In 1967, a twenty-six-year-old Ruth DeYoung Kohler II took a road trip north to Price County, Wisconsin with Frank “Jake” Jacobson, the founder of what is now Jacobson/Rost advertising agency, to see something he’d insisted they check out. As they approached the Rock Garden Tavern, she saw a giant concrete Paul Bunyan, approaching twenty feet in height, along with more than 230 other concrete sculptures, sculptures crafted from concrete, rock, beer-bottle glass and other humble materials. Cowboys and Native Americans, frontiersmen and farmers, animals found in the surrounding Northwoods, even a full team of Clydesdales pulling a Budweiser beer wagon: All were created by retired lumberjack Fred Smith, the tavern’s owner, who called his menagerie the Wisconsin Concrete Park. “It changed my life,” Kohler said. “I mean, I’d been to museums all over kingdom come, in Europe, the United States and Canada… I don’t think I’d ever seen anything that made my heart sing, in his words, ‘It’s gotta be in ya.’”
“The first few minutes with Fred—and a glimpse of his concrete wagoner with cast-glass Red Crown gasoline ‘hat,’ his poignant Sacajawea, Mable the Milker with her not-so-compliant cow, and the curious concrete deer peering from behind trees and shrubs—transformed the way I thought about art,” she said.
This love for vernacular art was already inside Ruth. When she was a young girl, her father liked to blow off steam by piling his family into the car and going on drives in search of bathtub shrines constructed by rural Wisconsinites, the more elaborate the better. It was an obsession that made sense: her father, Herbert Vollrath Kohler Sr., was the leader of one of the largest and oldest manufacturers of bathroom fixtures in the world.
When Fred Smith died in 1976, the most likely outcome would have been that his heirs would liquidate the property, and sell or even demolish his artworks, depending on marketability. But Ruth had a better idea, and was in a position to act. She had become the director of the then-fledgling John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) in 1972, and two years later, she also chaired the Wisconsin Arts Board. Using the resources of the Kohler Foundation, she led the effort to buy the property and the art, restore it, and turn it over to Price County, where a foundation was created to maintain it to this day as a tourist attraction, a high point on the “Wandering Wisconsin” map of art environments.
The passion for preserving entire art environments shaped the life and career of Ruth Kohler, culminating with the opening of the $40-million 56,000-square-foot Art Preserve in Sheboygan, Wisconsin this summer. Expect to see some of Fred Smith’s concrete sculptures on display. But Ruth won’t be there to witness the occasion—she died last November 14. (Her quotes in this story are drawn from videos and other documents.) Her presence, though, will be in spirit and more, as JMKAC is opening a simultaneous exhibition in the old John Michael Kohler home that pays tribute to her life and influence by recreating her environment with art, furniture, books and objects from her residence.
Halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, along the Lake Michigan shore, lies the quintessential Wisconsin town of Sheboygan, the very name of which sounds custom-made to roll off the tongue of the characters in the classic “Saturday Night Live” skit “Bill Swerski’s Superfans” when discussing the Packers, arch-foes of the Bears, up in the land of the Cheeseheads. The town had its big pop-culture moment in the John Hughes movie “Home Alone,” when John Candy, playing Gus Polinski, the Polka King of the Midwest, declared, “We’re very big in Sheboygan.”
Sheboygan prides itself in its status as the “Bratwurst Capital of the World,” an honor earned in competition in 1970, and for which it has constructed an oath of allegiance that is proclaimed on its municipal website, and prominently displayed in its visitors center:
“I, (insert name here), do solemnly swear before all brat-certified sausage makers, bakers and backyard chefs, that I vow to respect the brat ritual, with all its rights and privileges endowed upon its practice, and I will hold steadfast to its meaning and tradition.
“With resolution I proclaim the promise to always fry brats, to always serve them on a hard roll and to always protect them from non-sanctioned preparation techniques. I hereby swear that I denounce pre-boiling. I denounce overdressing with pickled cabbage and other offensive forms of condimentation. I denounce the oblong bun, and I will deny all temptation to engage in inter-relations between brat and cheese rituals.
“It is my duty and intent to become now and forever a pillar of strength in the foundation of the Brat Capital of the World, and with that duty and intent, I shall never, even in the shadow of the face of death, deny a brat eater a beer.”
No word on whether the mayor swears the oath upon inauguration. But given that the largest sausage brand in the United States, Johnsonville, remains a family-owned company in next-door Sheboygan Falls, perhaps he should. (The other well-known brand, Sheboygan Sausage Company, is now owned by Rosen’s Diversified, Inc, in Fairmont, Minnesota.)
When you stop by the Sheboygan Visitor Center, an operation of impressive size for a city of just under 50,000 residents that opened during the pandemic, you see that it also proclaims itself the “Malibu of the Midwest.” This unlikely title is derived from its status as one of the best places for surfing on Lake Michigan. (Yes, it is a thing.) But the association with the California town where wealth and celebrity fill the air hints at another part of the Sheboygan region’s identity: as the home of the Kohler Company and its sprawling influence on employment, travel and leisure, and arts and culture.
This story begins and ends with Kohler—the company, the family, the village that bears its name. And that story begins in 1865 when an Austrian immigrant and child of successful Minnesota dairy farmers, John Michael Kohler, moves to Chicago to become a traveling salesman. His travels took him to Sheboygan, where he met and eventually married Lillie Vollrath, the daughter of a successful industrialist. Before long, he, along with partners, took over his father-in-law’s factory and, over time, he and his heirs built the Kohler Company into a powerhouse in the design world, manufacturing high-end bathroom and kitchen fixtures alongside a growing array of complementary businesses. Today, David Kohler, the great-grandson of John Michael, runs a company with annual revenues estimated at $6 billion, with 31,000 employees and forty-nine factories on six continents. There’s even a Mount Kohler in Antarctica, named for Ruth and her brother Herb, as a gift from their father, a benefactor of the expedition that mapped it.
