Situated on the shores of Lake Michigan 50 miles north of the city limits, Sheboygan is a beautiful and often overlooked option for Milwaukee daytrippers. With nearby attractions like Blackwolf Run, Blue Harbor Resort and the American Club, it’s a quaint and quiet city that nevertheless boasts all the activity and vivacity of its larger neighbors to the south.
This summer, there is even more reason to make a trip up to Sheboygan. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 608 New York Ave., has been the city’s creative sanctuary since 1967 and is now hosting a dramatic and provocative new exhibit which examines the relationship of mankind to the natural world around us.
"Uncommon Ground" features five multisensory "landscapes" or installations by different artists; three of the landscapes were specifically commissioned by JMKAC for the exhibit, which curators hope will create a dialogue about society and its environmental impact.
"There are quite a few artists who are actually addressing issues of the environment ... ecology and biology," said Alison Ferris, curator at JMKAC. "What I was interested in was artists who were thinking about the environment in a way that was just as poetic as it was political. Artist who sort of researched and think really hard about the issues sort of philosophically as well as aesthetically.
"(The installations have) a specific meaning, but it’s open enough for people to still bring their own experiences and feel less preached to than invited to think about these difficult issues."
"Uncommon Ground" has been in the works for almost two years and opened in April. Featured artists include John Grade, Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen, Kate MacDowell, Carolynn Ottmers and Lauren Fensterstock.
"We typically look at themed programming – we do two or three (exhibits) a year where we try to explore one idea from a lot of different angles and different entry points," explained deputy director for programming Amy Horst. "As often as possible we try to layer on our educational and our community and our performing arts programming on top of that."
JMKAC also features performing space, a permanent art collection, an art preschool, gardens, cafe, and most notably the ARTery, a space where members of the community are free to drop in at will and create.
"The Arts Center is the combination of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, the Milwaukee Art Museum and Jazz in the Park. And a preschool!" said assistant curator Karen Patterson. "It’s so much under one roof.".
JMKAC took OnMilwaukee.com on a private tour of "Uncommon Ground," which runs through September.
"Capacitator" by John Grade
Washington artist John Grade usually specializes in "earth art" pieces about natural degradation – one noted installation by this artist featured a buried wooden and resin structure to demonstrate the industrious nature of termites. But "Capacitator" is more about the progression of the natural environment than degeneration.
Grade’s vast coiling creation measures 40 feet deep and 20 feet high, resembling a large Tyvek igloo lit from within.
"This particular piece is about call and response," said Julie Frinzi, marketing manager at JMKAC. "He was inspired by a single-celled creature called the coccolithophore, which is responsible for photosynthesis and cooling of waters.
"He wanted this structure to respond to what’s going on in (the environment of) Sheboygan. Before coming he did research and calculated a 50-year mean of information – both wind intensity and temperature here – and he installed sensors on the Art Center’s roof with a computer in the room recording contemporary information. The structure responds to the difference. If the temperature is different from the average mean, this structure reacts."
The honeycomb-like rows open and close (almost too slowly to see) in response to temperature differences, and the lights brighten and dim to represent wind intensity. Grade imagined that the sculpture would appear to be "slowly breathing."
When the exhibit, which was commissioned by JMKAC, leaves Sheboygan after Sept. 1, it will travel to the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris.
"Rust to Rest" by Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen
New York artists Kavanaugh and Nguyen have been working together since 2005. "They like to go to a region they’ve not been (to) before and kind of – maybe not unearth, but maybe reveal some things to us that we may not remember or know about our particular environment," said Frinzi.
In the case of "Rush to Rest," the pair was inspired by the ice floes and icebergs that move to meet the sand in Sheboygan. The structure took two weeks to create, with Kavanaugh and Nguyen using giant drills to twist and crinkle 20-foot reams of paper into specific shapes that come to resemble two full gallery spaces’ worth of literally larger-than-life peaks and valleys, supported by an elaborate, unseen structure beneath.
"A lot of motion and movement here (in the exhibit). What they’re talking about is power, so the wind and the water are the future of our energy," said Frinzi. "And we’ve talked about environmental sustainability really harnessing that power and really feeling what it would be like if this was our main major power source."
When "Rush to Rest" closes Sept. 23, the exhibit will be dismantled and recycled.
"Fragile Endurance" by Kate MacDowell
In these dual examinations of endangered species, Oregon artist Kate MacDowell "was really exploring this emotion of abundance – this kind of illusion that there will always be an abundance of animals," said Frinzi.
