By KURT MCVEY, OCT. 2017
“A visionary is a person who doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing. If they did, they’d be looking backwards, not to the future,” claims Isaiah Zagar, the reliably quirky creative force behind Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a mosaic-heavy, folk-art environment located on South Street along the southern border of the tourist friendly Center City district. The quote came halfway through a panel discussion focused on the prevailing issues surrounding the preservation of similarly singular art environments called “Lane Changers, Game Changers,” one of many enlightening talks snuggly embedded in a weeklong conference at Sheboygan, Wisconsin’s John Michael Kohler Arts Center, appropriately titled, The Road Less Traveled.
Zagar could indeed be called a visionary. He’s also a self-taught artist. He’s definitely eccentric and as Emily Smith, the young, purple-haired executive director of his Magic Gardens would probably find difficult to dispute, idiosyncratic, especially considering how many giggles and friendly eye-rolls she offered in response to many of Zagar’s delightfully peculiar and often irreverent insights. The overarching question at the conference, however, seemed to be this: Is Zagar, and other art environment builders, whether living or dead, deserving of the somewhat disputed title of “outsider?”
Terri Yoho, the Executive Director of The Kohler Foundation (JMKAC) since 1999, doesn’t think so. This isn’t because a creator like Zagar exists firmly within the art world mainframe, but because language in general, and in America especially, is always a bit problematic, especially in an age where inclusion-and the conversation around this essential talking point-has never been more intense, and deservingly so. Therefore, despite the increasing ubiquity of this title being used in the art world lexicon and directly in the title of an increasingly influential art fair, the word can sometimes come across as a bit condescending.
This was perhaps the most valuable takeaway Yoho offered to a “fish out of water” arts journalist, steadfastly rooted in New York’s frequently polemic contemporary art arena, just moments after a heartfelt gala-style dinner in the museum’s main ballroom. Yoho, often the first Kohler representative to put boots on the ground “in situ” in order to decide whether or not to intervene in an art environment’s often tenuous life-cycle, will be stepping down along with Ruth DeYoung Kohler, JMKAC’s cherished director since 1972. Ruth Kohler, as eponymous as she is magnanimous, will be leaving to focus on building an indoor-outdoor art preserve on a nearby Sheboygan site formerly used as farmland. The one-two punch of these two fiercely blunt and enduringly compassionate women stepping back coincides with the museum’s 50th anniversary.
The Road Less Traveled Conference, which concluded Friday, September 29th, marks the end of an era and the beginning a new chapter in the museum’s vibrant narrative, while serving as both an art world high-water mark and an internationally germinating conversational catalyst for what is often dubiously referred to as “naïve,” “primitive,” “life specific,” and, especially if there are indigenous or immediate cultural connotations, “vernacular art.”
“Let’s raise our glasses to the wonderful weirdos that we are!” exclaimed JMKAC’s curator and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago alumnus Karen Patterson at the conclusion of the aforementioned dinner. Patterson’s good-humored yet delightfully self-aware toast came on the heels of several other surprisingly emotional speeches by various site stewards around the country whose lives, communities and respective art environments were powerfully affected by the timely and carefully calculated intervention of Yoho and Kohler. Highlights included Professor Dennis Sipiorski of Nicholls State University, who along with Dr. Gary LeFleur, reign as stewards over the Chauvin Sculpture Garden, a three-dimensional Bosch fantasy and folk art environment built by the faithful, reclusive, and mysterious bricklayer turned visionary artist, Kenny Hill, right on the banks of a Louisiana bayou. Sipiorski, who provided reliable and valuable comic relief throughout the conference-while personally embracing (in a performative capacity) the prevailing showman or “huckster” through line in “self taught” art-was adamant that Yoho (who visited Chauvin for the first time in 2005) not only saved the site, but in many respects his child-like creative spirit as well.