In the 1940s, a young Bernard Langlais set out on a path that led him into the epicenter of the art world. The Maine native’s trajectory included studying painting at the Corcoran School of Art, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and the Brooklyn Museum School, as well as a Fulbright Scholarship to Oslo, Norway. When he settled in New York City, he was included in seminal group shows, including at the Museum of Modern Art, and he caught the attention of the gallerist Leo Castelli, who signed the emerging artist to a roster that would become the best in the world, ranging from abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly and Willem de Kooning, to the likes of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and just about everyone who charted in American art in the sixties and seventies. Langlais made abstract work that stood alongside his peers, but for one difference: his principal medium was wood, not canvas.
“At some point, he kind of feels the pull of Maine,” curator Laura Bickford says, “and starts wanting to go back to Maine, and kind of live in Maine, and this really shifts his work.” He moved away from abstraction, becoming more representational. This shift was already underway when he had his 1961 solo exhibition at Castelli, epitomized by the work, “The Monitor or the Merrimack,” which, in using wood and screws to evoke the side of a ship, was abstract by historical standards, but not where Castelli wanted him. “And Leo Castelli kind of slapped his hand and said, ‘This isn’t selling, no one wants this,’” Bickford says. “So Bernard Langlais put a huge seagull on it and shipped it back to him and said, ‘Is this what you wanted?’ And that was the end of their relationship.” Langlais retitled the revised work “Gull on Pile,” and pulled his work from the gallery, writing to the dealer, “It seems from indications of the last months that the pictures have not been selling well and it is natural that I should prefer more movement.”
If you were to visit the ninety-acre property of Bernard and Helen Langlais in the early seventies, you would have been surrounded by more than a hundred large-scale sculptures, mostly of animals, but also caricatures of folks like Richard Nixon, all rendered in wood. But that was just a fraction of the works he made there across a ten-year period, including paintings, sculptures and wood reliefs. The vastness of the output, the out-of-favor nature of the subjects, and the overall whimsy of the environment might fool you into thinking you’d discovered an outsider artist. Langlais was anything but. In fact, he’d been inside at the highest levels, and chose a different path.
Bernard Langlais, currently the subject of the first of two planned exhibitions of the artist’s work at JMKAC, left behind the Maine property and more than 3,000 artworks when he died at the age of fifty-six in 1977. His widow later donated the estate to Colby College, which owns the largest collection of the artist’s work. Colby subsequently gave 3,000 works to the Kohler Foundation, which is in the process of restoring and then redistributing most of the work to institutions in Maine and around the country. The Art Preserve will be one of those institutions. Hannah W. Blunt, who curated the current exhibition at JMKAC, said in a video made several years ago,”The way that Kohler works is they come in and take temporary ownership of a property and do great terrific conservation work and basically prepare the site to be gifted to a long-term steward who will care for it and provide public access.”
Thanks to the Kohlers in all their manifestations—family, company, foundation, art museum—Sheboygan punches far above its weight in the visual art world, and will soon be even stronger. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center was established in 1967 in the company founder’s house in downtown Sheboygan; when Ruth Kohler took the helm a few years later, she led a building growth spurt and a focus of the mission that today has become a regional museum of 100,000 square feet (more than triple the size of Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center) reaching 160,000 visitors a year and mounting a dozen or so exhibitions of contemporary art annually, while operating the country’s first arts-based pre-school, a summer arts festival and a vigorous performing arts program. When I asked the curators what institutions might be of comparable size and ambition in the Midwest, they cited a leading contemporary art institution with an international brand, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The Walker is more than twice the physical size of JMKAC and attracts about four times the visitors, but the new Art Preserve will go a long way to narrowing both gaps. And according to IRS filings required of all nonprofits, the institution is financially strong. In 2018, the most recent year available, JMKAC reported $13.5 million in revenue versus $7.9 million in expenses, with net assets of more than $76 million. (By comparison, Chicago’s much higher-profile and larger Museum of Contemporary Art had $22.4 million in revenue that year versus $23.8 million in expenses, with net assets of $171.5 million. The Milwaukee Art Museum, the largest in Wisconsin, has comparable numbers to the MCA.) This little museum tucked away in a small town has some deep pockets indeed.
With the opening of the Art Preserve, the Arts Center will be able to focus its exhibition strategy entirely on contemporary art, which is good; the exhibitions I saw on my visit were impressive in scope and structure. JMKAC creates an overarching theme for each year—this year it’s “Return to the Real”—and then assembles group and solo shows to fit. “High Touch,” for example, brings together artists who work from digital sources to craft tangible objects and installations. And Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola’s “Magic City” delivers a powerful exploration of Black America to a town with an overwhelmingly white population.
In late-forties and fifties West Allis, Wisconsin, a baker named Eugene von Bruenchenhein, with his wife Marie as his muse and frequent subject, spent forty years converting their home into an art fantasia, one that they kept to themselves until his death in 1983. He made thousands of elaborately staged pinup photos of Marie. He created surreal paintings that got at the very essence of the atomic age that was gripping the nation with fear and opportunity. He made crazy cool little sculptural thrones and towers out of poultry bones. He worked with clay, with poetry. And so on. When I visited his environment at the Art Preserve, I was astonished by the quality and variety of his work. If he’d been inclined to play the game, any one of his art practices would have made him an art-world sensation in his lifetime. As it is, he’s one of outsider art’s superstars.
