This lecture is part of the Divine Disorder Conference held February 24-26, 2015.
“How to Move a Mountain: the Documentation and Display of Displaced Art Environments” by Karen Patterson and Lisa Stone
Karen Patterson: Hi there. Originally I was going to do this presentation with Lisa Stone from Preservation Services. Unfortunately she couldn’t be here, so this presentation will be more based on my background which is in folklore and house museums, and more on the curatorial side. Since the 1970s, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center has been involved in the preservation, the scholarly examination, and exhibition of works by art environment builders, and has worked closely with the Kohler foundation and preservation professionals to preserve a wide range of remarkable art environment and collections. Along with many extensive projects that have preserved art environments in situ, some environments could not be preserved where they were built due to ultimately insurmountable obstacles.
Preserving these components of such environments has entailed, as you all know, in depth documentation by preservation professionals prior to moving the components in entire sites. For my part, exploring a range of solutions to convey the power of these displaced works in ensuing exhibitions at the art center. The art center now cares for thirty large bodies of interrelated objects from dismantled art environments, which is the largest collection of environment components held at any museum.
This presentation will discuss some of the critical questions that these disconnected environments present for me, and the John Michael Kohler Art Center. I’ll present a few case studies that I’ve worked on directly, in which various key elements of the environment were identified, and then expanded upon for exhibition purposes. Then I’ll present two upcoming projects in which these thoughts are just starting to percolate, and I hope to lean on your expertise.
In general, historic preservation theory states that all components of a site are fundamentally linked to, and derive their meaning from where they were built. The place, the landscape, the property, and all of its histories and context for the essential basis of the site. Art environments are more than the sum of their parts. They are not merely site specific, but they are life specific. With clear access of an artist’s biography, access to materials, and relationship to the surrounding community. However, just as a fragment of an ancient temple can inform and connect us to previous peoples and cultures, preserved elements of a site that cannot remain in situ, while losing their connection to their site and their related context, nonetheless, can retain a large measure of artistic value and offer hints of an important time and place in history.
Disrupted and relocated elements of art environments offer curators enormous challenges. Exhibitions are opportunities to assess and reassess strategies. As a curator, my first step is to admit and respect that a rupture has occurred. That the loss of the original content and context has happened, and is part of the ongoing reality. It’s part of the story. I try to walk the line between recreating and evoking of museum displays and evolving narratives. Using preservation reports, site plans, extensive photographs, and oral histories, I evaluate the important qualities on a gut level and look for those things that convey a sense of the original. What is the one thing that will help the viewer leap the chasm? What will welcome the artworks into a museum setting with dignity and on its own terms? I’m going to walk you through a few case studies that I’ve worked on.
Ray Yoshida taught at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago for nearly four decades, and had an indelible influence on a generation of Chicago artists. Including the Chicago Imagists. With his guidance, students learned to look beyond the confines of museums and western art to explore the source material that would propel their work into something personal and unique. Examining an array of African masks at the Field Museum, contemplating colors in the weird and wonderful treasures of thrift shops, or understanding line in the works of self taught artist Joseph Yoakum. Yoshida’s idea was to instinctively follow your eye to whatever ignited your artistic sensibilities.
This is an environment of a different sort of course, although his home environment retains a highly personal and imaginative attachment to the vernacular. It is built through the process of collecting or arranging, rather than making. Yet the physical properties of his home are integral to the production, presentation, and reception of art, and unifies the relationship between art making and sight. It is still very much a situation that combines the idea of art and making on one side, and theories of place and home on the other. In this case, I focused on his home as source material and looked at his over 2600 objects as a relationship to an artist. An artist, and a teacher I should say. The home section itself was sectioned off into tableaus by preservation professionals, and I used their photos to design an exhibition, and then surrounded the exhibition with Yoshida’s seminal paintings and collages, as you can see here.
