ARTIST-ENVIRONMENT BUILDERS COLLECTION
Since the 1970s, the Arts Center has been involved in the preservation, study, and exhibition of work by vernacular artists and has worked closely with Kohler Foundation, Inc. (KFI) to preserve the objects and environments they have made. Artist-environment builders transform their homes, yards, or other aspects of their personal surroundings into multifaceted works of art that, in vernacular ways, embody and express the locale—time, era, place—in which each of them lived and worked. The artists’ locales, histories, ways of learning, and reasons for art-making are widely varied, though they share in having a powerful connection to home-as-art-environment; each expresses the ineffable qualities of place according to nativist understandings and insights.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Han Imperalis, No. 626 (detail), 1957; oil on fiberboard; 25 x 25 in.; John Michael Kohler Arts Center Collection.
Along with in-depth work to preserve art environments came the realization that not all of them could be retained on their original site. The Arts Center, following the conviction that objects made as elements of an art environment relate to one another and bolster overall meaning in a way that isolated components do not, made caring for large bodies of inter-related objects from dismantled art-environments the primary thrust of its collecting efforts. Each painting, sculpture, drawing, or photograph was initially envisioned, by the artist, as an element of a comprehensive and dynamic installation and, furthermore, her or his home. The Arts Center strives to maintain and convey the connectivity of art objects created in this specific way and offer, through documentation of the original art-environment and carefully researched exhibitions and publications, expansive views into the lives of artists situated within a tapestry of artistic and cultural heritage.
James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden (site detail, Native American family tableau, Black River, Town of Wilson, Wisc.), c. 1942-1957; John Michael Kohler Arts Center Collection.
Today, holding well over 10,000 individual works of art by 27 vernacular environment builders, the Arts Center is the world’s leading center for research and presentation of this complex and unique work and is the only institution to make it the focus of its collecting efforts.
Levi Fisher Ames, Ernest Hüpeden, Albert Zahn, Carl Peterson, Clarence Powell, Sabato Rodia, Jacob Baker, James Tellen, Nick Engelbert, Peter Jodacy, Fred Smith, John Ehn, David Butler, Frank Oebser, Emery Blagdon, Loy Bowlin, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Mary Nohl, Stella Waitzkin, Nek Chand Saini, Tom Every, Dr. Charles Smith
Road Trips: Wandering Wisconsin
Publication: Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds; Built Environments of Vernacular Artists
Essays on the culture, history, and nature of environment builders, including details on the preservation efforts of Kohler Foundation, Inc. and chapters on each of the featured artists. Richly illustrated throughout. By Leslie Umberger, Erika Doss, Ruth DeYoung Kohler, Lisa Stone, and Jane Bianco.