Q&A interview with Don Howlett
HM: How did you get involved in preserving art environments?
DH: After I received my MFA in sculpture from the University of Oklahoma in 1975, I returned with Sharron Quasius (my wife at the time) to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I was teaching a course in contemporary sculpture at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, when JMKAC’s director, Ruth DeYoung Kohler, asked if Sharron and I would do “cosmetic” repairs on some of the embellished concrete and mixed media sculptures at Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park, an art environment in Phillips. Kohler had been the driving force behind Kohler Foundation, Inc.’s recent purchase of the Park.
Fred Smith, a retired lumberjack and self-taught artist, had created a historical panorama of life-size and larger than life tableaux on his property between 1949 and 1964. But from 1964, until his death in 1976, he had been in a nursing home, and the Park had suffered somewhat from a decade of neglect. I had first visited the site while I was on a fishing trip in 1967. The site was nothing short of amazing. I was very interested in Kohler’s proposal to repair it.
We began work in the spring of 1977. With a freshly minted MFA in sculpture, I was humbled to work on Smith’s sculpture. This man did a tremendous amount of incredibly original and cohesive work without the kind of schooling I had been so engrossed in.
Then, on the 4thof July, a cyclonic downburst hit northern Wisconsin and swept through the Park. We were away for the weekend and returned to find incredible destruction. If the restoration project had not been in process, the site surely would have been bulldozed. Instead, the project was expanded. We worked for a year and completely restored the sculptures in a changed landscape. In September 1978, Kohler Foundation, Inc. (KFI) gifted the Park to Price County.
Soon after, I began to meet people in the then-burgeoning field of art environment preservation. I became friends with members of the Kansas Grassroots Art Association and met Seymour Rosen, founder and director of SPACES, who brought me to California to see environments there and to assess their conditions. I traveled around the country to visit art environments. My sculpture background and materials experience helped me understand how to approach the preservation of such sites.
In 1981 I was hired by KFI to oversee the restoration of The Painted Forest, an entire interior panoramic mural painted by itinerant German artist Ernest Hüpeden in the Modern Woodman of America lodge hall in Valton, WI. Five years later, I was again hired by KFI to oversee the restoration of the Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto, in Cataract, WI. I worked off and on for two years with Lisa Stone and a team of artists on this art environment.
I also returned with Stone to Wisconsin Concrete Park. In 1987, we realized the Park needed attention beyond the local County Forestry Department’s efforts, and we initiated a modest annual maintenance program. But ten years and 1 day after the 1977 downburst, another storm struck the site and caused significant damage. We realized then we would have to be involved permanently in the site’s restoration, and have done preservation work at the Park every summer since. Stone and I formalized our involvement in art environment preservation by establishing Preservation Services, Inc.
HM: What are the first steps you take when you begin a preservation project?
DH: Gathering all available vintage photo-documentation is essential. By vintage I mean photos made during the creation of the site, representing the work as created, in the lifetime of the artist, before major changes occur. Such photos give you insight into the heart and soul of an environment. All treatments are guided by the visual appearance and structural condition of the original. Resisting personal interpretation is always something to be aware of.
It’s necessary to determine how the work was made and what has affected the work physically. I do various tests of materials the artist used, to determine strengths, material compositions, structural integrity, etc. Some projects also require evaluation of preexisting mechanical and/or electrical systems. To understand underlying conditions and problems, it is necessary to examine the work with the least invasive approaches possible. Once you understand the problems, you can design a conservation method and a preservation plan. I often rely on scientific testing using material testing laboratories to determine petrography, microscopy, and chemical analysis. And before I start restoration, I document the existing conditions extensively.
HM: Describe the ideal team for preserving an art environment. What skills would they bring?
DH: The idealteam doesn’t necessarily come into play, in that the custodians of art environments are most often individuals or non-profits that have meager resources and limited experience in fundraising. We try to deal with the individual’s or organization’s capacity, period. I’ve seen custodians of environments become scared off––incapacitated––by fancy reports and impossibly huge budgets. We try to give them a phased plan they can handle. We also feel it’s important to work with and train local people in preservation strategies and repair and maintenance methods—to give them the tools to preserve and maintain a site after we leave. It’s complicated. Like environments themselves, change is a constant factor, and the people who care for them come and go as well. But at the very least, we feel a preservation project should have the following people involved: A curator, who has comprehensive knowledge of the site’s history and documentation, is familiar with preservation and conservation theory and practice, and can plan and make decisions regarding overall approaches, methodologies, and treatment; a technician, who has appropriate skills to work with and take direction from the curator and implement treatment; and a trained assistant, to carry out activities under the direction of the curator and/or technicians. Trained assistants can include interns and volunteers.
HM: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in doing this work?
DH: Funding. It’s very hard to get funding to preserve art environments, which fall between several cultural and art historical cracks. Some projects have strong community support, and others end up with very limited support. It is a matter of perception, of a site’s importance to its community and to larger art and cultural communities. As interest in and the market for “outsider” art has increased, art environments have received more attention—not all of it positive. Sites become vulnerable to vandalism as dealers find it profitable to sell parts of them. We’ve been working in a kind of ideal world, in that KFI has had such an extraordinary involvement with the preservation of art environments, for many years in Wisconsin and now beyond the state’s borders. But KFI’s approach is, unfortunately, completely unique and hasn’t been replicated, as a model, elsewhere.
HM: Everyone loves a success story. Do you have one to share?
DH: I’m proud to have participated in a number of success stories. I’ve seen the Wisconsin Concrete Park go from being scorned by many in the community, to being strongly embraced and supported locally and countywide, and since 1995, by Friends of Fred Smith, Inc. After many years of dealing with conservation challenges and our share of disasters, we’re now doing manageable annual conservation and maintenance.
On a smaller scale, in 2009 we presented a preservation plan to the city of Humboldt, Iowa, to preserve a fountain by Father Dobberstein, the famed builder of the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend. We phased the project over nine years, thinking that would be within their capacity, but the City came up with the funding and this complex project was completed in two!
HM: How has this field changed during the years you’ve been involved?
DH: I hesitate to call it “a field” in that it’s such a niche area of historic preservation, and the mainstream preservation community has yet to recognize art environments as significant cultural resources. But I’ve experienced much change in the 36 years since I became involved. Watts Towers and the Garden of Eden (Lucas, Kansas) were the first art environments to be preserved in this country; both listed in the National Register of Historic Places way back in 1977. Then came the Wisconsin Concrete Park.
Today there are many sites in jeopardy, but many have been preserved and have strong organizational structures in place. The Orange Show Foundation for Visionary Art in Houston has preserved the Orange Show and the Beer Can House and is a major cultural entity in the city. Major projects are underway to preserve Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs in North Carolina and Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Georgia. And fortunately SPACES is reincarnated and now has the reach of its phenomenal website. Seymour would be so proud! The perception of art environments as irreplaceable cultural resources is gradually evolving. But not fast enough for me.
For more information about preservation, see SPACES Preservation Toolbox