Born in a small town of Callaway, Nebraska, Emery Blagdon spent most of his life of the sandhill plains of Nebraska. In the 1950s, he began to build a large environment designed to channel the electrical currents of the Earth, and employ them to heal arthritis, cancer, and perhaps other ailments. Using various types of wire, aluminum foil, wax paper, beads, paints, and other elemental substances, Blagdon made hundreds of individual elements for what he called his healing machine, and rearranged them frequently according to the perceived flow of energy. Dan Dryden and Don Christensen, who witnessed and valued the healing machine while Blagdon was still alive, eventually acquired the environment after the artist’s death in 1986. Remarkably, all of his work in his work shed and those comprised of the healing machine itself were purchased and remained together. Don and Dan made a site plan and designed a labeling system that the art center still uses today.
Today the works that comprised the healing machine, some four hundred individual components are part of the art center’s collection. Cleaned and preserved, the healing machine was first installed in 2007 as part of the exhibition series “Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds”, spearheaded by a visionary curator and one of my mentors, Leslie Umberger. In this exhibition, the individual components were fore fronted and introduced as part of an amazing survey of art environments. In 2013, the healing machine was reinstalled and Leslie had the opportunity to present the environment in a new way. In this instance, Leslie and the art center team decided that the shed and the density of the healing machine components should be highlighted. Because of the work of preservationist and art center curators, we were able to bring to life this beautiful passage and oral history by Dan Dryden.
This is a quote from Dan. “He walked me about forty yards from the backdoor to the door of the shed. I don’t remember what the conversation was, it seemed to dwell on the machines, the healing machines. By this time, it was very dark, no moon. none to speak of. It was just very, very dark. I remember that. We walked to the back. The shed. And we unlocked the door, pulled the door open, and we stepped inside. There was not a great deal of light at the time in the shed, but I could see that there were masses of hanging wire from the walls, and the ceiling, and the outer room of the shed. The bottles that he’d been using for mineral salts within make his little potted tin flowers were sitting around the table.
I looked around, and just a few minutes there he opened an inner door which was padlocked and the door to the main section. He opened this door, he reached around the corner, and threw open a couple of switches. All these Christmas lights came on, some stayed on, some were blinking on and off. These lights were strung around the top of the perimeter of the room, and there was also a middle section with pieces of lights woven in with the construction. It hit me all at once, this panorama. Even though it was a small room, it looked like a vast panorama of these works that made it look ten times larger than it was. The impact of this first viewing remained with me forever. It will remain with me forever. The power of it. Then juxtapose that with, outside there was just miles and miles of nothing but sandhills, and a few cornfields, and a few cattle. Otherwise, absolutely nothing, and here it is, this whole world contained within a shed. A very, very powerful experience.”
In his Aurora, Illinois home, Dr. Charles Smith created a memorial and a history museum dedicated to Africans and African Americans. His efforts began as a call to attention to the poor treatment of African American soldiers in and after the Vietnam war. However, it expanded to encompass events and people from the slave trade to the present day. Smith used the detritus of his own neighborhood melded with concrete mixture to make hundreds of figures, chronicling the struggles and victories of the African American history and culture. Smith himself described walking through the environment as being inside a collage. His environment grew organically yet, with unmatched determination. The site’s flux and fluidity were central to his process. When Smith was not making new sculptures, he was arranging others such that the audience never had the same experience twice. As Lisa Stone observed, the most constant element of the site was that of change.
With Dr. Charles Smith, it was admitting that recreating the elements of this chaotic and constantly changing at the end blighted property would feel contrived. Instead, with Dr. Charles Smith’sblessing, hundreds of sculptures were treated as individual works, completely severed from their original contexts. Sculptures were stabilized and cleaned, and because they were restored, they survived and flourished in collections across the US. Dr. Charles Smith’s message and history lessons could be seen across the country and not just in Aurora, Illinois. The artist himself moved on and flourished, continuing his work in a new location to this day in Louisiana. This is a rare, and perhaps unique example.
