight to wonderment). Inside, the drama subsides as the building recedes politely to give full stage to the artists presented through immersive tableaux. Overall, the Art Preserve’s mission is based on a paradox: How does one take art that has been removed from the life force of its original site and reconstitute its magic in an institutional setting? It cannot be done. But if it were not attempted, these fragile, unsanctioned art expressions would have perished. Many of these rogue environments were barely tolerated in their lifetimes as weird curiosities. Coteries of dedicated fans, often fellow artists, kept them just barely on the map, until the Kohler Foundation was able to swoop in to protect and preserve through complex personal and civic negotiations. They often went to extreme means such as dismantling and moving Roy Bowlin’s entire glitter encrusted home from Mississippi to Sheboygan.
Installation view of the first floor of Art Preserve
The Preserve approaches this paradox of preservation in multiple, thoughtful ways, allowing the viewer to both admire the artwork while also remaining conscious of curatorial decisions regarding framing, presentation, and conservation. The first floor focuses on Midwestern environments. For unknown reasons, Wisconsin was a hotbed of art environments ranging from grotto builders such as Father Wagner (Rudolph) and Father Matthias Wernerus (Dickeyville) to Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (Milwaukee), Mary Nohl (Milwaukee), Fred Smith (Phillips), Levi Fisher Ames (Monroe), Nick Engelbert (Hollandale), Frank Oebser (Menomonie), and Herman Rusch (Cochrane). Positioning objects amid flat files and racks of vertical storage, this floor manages to combine an almost clinical orderliness with the bumptious abundance and soaring invention of these makers.
Von Bruenchenhein’s home is re-created to display cabinets of his oven baked clay vases and crowns and his chicken bone miniature chairs. A closet-sized room presents looping projections of the glamorous pin-up girl photographs he took of his wife Marie. Upon exit, a sliding metal storage rack holds row upon row of his apocalyptic paintings, with multiple additional layers looming behind. This abundance is both exhilarating and bittersweet: the protection of the paintings is of course beneficial for preservation but I also longed for them to float messily through collectors’ hands and auction catalogs. Von Bruenchenhein was a fervent maker, unrestrained by his scant income. Like many environment builders, he designed his own kingdom out of scraps. Herein lies the philosophical undercurrent of the Art Preserve: to celebrate ingenuity in the face of adversity by providing a path of radical invention, free of consumer trends.
Re-creating rooms that suggest the original environments is one strategy, but just as often the Art Preserve adheres to more conventional display methods. This shift in rhythm ensures that the Preserve never recalls a theme-park. It keeps the visitor alert for what lies around corners or under a stairwell such as the glorious weirdness of Annie Hooper’s Biblical dolls that crouch in a shadowy mass. There are 2,000 of them stored here. The second floor expands the definition of ‘“art environment” to the self-styled apartment of trained artist Stella Waitzkin (1920–2003) who cast her books and other household objects in polyester resin, living luxe in her own wax museum at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. Nearby we walk through the influential Chicago based artist and professor Ray Yoshida’s (1930–2009) home collection, gathered from decades of flea market finds. In a corner near the windows are storage racks lined with Jesse Howard’s (1895–1983) hand painted, religious and political signs. This jangling visual chorus made me long to have visited his 20-acre property in Fulton, Missouri, or wish it still survived.
Installation view of works by Stella Waitzkin at the Art Preserve, 2021
The third and top floor of the Preserve presents Emery Blagdon’s Healing Machine, which originated in the 1950s in a Nebraska shed. A dimly lit, barn-wood room shelters this tinkerer’s densely hung delicate metal, tin foil, wire, mobile-like objects (which were meant to heal through their magnetic fields). By now a tired visitor, you might think there could be no more sensory splendor. Then, a sprawling parade of 150 concrete, glass and pottery shard men, women and bird sculptures by Nek Chand (1924–2015) meets an army of 200 concrete enslaved individuals, Vietnam vets, lovers, singers, and activists by Dr. Charles Smith (b. 1940) in a crescendo of worlds meeting worlds. Caboom! And so it goes that this type of artwork that has been historically devalued, misunderstood, or just ignored now has a home.
The Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (3636 Lower Falls Road, Sheboygan, WI) will open to the public on June 26.