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On, Wisconsin!: Learning from the Badger State's Art Museums

By Steven Rosen · September 23rd, 2009 · The Big Picture
A recent trip to Wisconsin reaffirmed for me the exciting correctness of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s efforts to build collections in Folk/Outsider Art and Contemporary Crafts. This year, the museum has displayed work from two new collections — Chicago collector Robert Lewis’ Outsider Art and Cincinnati collectors of Contemporary Craft Nancy and David Wolf.

Next, of course, it needs to find a way to show such work permanently, possibly in a new building that is an art/architectural statement in itself.

Activities in Wisconsin, especially in cities along the Lake Michigan shore, reflect some bold ways to do that. They also reveal the national interest in Folk/Outsider Art and Contemporary Crafts — especially those created by Ohioans.

I had never heard of ceramist Jack “Ohio-boy” Earl until I saw his work at the impressive John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, one of the nation’s top museums for such work. It’s about an hour north of Milwaukee. The arts center is separate from but has historic connections to nearby Kohler Co., which makes kitchen and bathroom plumbing fixtures and tile and stonework.

Turns out that Earl, a university-trained artist from northwest Ohio, has a long history of accomplishment in often-autobiographical, offbeat and often-humorous figurative ceramic work. He was one of the artists-in-residence at Kohler Co. way back in 1974.

His pieces were part of the museum’s 15-artist American Story exhibit, which also featured established, trained painters like Cuban-refugee Expressionist Jose Bedia as well as Outsider (or Visionary) artists like the late Hawkins Bolden, a blind man who constructed “scarecrows” out of scrap.

Racine — about an hour south of Milwaukee — has a modernist, downtown art-museum building that opened in 2003 and is devoted to the museum’s specialization in Contemporary Crafts.

Alas, I missed one recent show — Bigger, Better, More: The Art of Viola Frey. One of Frey’s colorfully invigorating ceramic sculptures is a standout at Cincinnati’s Wolf collection.

Milwaukee Art Museum, meanwhile, has the most architecturally striking building in the city, Santiago Calatrava’s 2001 Quadracci Pavilion, which contains the wing-like Brise Soleil, a movable sunscreen that gracefully covers or exposes the pavilion like giant, fluttering white wings.

A separate building houses the museum’s permanent collection, which is extremely strong in Folk, Self-Taught and Outsider Art. That collection, which has its own prominent gallery, includes one standout example of southern Ohio folk art — “Standard Bearer (Pair of Black Figures)” consists of almost life-size figures carved by an unknown Hamilton artist in the 1880s. They might have been used at an African-American fraternal organization or mortuary service and are as valuable as pieces of history as art.

Perhaps the best example of how much Wisconsin appreciates Ohio art is in the fact that the Kohler Foundation — which works cooperatively with the Kohler Arts — late last year bought an endangered “visionary art environment” in Springfield, near Dayton.

It is now restoring the site, called Hartman Rock Garden, which was built by the late H.G. “Ben” Hartman in his backyard during the Great Depression. It consists of small stone and concrete structures depicting subjects related to American and world history.

Eventually, Kohler will turn it over to a Springfield non-profit. The foundation, which previously restored a Louisiana sculpture garden, is now looking at sites in Missouri, Georgia and Wisconsin.

“There’s not another foundation doing this,” says Terri Yoho, Kohler Foundation’s Executive Director. “These are treasures to the local communities in their states.”

There’s a lot we can learn from Wisconsin.


CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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