When he died, a friend contacted Ruth Kohler and she visited his wife Marie at her home. If Ruth’s encounter with Fred Smith and his Wisconsin Concrete Park sixteen years earlier was the spark for her, and consequently the JMKAC’s passion for this type of work, the visit to Eugene von Bruenchenhein’s home started a fire.
“Without doubt, that first visit was the most astonishing and moving experience in the arts that I have had. Surrounded by relief heads of painted concrete—Asian warriors and royalty that served as sentinels—the Von Bruenchenhein home was painted inside and out in large shapes of vibrant colors: turquoise, bright blue, phthalo green, deep yellow, salmon, pink, and moody reds,” she wrote. “The tiny foyer was stacked floor to ceiling with Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes filled with chicken bones from a nearby restaurant’s refuse—all to be used for Eugene’s exotic thrones and towers. Marie, then age sixty-two, allowed us to wander at will; seeing the immensity and power of Eugene’s output left me forgetting to breathe.”
In the wake of this visit, the JMKAC eventually acquired 6,000 Von Bruenchenhein objects—setting the stage for what is now the Art Preserve, thirty-eight years later.
Situated three miles from JMKAC and just two miles from Kohler on a thirty-eight-acre campus, the Art Preserve greets visitors as a stunning work of sculptural architecture created by Denver-based Tres Birds. The three-story, 56,000-square-foot center built into a hillside is enclosed in its own forest of vertical beams that create a sense of modernity that co-exists with nature—not such an easy proposition. Interior floors are spare and open, with ample natural light pouring in from vistas shaped from the inside by the angular timbers of the building’s design.
Everything about the space feels connected to the natural world and disconnected from other art spaces. In an interview included in the press kit, Tres Birds says, “The building is designed to shade itself. The plan of the building undulates in reaction to the hillside on the site, the trees on the hillside, and the annual path of the sun. Direct sunlight is kept to a minimum to protect the art. The building’s shape engages the hillside in a non-rectilinear fashion. This was done to have moments where the building protrudes into nature and then recesses so that nature can enter. Tres Birds was tasked with creating a space that provides different experiences and inspires a sense of wonder. This was achieved by creating unexpected corners, spaces, differing proportions of rooms and specific views to the natural world outside.”
The open floor plans, and the ample room for growth or use of outdoor space in other ways—perhaps an entire house could be moved onto the grounds, for example, if the situation warrants—speaks to the opportunity to reinvent the idea of a museum that this new enterprise presents. And the curators are thinking about this. In the debut publication, “Art Preserve Reader, Vol. 1,” they write, of their “exhibition strategies”:
“Contemporary artist commissions, public programs, and ongoing reinterpretations of the collections challenge the presumed neutrality of museums. Institutions are made up of people, and at any given time, the decisions to display certain works to the public often represent hours of private internal conversations, research and bias. As a platform for experimentation, the Art Preserve aims to examine the assumptions that dictate museum practices and the authority of the ‘institutional voice.'”
I visited the Art Preserve at the end of April, on the final weekend of its four-month preview before it closed for all of May and most of June to put finishing touches in place before its June 26 grand opening. I was not sure whether this idea of a museum preview was an interrogation of traditional practices around institutional “reveals” or simply an accommodation to the pandemic and that way it upset timetables. So while I expect some installations and aspects of the place will be more finished upon its opening, there’s an intentional rawness to the space. Art storage is a visible part of the exhibition space, indicating that there is always more to any story. Ongoing research and restoration projects, like the preservation challenges presented by Loy Bowlin’s “The Beautiful Holy Jewel Home,” are conducted in the open, with explanatory text. In fact, curator Bickford described the Art Preserve as such: “We don’t really think of these as exhibitions. It’s just a visible storage space.”
Ray Yoshida was the insider’s insider. The Hawaiian native landed in Chicago after the Korean War, in a particularly fertile time for creativity here. He started teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1959, and stayed there into the 2000s. As an artist, he was associated with the Imagists; as a teacher he was considered a mentor of many of the best-known of that group. His students included Roger Brown, Jiim Nutt and Christina Ramberg. In his apartment at 1944 Wood Street, his passions for collecting art and ephemera were manifest. He was drawn to comics, which appeared in his work, African masks, folk art, vernacular paraphernalia and all forms of creation of self-taught artists. His finds surrounded him in his home, in carefully arranged groupings, and informed his work and his teaching. (He described his collecting impulse as “afflicted by this affliction” in a short video tour of his home made around 1990.) Not long after his death in 2009, most of the contents of his apartment, including many of his original works, were acquired by JMKAC—some 2,600 or so objects and artworks.
“When Ray died,” Bickford says, “I think there would have been tons of interest in some parts of his collection because he had a lot of Imagist work, a lot of really valuable outsider—awful word—work. I think a lot of museums would have liked to cherry-pick specific pieces but the Arts Center was interested in it as a collection, in everything. And so that is what we were able to talk to his family about. Ray didn’t care that it was a Roger Brown, Ray cared that this Roger Brown looked really good next to this tin man, and we will put the tin man and the Roger Brown together forever.” At the Art Preserve, a section of his apartment has been recreated—not beds, bathrooms and sinks—but rather desks along long curving walls, lined with shelves filled with masks and other objects.
Upon entering the Art Preserve, you are greeted by a long bar. At one end, someone sells you a ticket or a book or a postcard from the highly curated offerings. (There’s no gift shop; that resides downtown at JMKAC. All of the books sold here are directly connected to the artists on display.) At the other end of the bar, is, well, a bar. John Riepenhoff, founder of The Green Gallery in Milwaukee has a project called The Beer Endowment that brews beers for artist-run spaces; he’s creating a beer for the Art Preserve inspired by the artist Fred Smith, who also ran a tavern.