Similarly, the soft-spoken Fred Fussell, chief curator of Pasequan, an art environment in Buena Vista, Georgia, created by the undoubtedly eccentric artist Eddie Owens Martin (St. EOM) after a highly transformative fever dream, took dinner guests through the dramatic ten-year process (2003-13) of bringing Yoho and JMKAC into the preservation conversation. Many of these narrative gaps were later filled in by Fussell and company during a panel discussion called “Eddie Owens Martins Drive: Thinking of/through Pasequan.” Pasequan, which its builder/creator and former NYC “midnight cowboy” once described as “…a kind of mock pre-Colombian psychedelic wonderland where all religions, sexes and genders live in harmony” before taking his own life in 1985, is now on the National Register of Historic Spaces and operates closely with Columbus State University.
Though JMKAC has a clear interest in helping with maintenance, upkeep and financial support for art environments in situ, whether it’s Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park or the nearby Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden (which served as the location for the conference’s opening night Brat Fry), the museum currently houses “The Road Less Traveled” exhibition series, which was expertly curated by Patterson along with an organic, almost instinctual selection of “responders,” several being artists themselves, who added entirely new thematic and experiential dimensions to each individual exhibit.
On the conference’s last day, as panel discussion fatigue settled in, Patterson led an intimate, conversational walk-through of the yearlong series, which includes fifteen exhibitions involving seventeen art-environment builders in total, all culled from the Art Center’s impressive and growing collection. The tour began with the expansive Mythologies which, like many of the exhibits, deserves it own piece. A comprehensive companion catalogue for Mythologies was created in part by Patterson, curator Lisa Stone and writer/artist Michelle Grabner, both from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Brett Littman, executive director of The Drawing Center in New York, and not least of all, the photographer and critic Chris Wiley. Such a unique and yes, idiosyncratic creative force could use the collective expertise of these valuable minds to help unpack this man’s vast and incredibly trippy body of work.
Mythologies manages to incorporate Von Bruenchenheim’s unique perspective on biology, marriage, war, atomic energy, botany, geo-politics, religion and perhaps even inter-dimensional travel. These ideas were expressed through poetry, painting, photography, and perhaps most notably, his insane, anthropomorphic, organic form sculptures and architectonic towers made out of painted leaves and chicken bones. The smaller chicken bone sculptures, encased in wall-mounted cases, look like Giger-esque thrones for the kings and queens of some miniature alien mantis civilization, while the skeletal Gaudi-evoking (i.e. Segrada Familia) “towerettes” bare a striking resemblance to Sam Rodia’s sky-scraping Watts Towers, a popular yet “off the beaten path” art-environment and tourist attraction in Los Angeles. Though some are quick to dismiss this trope, erecting plainly phallic, Babel-like towers seems to be a reoccurring theme in the self-taught realm.
One of the most interesting components of Eugene Von Bruenchenheim’s (EVB, 1910–1983) work is his adoring fascination with his young wife and muse, Marie (real name Evelyn Kalka). Various portraits of his wife and in multiple mediums, mostly photography, populate the gallery space. She is often in the nude, posed and dressed pin-up style, though only overtly flattering half the time it would seem. Many are candid, some are outtakes, while the whole body of work seems to openly chronicle her aging (starting at 19) throughout the years; another insight into EVB’s own fear of death and loss perhaps. She is at once intimately close, aloof and on a towering pedestal. So much so that EVB often painted with brushes (on display) made from his wife’s hair.
Outside of the show itself, the companion catalogue is the only worthy vehicle to truly embrace and explore the man’s work in earnest. At least one sentence more, however, should be devoted to a narrow section of the gallery featuring the artist’s radiant yet disappointingly prescient nuclear bomb paintings, executed in the mid 1950s. These red and orange mushroom clouds, constructed with psychedelic, devilish faces emerging through the swelling, metastasizing blasts, stare defiantly at the opposite wall, where heartfelt poems written by the artist's anxious yet confident hand document urgent past, present and future appeals to peace, sanity, and the seemingly “naïve” dream of nuclear disarmament.
