Friday, August 10, 2012

Outsider Art, 2012

If I were allowed to rewrite a tourism slogan, Milton Glaser's "I Love New York" would become "I Love Wisconsin." It's a good thing I live so close by.

Regular readers know I visit the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan pretty frequently. Its current exhibits are excellent, as usual, but the two that stood out the most for me were glimpses of two environment builders from the museum's collection.

First was Emery Blagdon (1907 - 1986). I wasn't familiar with his work, despite his presence in the book Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds. Blagdon lived in a small town in Nebraska, and had spent years as a hobo and seasonal laborer before returning to his home town, where he made his way as a subsistence farmer and general handyman.

After the deaths of his parents by the early 1950s, he began making what he called his "pretties" -- wire sculptures reminiscent of lace. He built a workshop and shed to house the pieces. Then he began to paint, but he often didn't hang the paintings, instead stacking them face to face on the ground.

Blagdon believed that his shed, full of wire, wood, metal, and plastic sculptures and paintings, conducted energy and was literally a Healing Machine.

According to the museum's exhibit notes,
He pursued these possibilities until he died in 1986. By then, Blagdon had been ravaged by cancer for what the doctors supposed had to have been a decade; his Healing Machine was the only aid he ever sought.

After the Blagdon's death, the pharmacist who had [supplied him with empty pill bottles for his sculptures]--Dan Dryden--returned for a visit to find Blagdon gone and his entire oeuvre up for sale. With friends, Dryden bought and preserved The Healing Machine... In 2004, the Kohler Foundation acquired The Healing Machine, consisting of some 400 individual components....
The museum's installation includes a half-size recreation of The Healing Machine (pictured above), surrounded by dozens of individual pieces, hanging from the gallery's ceiling and walls, or rising from the floor on pedestals.

Blagdon's work has echoes of wooden tramp art and the hexes of the Pennsylvania Dutch, but the overall impression is distinct -- and mysterious.

The second environment builder whose work is currently on display is Dr. Charles Smith (1940 - ). I've seen a few of his works during an earlier visit, but this larger showing of the collection reveals its power more clearly.

Smith, an African-American Vietnam veteran who knew trauma before, during, and after his military service, began to sculpt in concrete in the mid-1980s with the intention of creating what he called the African American Heritage Museum & Black Veterans Archive.

By 1999, he had created 600 sculptures outside his Aurora, Illinois, home (photos of his sculptures in their original location can be seen here). He realized the weather was damaging them and sought out the Kohler Foundation, which worked with him to restore and preserve 200 of his works.

These works together are called Memorials to Unknown Slaves. The huge heads reminded me of the ceramic Face Jugs I had just seen at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

This sculpture, titled 3/5 of a Man, was the most striking of all to me.

Smith now lives and continues his work in the New Orleans area, near where he was born -- 709 East Louisiana Avenue in Hammond, Louisiana. Yet another place to visit!

Mary Nohl's (1914 - 2001) work is also part of the Kohler's collection, but none of it is on exhibit currently. But I did get a chance to stop at her house in Fox Point and get a few photos through the fence. (Find out more about Nohl's work in the book Mary Nohl: Inside and Out.)

Nohl's property and sculpture garden are on a narrow, two-lane road with no parking nearby. It's now owned by the Kohler Foundation, which preserves it while not opening it to the public as a compromise with the neighbors.

According to Roadside Architecture:
Dubbed "The Witch of Fox Point," rumors spread that she had killed her family and buried them in the sculptures. The fact that she never married or had children added to her "witchy" reputation. High school students from all over began to taunt her and vandalize the property. Mary was forced to surround her property with barbed wire topped chainlink fencing and to put metal grates over her windows. She also chained down many sculptures.
I wonder if the oddball male environment builders like Fred Smith and Herman Rusch encountered that type of harassment?

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