Sanford Darling was born in Santa Barbara, and after service in World War I, he worked as Hollywood stunt man, a commercial fisherman, a chiropractor, and as an engineer for General Petroleum. After twenty five years at GP, he retired in 1959. When his wife died shortly thereafter, Darling embarked on two extended trips to Europe and the far east. Upon his return to Santa Barbara in 1963, he began to relive those adventures. He began recreating small scenes of the places that he had visited. By the time of his death in 1973, Darling had been painting for ten years, and had produced over 1,000 paintings. His art environment was disassembled, and paintings and other objects from the house were sold to private collectors.
In this particular case, I sent this image to collectors and colleagues in the field, along with a check list of the art center’s fifty nine paintings, to see if they could help me understand if what we had in the art center was a specific portion of the house, or a varied selection of paintings. As it turned out, it was more of a selection than a section, so I needed to take a new approach and started to think about Sanford Darling’s artistic motivation. I was struck by two things. One, this idea of visual memories, and the artist’s depiction of formative places. And two, that he covered an entire house with these memories. Darling was trying to show us what these places look like, and what they felt like in a visual way. In some ways, I felt like he was a curator at the John Michael Kohler Art Center, showing me the powers of places that I could not go to.
My approach was to include Sanford Darling’s installation in a group exhibition of artist’s and works of art that portray formative places. That is, they answered the question, “without the ability to visit a site, how would you covey its formative qualities and its sense of place?” The exhibition consisted of works by emerging artists, self taught artists, and some site specific installations. For the house of 1000 paintings, we designed a specific exhibition display unit reminiscent of a front stoop and painted it in a grey scale to convey the distance or that rupture. I was able to match one of the paintings on the image, and the rest were placed to reinforce the idea that the paintings were puzzle pieces on an artist’s home.
The exhibition also included works by Heather Benning. Heather Benning’s field doll features a twelve foot sculptural adaptation of her childhood doll and a series of photographs in which she, in a very labor intensive way, brings this doll to formative places in her life in Canada. By manipulating the scale of the doll, Benning pushes the viewer to contemplate it’s role in providing that sense of familiarity and security. We also invited Heather Benning to come to Sheboygan and crowd sourced formative places from our Sheboygan residents and brought the doll to various locations in Sheboygan, and here it is in front of John Michael Kohler’s original home.
Using a 35mm camera, Alexandre Larose superimposed footage from thirty two walks along a small path leading from his parent’s backyard to his favorite lake, documenting his treks from 2008 to 2012, he’s layering experiences on film. The result is a ten minute film that blends memory and experience. Inspired by the belief that home is more of a state of mind, rather than a place on a map, Scott Carter’s interest in creating this installation stems from two different aspects in his life. The first, is his experience as a contractor attuned to the sounds of construction as he built other people’s suburban dream homes. The second, is the time of teaching himself to play drums in his own garage as a teen trying to find his place. The installation made of drywall and wallpaper was mechanized to beat in various rhythmic patterns, and constructed to snake the art center’s own architecture.
Southern vernacular architecture was celebrated in Beverly Buchanan’s photographs and constructions. These small scale sculptures combine the aesthetics both of homes in the rural south and the weathered conditions of imagined archaeological artifacts. Buchanan was inspired by childhood visits with her father to the farms of the Carolinas. Remembering the look and the feel of these structures had been a strong focus. She had built the sculptures both from memory, and from her photographs.
Building installations out of recycled and found materials, Sebura & Gartelmann from New York and Illinois make large scale structures that accommodate actual use. In this new project, assigned specifically for the art center, they turned their attention to the skate ramp, revealing it as a place of contemplation and a means of working through a struggle. The skate ramp, grotto hybrid embodies the unmistakable mark the skate park had on their lives as a place of ritual and camaraderie. For those who know, they are also inspired by Jesse Howard. Just this past weekend on Sunday, we invited the local skateboarding community into our galleries to say goodbye to the piece through a skateboarding event. Both communities were scared, I have to admit.