The first floor is concerned with artists of the upper Midwest: Frank Oebser, Albert Zahn, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein and most of the artists who make up the “Wandering Wisconsin” trail. The second floor challenges conventions that associate art environments with rural settings or with masculinity by featuring big-city artists like Ray Yoshida and Lenore Tawney and their Chicago and New York City apartments and the third floor offers three fully immersive environments by Emery Blagdon, Nek Chand and Dr. Charles Smith. All told, thirty artists are represented, drawn from the Art Preserve’s holdings of 25,000 artworks.
This new museum and the JMKAC are overseen by just two curators, senior curator Kaytie Johnson, who arrived at the museum in February 2020 after a career at university museums, and curator Laura Bickford, who has been with JMKAC since September 2018. Museum director Sam Gappmeyer took the reins from Ruth Kohler when she stepped down to focus on the Art Preserve in November 2016. All in all, the leadership team, none of whom comes from the region, is a pretty new group in contrast to the extended stewardship of Ruth Kohler.
The ebullient Bickford, barely a decade out of college (she earned dual master’s degrees at SAIC and briefly guest curated at Chicago’s Intuit), has been tasked with getting the Art Preserve up and running. It’s a formidable undertaking opening a new museum under any circumstance, but add to that her still-young career, the death of the longtime guiding hand of the project, and the mandate to create something completely new in terms of both content and approach, and it’s kind of epic. But Bickford is nonplussed, even confident, and the state of the new museum when I visited less than two months before its official opening reflected it.
The ethos behind the Art Preserve is that traditional museums have collected objects to represent things, whether natural history museums taking mummies from a tomb or art museums getting one, two or a few paintings to represent an artist’s output. The Art Preserve believes that the best way to understand an artist is to see the environment in which they created their work, which can mean collecting hundreds or thousands of artworks along with physical spaces—a studio or perhaps an entire house—and then restoring them. Thanks to the passion of Ruth Kohler and her resources, the Art Preserve is the largest collection of art environments in the world.
Of course, the JMKAC did not invent the idea of preserving artists’ homes and studios. Not far from Paris, Claude Monet’s restored house and gardens at Giverny attract a half-million visitors each year. La Casa Azul, the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, is one of the most-visited sites in Mexico City. Other artists’ homes to be preserved and open to visit include Auguste Rodin, Donald Judd, Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keeffe, JMW Turner, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. (The Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program maintains a directory of forty-eight museums that were the homes and working studios of artists in the United States.) The Judd Foundation not only maintains his New York City apartment, but huge chunks of the town of Marfa, Texas, where Donald Judd did much of his work. But perhaps the most famous of all artist environments, Andy Warhol’s The Factory, is long gone.
In Chicago, the Roger Brown Study Collection is maintained by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in much the same way he lived and worked within. And Intuit, the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, has reconstructed much of famed outsider artist Henry Darger’s Lincoln Park apartment within its space.
While it’s easy to describe the type of art the Art Preserve is presenting with the word “environment,” it’s more challenging to describe the artists. The term “outsider artist” has fallen from favor in an era where the idea that the white patriarchal establishment is the “inside” and deems those not anointed as such as outsiders. The term is widely used, however; it’s in the name of Intuit, there is a very successful Outsider Art Fair, and so on. The Midwest, and especially Chicago, have been fertile grounds for such art practices with Darger, Lee Godie, Mr. Imagination, Joseph Yoakum and Wesley Willis among the best known. Chicago’s Carl Hammer Gallery has long shown such art; its current exhibition, “In From the Cold,” is described as a “celebration of the self-taught brilliance of ‘outsider’ art and artists.”
Outsider artists are presumably self-taught, thus the term “intuitive,” though I would expect most art-schooled artists would take offense at the implication that they lack intuition for their work. The stereotype sometimes implies mental illness as well, although that’s a sticky wicket in and of itself. Vernacular art, naive art, folk art—all of these terms are fraught with issues.
Ultimately it comes down to whether or not a particular artist is part of the “art establishment” or whether they conduct their art practice outside of it, by choice or simply lack of access. Some of the artists in the Art Preserve fit the traditional description of “outsider artist,” but many do not. Bernard Langlais was at the epicenter of the art establishment, living in New York City and represented by Leo Castelli Gallery, where Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella had their first shows, until he decided to go in another direction. Mary Nohl was an SAIC grad who left the art scene when she inherited a home. Ray Yoshida was the ultimate insider—he spent his career teaching and mentoring artists at the SAIC.
Sometimes the decision not to play the game was a reflection of personal resources. Though many of the artists at the Art Preserve were poor or of modest means, others were wealthy and did not need to sell art to live. They chose not to live under the influence and pressure of gallerists, curators, the art press—not ignorant of prevailing art practices but willfully ignoring them. In that sense, they lived the ultimate romantic ideal of the artist, making art for the sole purpose of creation. Mary Nohl, for example, had enough money to do what she wanted and then some.
Stella Waitzskin was in the center of everything. After a privileged upbringing as the daughter of a successful immigrant businessman, in her thirties she became an art student, with Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning as her teachers. She got caught up in the swirl of creative New York in the fifties—the Beats, the jazz scene, other artists like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Louise Nevelson—and by the end of the decade, she’d left her suburban marriage and moved into the Hotel Chelsea. There she embarked on her life’s great art project, “Details of a Lost Library,” which was made up of vintage leather-bound books that she cast in polyester resin, arranged on a vast array of shelves along with other ephemera. Though her work now resides in the best museums in America, in her lifetime she cared more about art and artists than about the trappings of the art establishment.
