The Art Preserve is an experimental space built for the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s collection of over thirty-five artist-built environments. Designed to be a cohesive space for housing and displaying art, it provides an opportunity for continued discovery into art environments and their creators and the mission of the Arts Center as steward. Laura Bickford is associate curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center where her responsibilities include overseeing and executing the curatorial vision of the Art Preserve and related exhibitions at the Arts Center. She has had a lifelong love of all things handmade, embellished, encrusted, fried, miniature, and oversized, which has led to her professional pursuit of the vernacular, the extraordinary every day, and objects created on the margins of culture.
Though, like the rest of you, we spent much more time safe at home than out in the field this past year, the SPACES team still had the great privilege to discover and engage with dynamic art environments and their advocates around the world. Here’s a summary of what we were up to in 2020!
DAS BUNTESHAUS: Courtesy of artist, Silja Coutsicos
Part of the Ellsworth Rock Garden’s (ERG) allure is its unlikely setting in Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park. The enormous waterway park is at the southern fringe of the northern boreal forest, consisting of islands and backcountry trails which connect Lakes Namakan, Rainy, and Kabetogama. The latter is the only Voyageurs lake that doesn’t share boundary waters with Canada and is the location of “the Showplace of Lake Kabetogama” as the ERG is locally known. Humans have long capitalized on the area’s natural resources such as the fur trade, logging, mining, and world-class fishing. We saw bald eagles everywhere while canoeing from campsite to campsite and had a few close encounters with black bears.
Photographer, cultural advocate, and SPACES founder Seymour Rosen is well-known within the world of art environments for his dogged determination to protect place- and life-specific works of art and expand their recognition as culturally and creatively significant sites. Rosen first visited the Watts Towers in 1952 – the very beginning of his photography career – and his subsequent dedication to art environments continued throughout his life. However, Rosen’s appreciation of cultural production was expansive and included many more forms of human expression – from art cars and existential messages left under overpasses to storefront churches and intricately woven baked goods.
SPACES was recently able to speak with Allie Light of Light-Saraf Films, the creators of the widely beloved series of films on self-taught artists called Visions of Paradise featuring the work of Calvin and Ruby Black, Harry Lieberman, Tressa Prisbrey, Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, and Minnie Evans. Light and her partner Irving Saraf (who passed away in 2012) went on to create many more films, including In the Shadow of the Stars which earned them the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1991. Light has served on the Media Advisory Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts and is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. She lives in San Francisco.
SPACES is excited to share this guest post from Jordan Quant – a recent graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and recipient of the Roads Scholarship for Research and Travel. Jordan Quant is an artist from Alpharetta, Georgia, and Chicago, Illinois, and recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work is grounded in garment design, with emphasis on fabric treatments and printmaking processes. Jordan expands garment making techniques to create soft sculptures that straddle definitions of functional furniture and wearable objects. In addition to sculpture making, she is invested in studying and creating choreographic notation, dancing, and learning about her family through cooking.
Built from 1921 to 1954 by Italian immigrant Sabato (Simon) Rodia, the Watts Towers are made of concrete, bottles, cups, glass, tile, shells, and steel. After nearly 100 years, the art environment has experienced numerous rounds of conservation – the most recent and ambitious by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) with the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs. This project is a crucial effort to manage day-to-day maintenance and develop a comprehensive plan for the long-term preservation of the Towers. We're excited to share some insights from Lily Doan, Associate Conservator at LACMA about the ongoing project!
Several years ago, while living in Dubuque, Iowa, I stumbled upon a small and very beautiful handmade shrine, about a foot tall, in a Goodwill thrift store. This piece of art became one of my most treasured possessions, but I could not find any information about its origins.
International Artifacts continues to conserve M.T. Liggett’s totems, despite the 100+ degree heat. While Beth Wiza, Preservation Coordinator at Kohler Foundation, was on site, the team installed four conserved pieces, including the snowman-like piece (untitled, November 14, 1994) in the photographs. Conservation on the pieces includes paint restoration, stabilization, re-attachment of damaged parts through welding, treatment to protect the art from the elements, and more.
Art environment builders create works that encompass their entire homes, yards, and even beyond. But what happens when the creator passes away, moves, or loses control of the property? Many times, the in-situ site is dismantled, the original context lost forever. Any remaining works are then acquired by a gallery or museum collection and, in some unfortunate cases, discarded. As Lisa Stone notes “Like the mainstream historic preservation field, the history of the preservation of art environments is replete with heated political struggles, debates over methodologies, funding obstacles, ruinous “acts of God,” marvels of individual commitment and great collaboration, and the challenges of ongoing preservation.” How can you help? Other than financially, these environments thrive on community support. In theory, city officials are beholden to their citizens, and a vocal positive community opinion can make all the difference.