Bordering Carlton, is a Canadian town located on Prince Edward Island, and traces its history to the islands requirement to connect to the mainland for transport of people and goods. Once a vibrant port town, servicing regular ferry traffic across the North Umberland Strait, the town began to decline in 1992, when plans to replace the ferry service with a permanent bridge began. In 2010, the community granted artist Kim Morgan permission to cast one of their local range lights in latex. Once a proud beacon of deliverance, the structure stood derelict, no longer needed as a navigational aid. The two week casting process involved a team of artists and volunteers from the community who carefully painted seven layers of liquid latex over the interior and exterior of the structure. The sensitive medium recorded and remembered every detail from peeling paint on the shingles, to the wood grain, and insect bore holes. Actually as a footnote to this, since this process, the town has now gone through the process of getting this range light on the register of historic places.
Overall, the exhibition entitled “this must be the place” focused on artists depicting their powerful places and underscoring the role of one’s habitat in the formation of the self. I hope brought Sanford Darling’s work in discussion with other artists, both contemporary and self taught, and honored his own artistic motivation.
Now I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about future projects, and lean on your expertise. The art center is leaning towards its fiftieth anniversary in 2017, and we will be re-installing our collection of vernacular art environments to celebrate. Two particular environments are at the forefront of my mind. Aiming to style himself as the singing rhinestone cowboy, modeled after Glen Campbell’s song, Loy Allen Bowlin of Mississippi became the maker of remarkable art environment. To boost his spirits, he took turned a brightly colored suit into a painted and festooned glamour costume and headed to town with his harmonica. He enjoyed the laughter and the attention that the decorated suit received, and he quickly became known as the original rhinestone cowboy. His persona needed a backdrop, and thus he embellished his small home with glitter, cut paper, magazine pictures, ornaments, and spangles. People came from miles around the visit the holy jewel home, and the rhinestone cowboy that lived there. After Loy Bowlin’s death in 1995, the house was slated for demolition, but was saved virtually at the last minute in front of a wrecking crew, and dismantled piece by piece.
What strikes me as so interesting is the juxtaposition between the outside and the inside of the house. The exterior looks so humble and unassuming, but the inside, as we saw is completely dazzling to say the least. Knowing that Bowlin adopted this persona as the rhinestone cowboy as a means to help with some sort of depression, brings up notions of interiority and self invention. I think what would work well to keep that idea of the humble exterior, and that dazzling interior as a mystery. However, this exterior that was installed in 2007 is kind of this composite board, and we’re trying to figure it out. I’ll ask you whether you think we should just re-shingle it as a house. Because this environment, as many environments were saved by the skin of their teeth at the last hour, more research and oral histories is needed to be able to bring this house to exhibition in 2017.
My new plan, leading up to the exhibition in 2017, is to host a preservation lab in one of our galleries for the year of 2016, and invite curators, prep staff, preservationists, restorers, glitter experts, to come and talk to us about how we put this house back together again. I hope in this way we are giving back some of that time that was lost at that final hour, but also allow the public to learn a little bit about the intricacies and complex decisions involved in the preservation and curation of art environments.
Now for the last case study, which is Mary Nohl’s home. In and around the cottage on Lake Michigan Shore, just north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin Mary Nohl created a vivid, multi-dimensional environment. She viewed virtually anything as potential material for art making, and tried her hand at everything. In addition to concrete sculptures on her property, Nohl made wooden sculptures, paintings, jewelry, and pottery. What influenced her the most however, was the immense lake lying just outside her door, Lake Michigan. Nohl envisioned a world beneath the waves, where creatures lived in funny and interesting ways. A cast of characters reemerged in her paintings, sculptures, and bah relief wooden freezes that enveloped her small home.
The environment Nohl made was highly expressive of both her artistic character, and that of the lake shore cottage and yard. Currently Mary Nohl’s home is still in Fox Point, Wisconsin, but the future is uncertain. The attempt to preserve Mary Nohl’s environment has a long history that is filled with one challenge after another. Last year, Ruth Kohler hosted a panel discussion in Milwaukee about the future of Mary Nohl, so the next passages derive directly from her speech.