In a memorial on her website (she died in 2003) her son tells this story:
“I recall one time she was scheduled to have a one-man show at the prestigious Lee Witkin Gallery on West Broadway. This was a huge opportunity for Stella–surely her exhibition would receive notices in all of the top magazines and newspapers. But two weeks before the opening she called an incredulous Witkin to tell him that the opening date for the show was not advantageous to her in terms of numerology. She demanded he reschedule. Witkin was enraged and never spoke with her again. But Stella didn’t care. She believed Lee Witkin was trying to take advantage of her in some dark manner.
“Making art meant the world to my mom. But making it in the art world meant very little.”
Four years after her death, JMKAC acquired a three-wall section of Waitzskin’s Chelsea Hotel apartment and later more than a hundred of her works. The Art Preserve has reconstructed her Chelsea Hotel apartment; I can just imagine the parties that the ghosts that she and her legendary friends from the New York School will have inside.
Fourth-generation family businesses, especially those worth billions of dollars like Kohler, and especially still managed by the founding family, are increasingly rare in American industry. And it’s equally rare to see them remain based in such small towns as Sheboygan, though Kohler is no longer technically in Sheboygan, instead headquartered in the next-door Village of Kohler, population 2,100.
The early history of the Kohler Company is, in part, a story of experimentations in labor, designed to ensure the business had enough factory workers to feed its rapid growth. One of the ideas in vogue at the end of the nineteenth century was, literally, the company town. In this model, the company offered its workers not only jobs, but also places to live and, in these towns, the necessities of daily life—grocery stores, post offices, schools and churches. These towns sustained a stable labor supply for growing industrial companies, and also inspired a form of founder paternalism; by controlling virtually all aspects of a worker’s life, the idea went, the company could mold the character and lifestyle of its workers. At their peak, the United States had about 2,500 company towns. The most famous of all of these was the town of Pullman, then immediately south of Chicago, but later annexed and now a city neighborhood. When the Pullman Company laid off workers and lowered wages without reducing the rents its workers paid to live in company-owned homes, they went on strike in one of the most famous and most violent uprisings in American labor history. Not long after the strike ended, the Illinois Supreme Court forced the company to sell off its housing. And the labor movement, which sought to achieve a better balance of power between a company and its workers, combined with the growing middle class, soon rendered most company towns obsolete.
Kohler, Wisconsin seems to be an exception to the demise of the company town. It was started as such in 1900 and incorporated as the Village of Kohler in 1912. Since the beginning, it’s enjoyed a legacy of planning by some of American architecture’s most storied names: First the Olmsted Brothers firm crafted a fifty-year plan. They were the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s Jackson Park, Washington Park and University of Chicago Campus. A second fifty-year plan was created by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
According to the Sheboygan Press, “Walter Kohler, Sr., president and CEO of Kohler Co. from 1905 to 1937, and Richard Philipp visited Europe to learn about garden communities. When they returned, they met with the Olmsted Brothers and laid out a plan for the village, which was to be a garden community at the factory gate because Kohler believed workers ‘deserved not only wages but roses as well.'”
Over time, the village became less of a haven for workers, especially as the company sold ownership of the homes to its workers at cost (in contrast to Pullman, which refused to do so); the bulk of the company’s employees are now scattered around the world. Today the village is part company town, part living laboratory for Kohler Company’s increasing role in tourism. The company might not own the homes any more and its employees are no longer the majority of its residents, but Kohler operates many, if not most of the businesses that serve the town, and still plays the role of real-estate developer—in 2019 it announced it was developing a subdivision of seventy-five homesites called The Clearings of Kohler—and keeper of the design aesthetic. According to Wikipedia, “The Kohler Company continues to retain final authority over the design of home and business additions, outbuildings and fences in the village to keep them within a certain aesthetic standard.”
Today, Kohler is still home to the company’s global headquarters and much of the family that controls it still resides in the region. And, perhaps most importantly for the future of the town, it’s also the headquarters of the growing Destination Kohler division.
Back in the late 1980s, I was working for Goldman Sachs and Wisconsin was my territory. At some point, I landed a client in Sheboygan: an older woman whose wealth was unconnected to any of the local companies—she owned shares in a family business in Milwaukee that had been sold, leaving her with a couple million dollars to invest. When I went up to meet with her and her husband, I got a chance to see the area for the first time and was intrigued. It was a charming small city on the lake and its tiny little next-door neighbor, the Village of Kohler, was really special. I remember being wowed by the Woodlake Market, the kind of upscale supermarkets still rare then in big cities like Chicago. And the new Kohler Design Center was a fascinating museum of fancy toilets. I stayed at the American Club, which just a few years earlier had been converted into a luxury resort by the Kohler Company. I remembered a couple of things about the American Club. One was its easy comforts, the kind you only get at five-star hotels. The other was its bathrooms, which took the absolute best of Kohler’s products and gave its guests a chance to try them out.
All these years, I remembered the American Club as one of the more pleasurable hospitality experiences of a lifetime, and I was thrilled when, after deciding to do a story about the new Art Preserve nearby, the Kohler Company made me their guest. Was my fondness for the place simply a byproduct of the limited experience of my twentysomething self back then? I can now report that the Club’s bathroom game remains unparalleled.
As much as the charm I’d once experienced remains intact—my mother, who along with my wife, visited with me, observed that it was like a Ralph Lauren ad—the scope has expanded exponentially since my first visits in the eighties.
Today, the Inn on Woodlake and the Kohler Cabin Collection join the five-star American Club, in rounding out the lodging portfolio. In addition to its world-class golf courses, Kohler has a focus on wellness, especially via its Kohler Waters Spa, a spot for hydrotherapy services and other treatments at prices approaching $200 an hour. Just as the hotels extend the Kohler bathroom brand in an experiential direction, the spas, which have expanded into the Chicago area (Lincoln Park opened in late 2019), keep the company in the business of what they might see as their essence: water. Not to mention lots more bathrooms to show off their best products.