"She took two case studies: passenger pigeons and the Costa Rican golden toad. For the passenger pigeon, at one time in the 1900s, from the records I read, there was just like a sky darkened by so many passenger pigeons. We just kind of abused them because we thought they would always be there. They traveled so fast and were just kind of a pest. With the toads, they always lived underground so it was even more difficult – you never knew how many toads there were. Scientists who lived in the forest in Costa Rica documented and counted their population until there were almost none."
MacDowell assembled a delicate pile of terra cotta passenger pigeons and treated them the way they had been treated by society; she exposed them to the environment, left them neglected, bludgeoned them and in some cases even shot at them.
She did the same with the study of the golden toad (now classified as an extinct species), substituting the environment of an Oregon rain forest for a Costa Rican one. Most of the toads are slipcast black, interspersed with a small population of bright orange toads to represent the males in mating season.
Both case studies are accompanied by a series of haunting and evocative photographs taken by MacDowell, reminding viewers of the tragedy that was allowed to befall the creatures this exhibit represents.
"Splice" by Carolyn Ottmers
Ottmers is an alumnus of the Kohler Co. arts/industry residency program, which exposes artists to new media in a technical atmosphere. Residents create art using clay, enameled cast iron, brass and other materials in the Kohler foundries and enamel shop.
Though "Splice" (on display through Aug. 11) was not created while Ottmers was a resident, the stainless steel castings retain the same manufactured look as a Kohler sink might. This installation is a contemplation of how Ottmer’s environmentalist views converge with her work as an artist using industrial materials. The dangling, root-like sculptures depict an imagined hybrid species inspired by plants that survive in inhospitable, urban environments.
"She was really trying to understand, can I be that person who works with metal and these dusty, dirty things and maybe someone who contributes to pollution and also be an environmentalist?" said Frinzi. "In this way, of kind of having these hybrid plants, she’s saying that you have to have this dual existence in order to survive."
"Celebration of Formal Effects, Whether Natural or Artificial" by Lauren Fenterstock
This surprisingly arresting installation, on view through Aug. 18, is housed in the JMKAC’s original structure – the 1882 Italianate house of John Michael Kohler himself. Since the current museum was built in 2000, the home is still open to the public and, for much of the time, is filled with original period furniture.
"But in this particular moment, it’s having this conversation between contemporary art and historical art," said Frinzi. In this exhibit, which was also specially commissioned by the JMKAC, Fenterstock examines the history of the modern garden.
"Lauren Fenterstock was at this pivotal moment in her life where she was able to buy a house with a yard. I think she was just a voracious researcher, so instead of planting things she started researching the history of gardens, and then just couldn't stop!" said Frinzi. "What she really wanted to do with this installation was think of three major moments in garden history."
Three gardens sprawl through the historic home’s bare rooms, created using quilled, cut and sculpted paper. One, a modern American lawn, is the epitome of unadorned suburban severity. A wild 18th century English garden with its own pond (and charcoal shoreline) has a romantic feel. The final garden is in the Japanese "kiku" style, featuring carefully cultivated chrysanthemums.
"In a lot of ways, she’s discussing this idea of control and release," said Frinzi.
"The Healing Machine" by Emory Blagdon
Though not technically part of the "Uncommon Ground"series of installations, Emory Blagdon’s "Healing Machine" is also a profound testimony to the transformative power of nature. Part of the JMKAC’s permanent collection, this bewitching assemblage of trinkets constructed from salvaged copper wire, metal foil, magnets, waxed paper and other materials was originally the life work of Nebraskan subsistence farmer Emory Blagdon (1907-1986).
The JMKAC’s acquisition of Blagdon’s collection speaks to their dedication to highlighting self-taught artists, as well as what they call "vernacular environment-builders."
"He really truly felt that it (the collection) could heal people, that walking in could provide people with healing properties. It was his life work," said Horst.
Blagdon had little schooling and no formal art training, and for years lived a transient lifestyle before returning to Nebraska to nurse his ailing parents. He would eventually lose several members of his family to cancer, and he became convinced that his "pretties" – the beautiful novelties he liked to create – could cure illnesses.
Soon he created so many "pretties" that they overtook his home, so he housed them in a barn on his farm, building onto the structure to accommodate the growing collection. Visitors describe entering the dim, adorned room as a life-changing experience; Blagdon even had an electric current running through many of the metallic ornaments.
"From people that I’ve talked to, it’s just this all-encompassing, life changing moment," said Frinzi. "Just going from the darkness into this beautiful moment."
The center acquired Blagdon’s work in 2001, and have faithfully recreated part of the barn’s interior.
"That is the specialness of the Arts Center, in that we try to, whenever possible, collect things and keep them in their entire whole so that you can really get a sense of how they were originally created," said Frinzi.
For more information on the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and "Uncommon Ground," visit jmkac.org.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.