“The relationship between Mary Nohl and the Kohler foundation began in 1987 when they became acquainted with Mary, and began a dialogue with her about the significance of her art as an environment. Eventually, they began to discuss the importance of preserving it, and through time Mary became more and more enthusiastic about restoring her art in situ. Nevertheless, vandalism and theft continued to plague her. Throughout her life, her house was always kind of colloquially knows as the “witch’s house”, so she had to take security measures while alive to protect herself and her home. In 1996, Mary gifted individual works of art to the Kohler foundation for conservation, and eventually gifted it to the art center. The Kohler Foundation continued to help Mary with repairs and replacements on her property.
In 2001, she decided to bequeath her home to KFI upon her death. A doctoral student assisted with the documentation of recite in 2002, and conservation began that year. In 2003, a new neighbor across the street, who was a vocal opponent to the site vowed to keep Mary’s property closed to the public and prevent the idea of the site becoming a museum. By 2005, area police began to issue weekly citations to the Kohler Foundation’s preservation for museum use of the property. Although public involvement was already heavily restricted, and most the museum work that was happening was preservation. About the same time, the national and Wisconsin’s registers of historic places named Mary’s site to their roster. In 2005, the Wisconsin Trust of Historic Preservation named Mary Nohl the site of the ten most endangered list on Wisconsin. A month later, the Fox Point, which is her community preservation community, met at the foundation’s request, but over one hundred angry residents attended the meeting sporting badges that said no museum.
In 2006 and 2007, the Kohler Foundation continued to discuss the future of the Mary Nohl property amid continuing strong neighborhood opposition. Meanwhile, numerous repairs and improvements to the security were completed. In 2007, a local judge agreed to live on sight to aid in community relations and help with security. In 2012, the Kohler Foundation officially gifted the Nohl property to the art center, and we began a feasibility study to research other options for the future of this site. A preservation architect was brought on site to conduct a thorough survey and condition assessments of the property. Still pursuing the idea of a museum, the art center worked with a consultant to conduct research into various opinions of the neighbors by means of in person meetings, phone and email surveys. This research identified Fox point residents who favored in situ preservation, those who would support an actual cultural zoning change that would allow for a museum, and those whether they appreciated the property or not wanted it moved.
In 2013 of October, wanting the neighbor’s input on how to shape a modest proposal for that cultural overlay needed for the museum. The art center held an informal exchange with Fox Point neighbors and the public. A number of guidelines were presented for limited access with by appointment only advanced reservations, limited day time hours, the use of a shuttle van with no individual parking on site, among other neighborhood friendly elements. The vast majority of the neighborhood participants at the meeting strongly and vocally opposed those guidelines. The art center has begun to research the intricacies and implications of moving the house and the sculptures to a site in our Sheboygan county. The goal, for me now, is not so much how to present displaced components of an art environment, but literally how to move a mountain and this is new to me.
Here are some of the factors that I am thinking about when I think about moving Mary Nohl’s house. The interior of the house, every wall, the floor, the curtains are painted or altered. The range of media that Mary engaged with, her studio was extensive. As we saw, pottery, jewelry, and paintings, and they all required different care and preservation, and presentation. The proximity to the lake with matured trees. The context of a neighborhood, unlike other environments that I know, her suburban location presented many challenges to the site itself, and plays an ultimately important role in the developing of the environment. Would we put up chain length fence if we moved it? Nohl experienced vandalism throughout the entire building of her property, and I think that’s part of the history. Mary Nohl lived by herself for most of her life and mostly shared her company with her dogs. They are buried on the property and as a dog lover, do we bring those with us too?
At this stage, in the preservation process of Mary Nohl’s house, there are no answers, only questions. Can it be moved? What should be moved? Where will it go? What will we gain from moving the house? What will we lose? What factors contribute to deeming a complete relocation a preservation success? When is it considered unsuccessful? It’s always the art center’s preference to preserve and work with art environments preserved in situ wherever possible. We don’t know the future of the Mary Nohl house. We do have a great model to go by with the James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden in which now the houses are used for community events and artist housing that come to install. We’d much rather keep Mary Nohl’s house where it is and be accessible to the public, but it’s just not possible at this moment. In the meantime, I hope that I’ve shown you different curatorial strategies for displaced art environments, and hopefully underscore the important work you do in site plans, preservation records, oral histories, and photographs. Thank you.
