L. F. Ames Museum of ArtLevi Fisher Ames (1840 - 1923)
Levi Fisher Ames (center) with his traveling L. F. Ames Museum of Art, c.1880–1895; gelatin silver print; 6 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. John Michael Kohler Arts Center Collection, gift of Kohler Foundation Inc.
Levi Fisher Ames (center) with his traveling L. F. Ames Museum of Art (detail), c. 1880–1895; gelatin silver print; 6 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. John Michael Kohler Arts Center Collection, gift of Kohler Foundation Inc.
Relocated (incl. Museums)
3636 Lower Falls Road, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 53081, United States
The entire collection is on view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center's Art Preserve in Sheboygan, WI.
About the Artist/Site
Forced to give up his trade as a carpenter in the late 1860s due to a Civil War injury, Levi Fisher Ames turned to making musical instruments for a living. He also took up carving, creating a vast wooden menagerie of animals from around the world and from the far reaches of his imagination. The body of sculptures he left — over 600 hand-carved domestic, wild, and mythical animals and characters — stands as a tribute to someone who loved to talk, teach, and, above all, entertain.
After Ames had accumulated several hundred individual carvings, he decided to house them in wooden shadow boxes, hand-labeling the carved figures and branding his initials into the top of each box. The glass-fronted boxes were customized to accommodate the various-sized carvings. Hinged in the center, they opened like a book to reveal the creatures within. Each side may contain one or several carvings with a similar set on the opposing side.
Seeking an audience, Ames built special crates to accommodate the boxed carvings and took his menagerie to local fairs and to Monroe [Wisconsin] Cheese Days where he displayed them in a tent. Ames became well known as the creator of the “L. F. Ames Museum of Art,” which was also known as “The Grand Museum of Art and Natural History, Whittled Out of Wood.”
Ames was inspired to carve creatures from the irresistible tall tales of Wisconsin. Fanned by the fires of lumberjack camps, the local circus culture, and a European heritage rife with legends and fairy tales, these are typified by the legend of the elusive hodag — The Celebrated Black Hodag captured in Oneida County, Wis… Near Reinelander. Mentioned in several Paul Bunyan stores, blamed for hoaxes and tricks for generations, frequently sighted (but never confirmed), the hodag legend remains a part of the Northwoods culture and the unofficial mascot of the state.
Inspired by circus sideshows and bolstered by his natural talent as a storyteller, Ames’s “Cabinet of Curiosities” became a sideshow unto itself, drawing on people's inherent curiosity about creatures far and wide, real and imaginary. In his menagerie, Ames depicted animals from across the zoological spectrum, from the common rat and chicken to the exotic, labeled as Mongoose Lemur Native of Madagascar, The Tasmanian Devil, and The White Shark.
Levi Fisher Ames firmly believed that his body of work needed to be seen as a comprehensive group in order to be understood and fully appreciated For this reason, he kept the carvings together, never selling any of them. After his death in 1923, the “L. F. Ames Museum of Art” was traded to a Chicago pawnshop for $133. Ten years later, the Ames family reclaimed the carved menagerie to keep it from being lost or broken up.
Just as circus advertisers promoted their shows as more fantastic than others, Ames’ carved characters reflected his journey from basic facts about common animals, to tales of struggle and survival in the wild, to the out-and-out tall tales of creatures and heroes of legend and lore. As Ames explored the avenue of riveting subject matter, his wild creatures frequently stretched the bounds of truth. The Great Fish Lizard and The Flying Reptile hovered between fact and fancy, and in the Half Elephant and Half Sturgeon. Weight: —five tons and was captured in Michigan, reality gives way to the fantastic. Through Howard Jordan, Ames’s grandson, Kohler Foundation acquired this entire body of work in 2001 in order to preserve it and keep the collection together as Ames desired. Conserved by the Foundation, the collection was gifted to the permanent collection of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.
Text: “L. F. Ames Museum of Art .” Kohler Foundation: A History, edited by Terri Yoho, Kohler Foundation, Inc., 2018, pp. 228–239.
wood, shadow boxes
Map & Site Information
3636 Lower Falls Road
Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 53081 us
Latitude/Longitude: 43.7432233 / -87.7548826