Speaking of which, the Kohler Design Center is a progenitor of the brand-as-entertainment idea that has flourished (Niketown, Apple) since its opening in the eighties. Occupying three levels in a vintage building near the American Club, the main floor of the design center is called the Product Pavilion, with wares displayed by type and sometimes brand (they own Ann Sacks and Kallista in addition to the Kohler brand) and, famously, a wall of toilets. On the mezzanine level the company has partnered with leading names in interior design, including Jonathan Adler and Mick De Giulio, to create showcase kitchens and bathrooms. The lower-level ground floor has been built out as a museum of Kohler Company history, going back to the beginning but also showcasing many of the company’s legendary follies and successes—it’s hard to believe it now, but there was a time when manufacturing bathroom fixtures in colors other than white was revolutionary. The company’s catchphrase “The Bold Look of Kohler” was born around the time when bathtubs started coming in all the hues of the rainbow.
Bathrooms, naturally, are a signature element of the JMKAC, a tradition continued at the Art Preserve. Each designed by a different artist, you’ll find yourself happy to say “excuse me,” and explore men’s and women’s rooms alike. Chicago and Milwaukee artist and educator Michellle Grabner has designed one of the loos at the Art Preserve, “Patterns and Practicalities,” which is a “granny square blanket” made out of tile. Joy Feasley and Paul Swenbeck’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling,” encompasses two bathrooms in a diorama of “a wintry alien landscape.”
Levi Fisher Ames pre-dates all of the other artists featured at the Art Preserve. Born in 1840, he served in the Union Army in the Civil War and settled in Monroe, Wisconsin after its end, making a living as a woodworker who specialized in making and repairing violins. He also started making shadow boxes, featuring more than 600 carvings of animals, both real and imaginary—exquisite little sculptures—some posing, some contorting in play, some fighting. Seeing his anamorphic work conjures up cartoon characters that would not be introduced until at least fifty years after his death. By the 1880s, he was a traveling showman, hauling his works around the state of Wisconsin in a tent show called the L.F. Ames Museum of Art. He died in 1923, but miraculously much of his artwork stayed together, finally ending up at the Art Preserve. His work is arranged in tall glass cases encapsulating a set of spectator benches (created as a “contemporary response” by the Milwaukee artist Brent Budsberg) where modern-day art spectacles might be held. Studying these amazing boxes of imagination, I could not help but think of another self-taught artist who became celebrated for creating imaginary worlds within boxes a century later, Joseph Cornell.
Though most of my visit to Sheboygan and Kohler was bathed in the refined mist of the Kohler influence, I did get a drink or two of the local flavor when, after dinner one night, we wandered into a bar called George Michael’s, aka GM’s, the name of which has unknown origins, since its owners are David Haneman and James Passmore, aka Hondo and JP. To be fair, the place was suggested by the curators at JMKAC when I asked them to recommend a dive-bar, so not really a “discovery.” We mused collectively that the name came from either the late pop singer or the character on “Arrested Development,” but I would not bet on either.
As we walked into the busy bar on a Thursday night, we met the Wisconsin of “pandemic, what pandemic?” lore—remember the TV news scenes early in the national shutdown more than a year ago, when the State Supreme Court overturned the governor’s order, and images of packed bars crowded with maskless revelers shocked the nation? That Wisconsin. As we walked past the pool table up front, someone growled at us, “Take off your mask!” We bellied up to the bar in the back and settled in for a couple of hours of conversation with the friendly locals, including Alex the bartender—she explained that the “Try the blackberry” phrase on her shirt and posted around the bar referred to one of the owners’ Polish heritage and his penchant for Leroux Jezynowka Polish Blackberry Brandy, of which she offered a sample. This is the kind of a bar that has a two-for-one happy hour on Thursdays that runs from 3pm to 1am, where the three of us could have three mixed drinks and a shot, and pay a tab of $12. (The kind of place you could spend a lot of time in.)
The guy next to me on a stool, with a classic mullet and a black T-shirt, looked like a poster boy for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. He was a native Sheboyganite (Sheboyganian?) who’d spent most of his working career in the Mid-South, returning home in late middle age to be around his daughter and his grandkids. At one point, I asked him point-blank what the locals thought about the Kohlers, and that I expected it might be generally good due to the jobs and visible largesse, but there was a strike in 2015, so… He gave a kind of shrug that said so-so, then told me the company was trying to take away state parkland for a big new golf course on the lake, that the company felt like, since it had donated the land for the park in the first place, that it could just take some of it back.
Mary Nohl might be the most interesting performer in this circus of creative wonder. Like so many of the artists featured at the Art Preserve, she was neither self-taught nor an outsider, but rather a School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduate and art teacher in Milwaukee. But this daughter of a prosperous lawyer did not need to sell art to live, or even to teach for a salary; when her parents moved into their Fox Point cottage on the Lake Michigan shore, she joined them and started making art full-time. After they died, she turned the home into a vast artistic palette. LIke so many others featured at the Art Preserve who created work that might have been well received in the conventional art world—I’m thinking especially of her paintings and how they evoke an alien futurism—she apparently had little interest in such things. But she was an insatiable creator; every surface in her home, the walls, the floors, the furniture became a canvas. She worked on any material and in any style imaginable: jewelry, pottery, wood, even puppets. And her walls were no limit; she transformed the grounds with the same intensity. Milwaukee magazine described it as “a bizarre, magical and transfixing landscape, filled with sculpted stone heads, concrete poets, driftwood sentinels, sea-stone ruins, wooden silhouettes, beach-pebble mosaics, and figures of all shapes and sizes, built out of the elements surrounding the home and the beach below.”