Since the 1970s the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) has been involved in the preservation, scholarly examination, and exhibition of work by vernacular artists, and has worked closely with Kohler Foundation, Inc. (KFI) and on occasion, Preservation Services, Inc. (PSI), to preserve a range of remarkable environments and collections. Along with many extensive projects that have preserved art environments in situ, when environments could be retained on their original sites, some environments could not be preserved where they were built, due to a range of ultimately insurmountable circumstances. Preserving the components of such environments has entailed in-depth documentation by preservation professionals prior to moving components or entire sites, and exploring a range of solutions for conveying the power of displaced and relocated works in ensuing installations, whether in permanent settings, or museum exhibitions. The Arts Center now cares for 26 large bodies of inter-related objects from dismantled art-environments.
Reflecting our collective conviction that the components of art environments are integrally related and express overall meaning in profound ways––that isolated components do not––we propose a session in which we will discuss the critical questions that the disconnection of environmental works from their original locations poses to preservationists. Karen Patterson and Lisa Stone will explore these questions in relation to current preservation theories and the realities of preservation practice. The challenges of moving an entire site to a new landscape permanently, and the curation, exhibition, and interpretation of dismantled components of environments, are current exigencies of the field of preserving vernacular art environments. In this presentation, the relationships between preservation professionals and museum curators will be examined in four case studies: Loy Bowlin’s Holy Jewel Home (McComb, MS), Emery Blagdon’s Healing Machine (Callaway, NB), Dr. Charles Smith’s African American Heritage Museum and Black Veteran’s Archive (Aurora, IL) and the current, major challenge of documenting and relocating Mary Nohl’s sculptural environment, built in Fox Point, WI. The circumstances that led to the decision to relocate this environment followed a 26-year attempt to preserve it in situ. The project to document, comprehend, and eventually move Nohl’s entire home, studio, and sculptural environment, from Milwaukee County to Sheboygan County (both in Wisconsin) is currently being explored by JMKAC and PSI staff, architects, and preservationists. This presentation will be an opportunity to examine the at-times thorny issues of how vernacular environments––as original artistic expressions––are either embraced or vehemently opposed by neighborhoods and communities, and to share details of the complex and currently unfolding Nohl project. Each case offers insights and lessons in the realms of documentation, material analysis, stabilization, conservation, exhibition, interpretation, and storage. Moreover, the presentation will focus on how these preservation lessons have informed curatorial practices and exhibition design at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Patterson and Stone are committed to the preservation of environments in situ; as curators and preservationists they have both encountered, and continue to encounter situations in which environments will be destroyed if they’re not moved. Together they will discuss the challenges of moving mountains: how to best capture and convey the essence of an artist’s environment through its components, either through re-creation or evocation, when the original context of its place had to be left behind.
Karen Patterson is a curator with the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. With a focus on the Arts Center collection, her curatorial projects have examined the works of vernacular art environment builders, self-taught artists and emerging contemporary artists. Exhibitions include Ray Yoshida’s Museum of Extraordinary Values and This Must Be the Place; an exhibition series exploring the relationship between artists and their formative places. Patterson’s graduated with a Folklore Studies degree from Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada and she received her Masters in Arts Administration and Policy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where her thesis centered on home collection of Ray Yoshida.
Lisa Stone is curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Departments of Art History, Theory, and Criticism and Arts Administration and Policy, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. With Don Howlett she operates Preservation Services, Inc., specializing in the preservation of vernacular art environments. Her research and teaching focus on the preservation and interpretation of artist’s environments and collections, and enacting historic preservation as a creative activity. She writes on preservation and issues surrounding artists who work outside of the academic mainstream. She serves on the board of SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments).