Transcript for Inside Out Art

Jim Fleming: Have you ever thumbed through a copy of Roadside America? That guide to the wild and wonderful world of America’s tourist attractions? Some pretty good stuff in there. Beyond the pet cemeteries and the world’s smallest this and the planet’s biggest that, there’s art out there. A whole country’s worth of people who transform their houses, or yards, or some spot in the middle of nowhere. Yeah, some of those creations are pretty wacky, but over the past 50 years some of them have caught the eye of the art crowd. One of the first people to advocate for so-called outsider artists was Ruth Kohler. She’s the director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, it’s just a couple of hours from our studios here in Madison. So producer Sara Nics stopped in to talk with her.


Sarah Nics: Ruth Kohler says she got hooked on what she calls “vernacular art” in the 70s, when a friend invited her up to northern Wisconsin to see the odd sculptures that Fred Smith was building on his property.


Ruth Kohler: I met Fred right away, and he really changed my life. I was an artist and a teacher, so I saw a lot of art, contemporary art, historical things. Fred’s work was different than anything I’d ever seen. It sometimes made me think a little bit of some of the cathedrals in Spain and France. The cathedrals were seen as a whole masterpiece, they were a lifetime of work. And with Fred it was. He just decided that he had to make something, that it was in him to do something great.


Nics: What Fred did was take buckets of concrete and bones and bits of broken glass to build dozens of life-size figures. There are men and women, loggers, farmers, Native Americans, soldiers, horses, oxen, stags. They crowd around his house like a country fair that somehow magically turned to stone. Smith’s family wasn’t sure what to do with his creations, and though they look rough and simple, Ruth says she saw art in them.


Kohler: This, like many of his works, has the concrete, and then is embedded with shards of beer bottles from his bar. There are all kinds of people, Daniel Boone, Paul Bunyan. There’s a man in a wagon. There is a double wedding. The bridegroom in the front is handing a bottle of beer to the bridegroom in the back. So throughout you see this kind of wit, but you also see the real documentation of the people around him, of the community. The love that he had for the people there. People today call them outsider artists often, and they are not. He was anything but an outsider artist. He portrayed Iwo Jima, and Sun Yat-sen, as well as his neighbors and his friends.


Nics: Ruth and her colleagues saw that Fred Smith’s world was worth preserving. They brought together local and state officials, the arts center, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Kohler Foundation to save the site and the work. And it did not stop there. It turns out there are hundreds of people like Smith across the country, people who have built strange, marvelous environments. They’ve made their houses into living canvases, covered every surface with dowels or bottle caps or bits of broken glass. They’ve spent their lives reinventing their worlds. And Ruth Kohler has made her life’s work saving theirs. Even though at that point it wasn’t what most people were calling art.


Kohler : We believe that the symphonies and the theaters and the mainstreams artists were extraordinarily important. But many people thought the arts weren’t for them. That is wasn’t a part of their lives, that it wouldn’t be a part of their lives. And we felt that Fred Smith and artists like him would resonate. And it’s not the kind of response that you sometimes get from people when they see something that’s abstract, that they say, “I could do that.” This is in awe, when they realize that this is somebody who was self-taught and made these extraordinary things. And so they feel that maybe, just maybe, they could make something wonderful themselves. We believe that their work is very different, but as powerful as the finest contemporary artists.


Nics: So far the Kohler Arts Center has preserved 27 artist built environments, from New York, to India, to right here in Wisconsin. This year, work from two of those artists will travel to one of the greatest contemporary art events, the Venice Biennale.


Kohler: Aren’t they amazing?


Nics: Ruth opens a cabinet door and we see these compelling, intricate sculptures. They’re rickety, pastel painted towers that look like something out of a Russian fairy tale. The closer you get the odder they seem. They’re made entirely of tiny bones.


Kohler: Chicken bone towers, glued together then painted. Much of it is tiny, tiny necks, wishbones. They go up to about four to four and a half feet.


Nics: They’re the work of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, a Milwaukee man who created the fantastical out of anything he could get his hands on.


Kohler: OK, here you see a lot of crowns, all made out of clay. He had a pot-belly stove that he heated the house with, and he fired them in that. And you can see on this shelf, tiny little flowers, just hand built petal by petal. He’d painted the walls in the same colors as his ceramic vessels and the crowns everywhere, everywhere. In the attic, in the basement. And he made brushes out of the hair of his wife, isn’t it incredible? He did thousands of photographs and hundreds of pots, and he did things well, no matter what he did.


Nics: The art center was not able to save the Von Bruenchenhein house, but the delicate collection is now safely tucked away in Sheboygan. From crowns, to pots, to poems, he was a prolific maker even though he was broke.


Kohler: And they lived on, as I remember, it was about $2000 a year. He didn’t have the money to buy chicken, but he would go through basically the trash. He was also a bitter man, to some extent. He applied to the National Endowment for the Arts for a fellowship, a grant, and didn’t get it. And I think it hurt him very much.


Nics: And maybe that’s why, when their work first started to get the attention of curators and gallerists, Von Bruenchenhein and makers like him got stuck with the label “outsider artists”. But outsider vernacular, self-taught, high art, folk art, craft, all of those categories have elevated some people and excluded others. Von Bruenchenhein, Fred Smith, and many of the other artists in the Kohler collection didn’t live to see their creations celebrated at the Biennale. But maybe now we can simply call their making what it is, and what it is, is art.




Fleming: Ruth Kohler directs the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, which has the largest collection of complete vernacular art environments in the world. Try putting that in Roadside America!

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