“When she was alive she was called ‘The Witch of Fox Point’ and people would throw rocks at her house and break in and vandalize,” Bickford says, “and so now that we steward her legacy a lot of the work we’re doing is to try and undo that.”
When she died, she left behind an endowment to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation of $11 million, which funds grants to emerging artists and artists in need. The Kohler Foundation ended up with her house and some 3,500 works of art. The house, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is her greatest creation, and in its usual fashion, the Kohler Foundation was in the process of restoring it and preparing it for the public when it hit a snag: wealthy neighbors who covet their privacy. There was talk of moving the house up to Sheboygan. Eventually a compromise was worked out and the house remains intact, though still closed to the public. But the Art Preserve has brought some of its walls and many of its artworks front and center on display as one of its showcase art environments.
Sheboygan’s lakefront is far from the protected expanse we enjoy in Chicago near the southern shore of the same Lake Michigan. Not far from downtown, a large parcel of lakefront property, ripe for development, is up for sale. But the lakefront includes a fair stretch of open space, including the city’s Deland Park with its Lottie Cooper Shipwreck ruins, the Lake View Park elevated like cliffs overlooking the sea and, to the south, the Kohler-Andrae State Park, a picturesque expanse of inland forest and shoreline dunes, carefully protected and visited by traversing a “cordwalk” trail that spans 1.3 miles along the coast. The day we visited, a man with an old-fashioned view camera was capturing some of that lakeside beauty. Curious as to his project—was it vocation or avocation?—I struck up a conversation and discovered he’s a truck driver from Utah named David Lyon who is very serious about collecting and operating vintage cameras, and making photographs of nature’s best vistas, under the professional name, Barefoot Photographer.
A patch of six-and-a-half acres at the northern end of this 988-acre park is the source of contention. Destination Kohler wants to build a destination golf course using a portion of that land, a bookend to its world-class Whistling Straits golf course on the lakefront in northern Sheboygan, a beauty created by the late legendary course designer Pete Dye and the host of this fall’s Ryder Cup, one of the sport’s most celebrated competitions. It’s a drawn-out and complicated story that involves the company swapping nine-and-a-half acres of Kohler property for that parcel, along with court battles and chess moves that include the city of Sheboygan annexing the land away from the town of Wilson, where much of the development’s opposition is centered, which seem to be giving the company the upper hand. But when we visited, bright orange “No Golf Course” signs lined the road to the park, and just last month, news broke that ancient Native American remains have been unearthed on the site.
That the levers of government seem to favor the Kohler Company should be no surprise. The family has a long history of involvement in Republican politics that includes two Kohlers serving as governor of Wisconsin over the years. (Notably, the family gave more to Democrats than Republicans in 2020. Just as they’d aligned with moderates in the 1950s when the McCarthyites were flexing power, so too, I assume, they could not abide the Trump takeover of their party in 2020.)
I came to think about this story as the story of a patriarchy in its best and worst senses. Of course, by definition, the Kohler Company is a patriarchy—it’s now run by the fourth generation of the founding family, each of them a male member. But in a larger sense, the company looks out for its town; it has always seen itself as a provider. This dates back to the creation of the Village of Kohler itself as a place for workers to live, to the American Club when it was built to house immigrant factory workers and, today, in the quality of facilities created and maintained for this small town, from the grocery store at Westlake Market to the health club at Sports Core to the world class spas, golf courses and restaurants. (Kohler even operates Kohler Chocolates, which makes its own brandy.) Without the Kohlers’ continuing presence, it’s hard to imagine Sheboygan as much different than its similarly sized neighbor to the north, Manitowoc, a perfectly nice place to live, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t have a reason to visit.
But like a father who feels like his kids are being ungrateful when they disobey him, the patriarchy likely explains the company’s history of strikes, four in all, including two of the more violent and notorious in U.S. labor history, in 1934 and 1954, and another as recent as 2015. On our tour of the Kohler Design Center’s company history display, our guide, an especially enthusiastic woman who told us she was the third generation of her family to work for the company, described the labor unrest that came to head during the era when Herbert V. Kohler Sr. was running the company (1937-1968) strictly in terms of his perspective:
“He’s going to have a very tumultuous time, because we do allow our unions to come into the factory and we do have strikes that do come up over the years he’s there. He’s a very strong bargainer and he has a very strong belief in letting our people have a union. And so he wants to work with them as best that he can in order to make sure that everything is kosher and that the strike could be resolved. It’s because of that strong leadership that we’re able to keep going as a company and to find answers that help both sides.”
From her telling, it’s almost like the bitter unionization struggles were simply as if dad capitulated and let his kid go out in a tie-dyed shirt and cut-off jeans.
The dispute over lakefront parkland and its potential in creating a golf course that will likely burnish the region’s reputation and tourism (and, of course, add treasure to the Kohlers’ fortune), fits this theory as well, especially when regular Joes at the local saloon describe it as the family wanting back something they gave in the first place.
Perhaps nothing reflects the depth of the Kohler family’s commitment to art as the Arts/Industry residency. Started in 1974 by Ruth Kohler with her brother Herb, who at thirty-three had taken the helm of the family company two years earlier, the residency brings in visual artists to make work inside the factory, rubbing shoulders and begging knowledge from the working-class “associates” who produce toilets and bathtubs. Twelve artists a year go through the program, each leaving a creation or two behind, which often end up displayed to the public somewhere in Kohler Village or at the Arts Center.
“They set up a studio in the middle of the factory, both in the foundry and in the pottery,” Bickford says. “They work hand-in-hand with the associates, learning all the associates’ process and then they produce work there… Kohler has later hired artists to design stuff, artists have invented new processes, like new glazes, the first female resident of the AI program was named Karen Massaro and she actually invented a new glaze process that Kohler still uses.”