Move past an enclosed display of desert cacti and other seemingly out of place green plants that speak to EVB’s fascination with botany and you enter into a whole new world of metal, electricity and sound. This is An Encounter With Presence: Emery Blagdon. Blagdon (1907–1986) is a self-taught artist who hailed from rural Nebraska. He began creating his now famed “Healing Machine,” essentially a shed filled with an impossible amount of hanging aluminum mobiles-constructed with baling wire, electrical circuitry, light bulbs and other organic matter-in the late ‘60s as a response to profound personal trauma. Blagdon believed the structure had a genuine ability to heal ailments, including his own, psychosomatic or not. Several speakers on different panels, including Karen Patterson, relayed anecdotes about Blagdon’s machine cheering up depressed or grief-stricken friends and colleagues. It did have a certain ‘80s Spielbergian magic to it.
Directly across from this dizzying installation are several “Sonambient” metal works by the prominent Modernist designer, Harry Bertoia (1915–1978). Though some feel Blagdon’s “Healing Machine” is strong enough to exist and thrive in its own exhibition space, the presence of Bertoia’s thin, vertical sculptures (little towers in their own right) stirs up a rather entertaining dialogue between the two artists, built around a shared “outsider mystique,” and their distinctive approaches to metal, sound, space, the 6th sense and other invisible wavelengths.
The special responders to An Encounter With Presence were Shannon Stratton, chief curator of the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC and sound engineer and artist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. Lowe’s featured performance, in which he banged on Bertoia’s noble and stoic Sonambients rather arbitrarily with little fuzzy mallets (which he dropped lazily and repeatedly) after the gala dinner might be the only element of the conference worthy of overt criticism. His earlier, private recordings of “The Healing Machine,” which played on loop and rather mysteriously upon entering the exhibition space are a welcome curatorial addition. The special performance however stood out from the “outsider” punk vibe with its hyper hipster self-awareness. Though a decent portion of the elder, Midwestern conference attendees praying for an acid flashback seemed to be rather taken by the performance (think Jack Nicholson pre-Chief pillow snuff in Cookoo’s Nest), this writer wasn’t buying it.
Luckily, a chuckling Professor Sipiorski was hiding right around the corner to share in this quiet moment of critical solidarity, as we had both escaped mid performance (a merciful estimate) to take refuge in the wonderful exhibit, Things Are What We Encounter: Dr. Charles Smith. Dr. Smith in many ways was the conference’s resident rock star. A Vietnam veteran, activist, educator, walking fashion statement and self-taught art-environment builder, Dr. Smith boasts two incredible sites that feature hundreds of (mostly) figurative and abstract sculptural works that speak directly to the uncomfortable historical and educational blind spots in the larger African American experience; the first in Aurora, Illinois, which he calls the African-American Heritage Museum + Black Veterans Archives and the second in Hammond, Louisiana. Dr. Smith is a doctor in the same sense that the rapper and producer Dr. Dre (now a legitimate billionaire) is a celebrated physician. This is a similar response to (and protest of) institutionalized exclusion and overall prevailing American hypocrisy as well as an audacious proclamation of undeniable production, life experience, and immense cultural value. “Doctor” of course, also evokes the ultimate outsider, the witch doctor (shaman) in Haitian and Louisiana Voodoo. Dr. Smith, as a character or construct, however, may be something related a bit closer to Hoodoo or folk-magic.
While sitting beside Isaiah Zagar on the “Lane Changers, Game Changers” panel, Dr. Smith dropped such wisdom as, “I learned by gettin’ burned,” “I grew up and I blew up,” and a personal favorite; “Put the message in your madness, lock it and block it.” What is this madness that drives Dr. Smith’s obsession, one might ask, outside of his horrific, “in the shit” Vietnam experiences, which he began to articulate in detail before Lisa Stone, the panel’s moderator deftly intervened? He says his drive to create comes from the appreciation of what a day in the life of a slave must have been like. His frequent, 12-plus hour days of endless creation, which frazzle his loving, concerned wife, are a sort of artistic stigmata in the vein of similar “yards shows” indigenous to the Caribbean.
