Kohler Company

During April and May of 1993 I was a resident artist at the Kohler Company factory in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The experience has changed the way that I think about myself as well as giving me new insights into my work.

Since 1974 the Kohler Company, a large international manufacturer of plumbing fixtures acting in conjunction with the John Michael Kohler Arts Center of Sheboygan, has sponsored artists’ residencies in their foundry and pottery factories. Artists who are interested in the program are encouraged to develop proposals for work that they hope to accomplish during a residency. Accepted artists are given studio space and housing plus access to factory equipment, materials, and personnel for the duration of the residency period.

kohler company
Martha Glowacki, at her Kohler Arts-Industry residency, May 1993

For a metalsmith accustomed to small scale casting and metal enameling a foundry residency at Kohler offers many intriguing possibilities for larger scale work. The foundry casts brass as well as several different types of iron. Artists can cast medium scale work in brass and up to bathtub size and larger in iron. Artists also have access to Kohler’s enameling furnaces where cast iron bathtubs and sinks are enameled by hand with giant forks and enamel sifters. I decided, after touring the enamel shops at Kohler many years ago that I would apply for a residency at some time in the future.

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The residency certainly allowed me to produce work that I couldn’t have managed to do any other way. When learning a new process, I need the time to experiment with materials and the freedom to sometimes fail. Because materials were supplied as part of the residency I didn’t have to worry about the usual high cost of foundry materials and time and this allowed for experimentation. Artists are also allowed to use most of the factory facilities, including industrial-size machine tools, welding and metallizing equipment. When I was in the factory, at times I felt like a child who had been given a free pass at the local amusement park: there were more tools and processes available than I could possibly try during my stay. Yet, I also knew it would be hard to go back to my own studio where the machine tools are not as good and where a lot of processes are done more slowly.

One benefit of most artists’ residencies is that the artist gets uninterrupted, concentrated work time. That was the case at Kohler. Along with the other artists, I worked twelve or fourteen hours a day, leaving only when I was hungry or so physically or mentally exhausted that I thought I might have an accident if I stayed longer. It was a luxury to have so much time to work and I found personal satisfaction in the fact that I could keep up the grueling physical pace.

Another aspect of a residency that most metalsmiths would enjoy are the opportunities to learn about processes. Although I knew a lot about investment casting before my residency, I didn’t know much about the multi-part sand molds used at Kohler or about working in cast iron. I found that most of the Kohler employees were generous in sharing technical information, especially when they noticed that I listened carefully and followed their advice. Some parts of foundry practice, like traditional pattern making, will probably become lost arts as computers and automated processes take over and I feel fortunate to have talked with artisans who still make wood and metal patterns for casting and those who do loose molding in green sand. As a person who takes pride in doing things well and in knowing technique, I could appreciate these employees’ technical skills as well as the obvious pride that they took in their work.

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The complex production processes in the factory were fascinating. Much of the foundry work is still done by hand and involves teams of people working together quickly and with great concentration. Since all of the processes are dangerous to some degree a lapse in concentration can lead to serious accidents. Many processes involved elaborate tooling that has evolved to make newer procedures fit into a turn of the century factory building. One of the more complex examples is the production facility for Kohler’s enamels, which are made on site from raw materials. The three story maze of machines that turns silica, oxides, etceteras into finely ground enamel colors reminded me of the countless workers who must have contributed ideas about how to further refine the process.

Working in a large factory where the emphasis is on efficient, quick production made me think a great deal about how process relates to my own work. The contrast between my working methods, which involve experimentation and contemplation, and the fast pace of factory production was enlightening. I found that my own pace quickened when I was in the artists’ factory studio in close proximity to constant production activity. I also realized that quiet work time (a rarity in a factory) is necessary for my own creative thought. One of the valuable lessons of a factory residency is to learn how to combine the efficiency of the factory with the contemplative, less-structured atmosphere of an artist’s studio.

What I will remember most about the residency are things that the experience taught me about myself. When I arrived at Kohler I was not sure if I would be able to cope with the situation. The scope and complexity of the factory were initially overwhelming. I had worked with power tools for a long time, but I had never worked in a factory nor did I have the more traditional background in sculpture which would have taught me how to use things like hoists and air-powered tools. At Kohler I also had to use all of these tools plus things such as fork trucks and power sand mixers. Although it was a temptation to hide out in the artists’ studio space, I soon learned my way around the factory and became adept at finding out which employees were willing to help me learn what I needed to know. I am proud that I was able to feel self-confident and reasonably self-sufficient in the foundry after only a few weeks.

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Before the residency I was also concerned that, as a woman, I would be in a tiny minority in the foundry. Out of the hundreds of employees who currently work in the foundry (not counting cleaning and clerical staff) only three are women. I was worried that I would be hazed, ignored, or laughed at while I tried to work. To the contrary, I was treated with consideration and taken seriously once I had demonstrated that I was willing to work hard and that I was ready to listen to advice. Most of the men with whom I came into contact assumed that I had a basic knowledge of tools and a native intelligence as well. This was a welcome change from my typical experiences at the lumber yard and the hardware store. Perhaps my position as a woman artist in the Kohler foundry was made easier by the many women artists who had preceded me and proved themselves capable and responsible. Whatever the reason, I was pleasantly surprised by the way I was treated. I was also surprised at how many employees took an interest in what I was making, asking questions and visiting the studio space to follow my progress on the pieces.

A final point of interest to me was that I was able to see from the inside how a large, heavy manufacturing operation works. The social hierarchy of management, foremen, and crew, the extreme physical demands of much of the work, and the need for tight security measures, all represented a different world for me that was in sharp contrast to my less-structured life as an artist. In retrospect, I came home from my first artist’s residency with much more than new cast iron pieces. The experience of working in a factory helped me to sort out, once again, why I chose to be an artist in the first place.

Artists who are interested in more information about the Kohler Arts-Industry program should write for an application and brochure. The address is: John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 608 New York Avenue, P.O. Box 489, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 53082-0489.

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Martha Glowacki lives in Sauk City, Wisconsin and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, She is presently a member of the board of the Society of North American Goldsmiths.