“The Kohler Company also has this program called the Waste Lab which is a new initiative for them,” Bickford says, “where they are trying to come up with ways to use a lot of the pottery coal and the foundry dust and the artists are super into that and will go meet with the Waste Lab and go, “I want all of the detritus,’ and so the Kohler Company is learning from the artists and of course the artists usually leave blown away by the skill of the associates and go, ‘They’re the actual artists,’ because all the Kohler products are handmade. There is not a lot of mechanization. There is some, but each toilet and sink is finished by hand.”
The death of a force like Ruth Kohler could leave a vacuum at an organization like this, since she was, for fifty years, the hands-on manifestation of the family’s commitment to art. But the curators are confident about the continuity of that commitment, citing the role of Ruth’s niece Laura Kohler, who works for the company as well, as a longtime board member of the Arts Center, and who is very involved in the Arts/Industry program and sits on the Arts Center’s collections committee. Plus, they point out, the current and previous CEOs of Kohler, David and Herb, are both supporters who show up at all of the Arts Center’s events.
The energy around art and design and upscale hospitality emanating from all things Kohler is spreading beyond the reach of the brand. I was intrigued by the entrepreneurial energy of restaurateur Stefano Viglietti. A Sheboygan native and James Beard nominee, Viglietti came home from college to open Trattoria Stefano, a restaurant that offers authentic, farm-to-table renditions of Italian cuisine rather than the spaghetti and red sauce we might expect in an industrial midwest town. Across the street, he operates the insanely popular pizzeria, Il Ritrovo, again harnessing Italian authenticity; it serves creative versions of the thin wood-fired and simple Neapolitan pies and has a Vera Pizza Napoletana certification to go along with it. Add to it the creative breakfast and sandwich shop next door, Field to Fork, and the well-stocked Italian food market (a mini-Eataly) and the nearby gastropub Duke of Devon and you’ll find yourself immersed, not in the influence of one company like Kohler, but in the influence of one man. Any one of his places would hold up in Chicago’s West Loop, and he’s drawing heavily from the tourists lured in by Kohler. While having a glass of wine at The Winery Bar at the American Club, we heard a couple of regulars at the table next to us lamenting the demise of Kohler Company’s own Italian joint, Cucina; later, when we told them where we were headed, they said Stefano’s was why Cucina did not make it.
Sometime this year, Stefano is opening Stefano’s Slo·Food Market, promising an “8,000 square foot Butcher Shop, Fish Market, Sourdough Bakery, Rotisserie, Grocer, Local Food and World Market.” I hope to visit it soon. I really fell for the region and all it promises. With the continuing benevolence of the Kohlers, the location of the town on the shore of the magnificent Lake Michigan and its geographic proximity to Chicago and Milwaukee, I could see the exponentially growing visual art presence that the Art Preserve adds not only making the region as much a destination for art tourism as it is for golf, but it also has the potential makings of a summer art colony, a Midwestern version of New York’s Hudson Valley. And the city of Sheboygan has so much promise, with a healthy downtown district full of well-preserved vintage architecture, the kind of buildings just calling out to become restaurants, bars and boutiques. (Just don’t touch GM’s!) Art sprawls around Sheboygan, in the form of public art installations downtown and street-art murals throughout the city. Not to mention a terrific local brewery, 3 Sheeps, whose lager is on tap around town, offers a huge barn of a tasting room and package carryout facility that I explored in the name of research. Highly recommended: Chaos Pattern Hazy IPA. Sadly, I had to save ax-throwing and cocktails at the Longhouse Axe Bar for my next visit.
Sheboygan itself shows up on the Wandering Wisconsin map, for the James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden just south of town. It was a serene spot in the woods the day we visited, part nature trail, part religious shrine and a whole bunch of delicious kitschy Americana. We are in the heartland after all. Speaking of which, a case could be made for adding one more site to a tour of the area—the Acuity Flagpole, which describes itself as the “world’s largest free-flying American flag” and boasts a height one-hundred-feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and a weight of 250 pounds. Visible from the highway, you have to park and get up close to really take it in. From the base looking up, the wind contorts the red, white and blue like waves on an ocean, forming abstract sculptural shapes. Looking down, you’ll see 750 paver stones, each inscribed with the names of Sheboygan residents killed in active duty going back to the Civil War. The pavers are arranged in the shape of a teardrop.
The opening of the Art Preserve will elevate the profile of the region more than ever before; glowing pieces have already been published in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and the Ryder Cup golf tournament in the fall will push it into an international spotlight, at least for a weekend. The opportunity is great but the challenge is too. Will artsy Sheboygan or sausage Sheboygan prevail? Will nature lovers or golf bros win the day? Or is there room for all, as long as the patronage of the Kohlers never wavers?
When Laura Bickford gives tours of the Art Preserve, she always ends on the third floor, inside a creation of an early twentieth-century rural Nebraska wanderer named Emery Blagdon. When he inherited an uncle’s house, he settled down and started on his life’s work, converting a large shed into an art environment to rival all of today’s Instagram-slavish museum popups dedicated to offering Millennials photo tableaux for social media feeds. Blagdon was motivated by his parents’ death from cancer to try and harness curative qualities of magnetic fields and electrical currents, creating kinetic mobiles and sculptures out of tinfoil and wire and all sorts of other material to fill his shed, that a friend, who saved the work by buying it at an estate auction, called “The Healing Machine.”
“I think the inability to describe what this is or why it was made is what’s important about so many of these,” Bickford says. “It’s that they are genreless. And that they force museums to reexamine how they classify art and they force a kind of reckoning with our history on what’s been included and what hasn’t. It’s not Emery Blagdon’s fault that no one knows what to do with this. It’s the fault of the structure that he doesn’t fit. Perhaps the structure should be changed.”