“It’s the life of a slave that drives me,” he says, rather plainly. The Hammond, Louisiana site, for example, was developed after Dr. Smith-while driving back and forth extensively to visit his ailing mother-stumbled upon the small gravesite of the town’s wealthy white founder, Pete Hammond, which included his wife’s grave and a small gravestone that cryptically read, “Favorite Slave Boy.” Dr. Smith couldn’t forget, let alone abide this problematic artifact’s lack of cultural context and took his desire for clarification and redemption all the way to the Mayor’s office. He was so perturbed by the lack of awareness and dearth of real knowledge regarding the subject; he campaigned for the city and local universities to provide an official, detailed explanation of the site’s historical and contemporary significance. In response to the city reacting too slowly, feigning action and enthusiasm, and eventually manipulating or taking credit for his successes, Dr. Smith decided to buy a local house and create an entirely new art-environment within a few miles of Hammond’s grave.
The young artist Heather Hart might have made the greatest curatorial contribution in “The Road Less Traveled” series as a chosen responder to Dr. Smith’s work. Hart, who recently unveiled an incredible site-specific interactive sculpture at the Storm King Arts Center, Outlooks, which is essentially a roof-like structure and functional performance stage built directly into the Upstate, NY landscape like a modern suburban hobbit house, incorporated a similar architectural theme into Things Are What We Encounter.
To experience many of Dr. Smith’s more abstract works, viewers are forced to crawl through a wooden and slightly labyrinthine jungle gym structure, as if you gave Willy Wonka half a day to go crazy in a Home Depot. Hart is compelling, no, challenging people of all ages to work for their art, to be uncomfortable enough to truly feel the value inherent in the artist’s message and to sit with it for a moment, or to a much lesser degree, earn the right to Instagram this incredible creator’s gifts to the public. Dr. Smith’s own appreciation for JMKAC’s intervention and preservation of over 448 sculptures along with the 200 now in the Art Center’s collection doesn’t go unnoticed. It is simply another compacted example of the museum’s larger embrace of historically excluded artists.
As one could probably surmise at this point, The Road Less Traveled Conference at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and the exhibition series that inspired it, though both beautifully and tastefully curated, provide an almost overwhelming amount of creative content to chew on. Countless experts, writers, curators and artists from around the world descended upon Sheboygan, Wisconsin in the last few humid days of September to explore how self-taught artists like Mississippi’s “Original Rhinestone Cowboy,” Loy Bowlin (The Making of a Dream),” The Chelsea Hotel’s own and possibly tormented Stella Waitzkin (the portal like, inhabitable Volumes), or the eccentric Old and New Testament “yard tweeter” Jesse “Outlaw” Howard (Sorehead Hill), fit into the larger “art world” conversation. Were they outsiders, mad geniuses, prophets and eccentrics, or were they just artists, pure and simple; environment builders who weren’t bludgeoned or co-opted by the increasingly didactic art world, which has become increasingly reliant on academia to create commercial viability? Are we embracing true weirdos in the art world, or are we just pressuring and pushing young people through institutionalized conditioning programs as a means to help them game the gallery system, and in a larger sense funnel revenue and capital back into those same institutions?
Many experts in this arena are quick to dismiss what seems like an obvious truth; that many of these artists are operating with an unpolluted, raw, almost post-natal, childlike sense of wonder, as many primordial archetypes (angels, secular godheads, sacred geometry) reoccur in their often spiritual, empathic work, like sober psychedelic visions in a shared objective reality. Such a notion might be as dismissive as the title of “outsider artist.” What is clear to this writer, however, is that the larger responsibilities involving the curation, restoration, removal, preservation, contextualization, and baseline handling of these unique art environments and the special souls who created them, as well as the communities they’ve touched or have come to represent, requires an entirely extra dimension of sensitivity and emotional intelligence. This was clear to anyone truly paying attention at the conference. Because of this alone, the stewards of this charmingly unrefined realm of art deserve as much, if not a greater amount of respect from the larger international art community. WM
Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.
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