Something Special in NE Wisconsin

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By F.R. NicholsMore from this author

Wisconsin is a North American state with beautiful scenery, one and a half million cows, a reputation for harsh winters, and also one of the best-kept secrets in the art world! The Kohler Company, the largest iron foundry in Wisconsin, allows artists to use their facilities to create art using their commercial largescale equipment and supplying the artists with all the supplies they need to make such large pieces.

The Kohler Company was founded in 1873 as a manufacturer of farm equipment. As things progressed, someone thought of marketing an animal drinking trough as a bathtub for humans. By adding feet to an animal trough, a bathtub was born. The first bathtub was sold to a farmer for one cow and 14 chickens. Probably quite a deluxe item, as well as a good price in its day. But this is not an article about the development of bathtubs, or for that matter of the successful evolution of an American company. Rather, it is about the kind of company that developed here in North Eastern Wisconsin in the 1800's, and how it impacts upon us as enamel artists.

To its hundreds of immigrant residents, for whom The American Club was originally built, the dining hall (pictured circa 1918) was a communal place. Hearty food in copious quantity was served family-style at the long refectory tables, and a Victrola played Sousa marches for mealtime entertainment.

In 1913, Walter J. Kohler (the son of John Michael Kohler, the company's founder) traveled to Europe in the company of Sir Ebenezer Howard. Sir Howard was a renowned English town planner and principle founder of the English garden-city movement. There the two toured the garden communities in preparation for planning the village of Kohler. Europe, at that time, was filled with of theories of social idealists as well as appalling working conditions.

This was the industrial age. Factories were belching their black smoke over the cities, and workers, men, women and children, were locked in dark, dirty workplaces for 12 or more hours a day. Labor in those days depended a great deal on physical strength. When the working day was over and food had been consumed, all that was left were a few hours of sleep before the whole physical process began again. Most industrialists did not give a damn about these working people once their hours of work were over. A picture of this sort of behavior was well painted by Charles Dickens, and we are all familiar with the hardships of our immigrant past and the tales of Ellis Island.

There were a few, very few, capitalists who were not like that. There were industrialists, socially concerned individuals like Owens, a Scot, who did care about working people, and thought about how their lives could be improved. Owens establish an ideal industrial society at New Lanark. He championed the handicraft movement, one relic of which, a functioning hand-loom weaving business, still survives in Laxey on the Isle-of-Man to this day. Owens wanted his workers to engage in satisfying pursuits after their day's work at the factory was done. He established such a place and had a profound influence upon the ideas of his day. Men like Owens, as well as Carlyle and others, influenced Ruskin, the art theorist. Ruskin, the son of a sherry merchant, theorized on the relationship between art and society. A quote from Ruskin that clearly made a great impression on Walter Kohler and subsequently on the entire community of Kohler was, "Life without labor is guilt - labor without art is brutality." These are a few of the ideas that were prevalent at the time and were experienced by Walter Kohler as he toured the garden communities. The impacts of these experiences are still reverberating in northeastern Wisconsin.

Upon his return, Walter Kohler, himself the son of an immigrant, commissioned the American Club to be built to house the immigrant workers - the single men of modest means who came to work at Kohler Company. Here the men, most of whom spoke very little English, could live in clean, comfortable surroundings while beginning life in their new country. These workers lived together and ate in a common dining room. A reporter of the day marveled, "The tables fairly groan under the loads of wholesome food and the men can eat as much as they wish. There is only one rule in the dining room, that is to clean the plate. The manager wants nothing wasted." For this era, the America Club was a marvel.

The Tap Room within the American Club (pictured circa 1924) was among the amenities available to the building's residents. Built in 1918 by Kohler Co. as a home for its immigrant workers. The American Club provided clean, comfortable lodging, and offered recreations such as bowling and billiards.

Not only was the emphasis put on good clean living conditions, but also on including these workers into the fabric of their new country. At the dedication of the facility on June 23, 1918, Walter Kohler said "The name, American Club, was decided upon as it was through that, with high standards of living and clean healthful recreation, it would be a factor in inoculating in men of foreign antecedents a love of their adopted country."

There was time after work for the study and learning of English, so that the important citizenship papers could be obtained. In addition to studying privately in their leisure hours at the Club, the immigrants had only to walk a block and a half to the new Kohler Public School. There, evening school was held two days a week.

Along with the American Club, the village of Kohler was laid out after the pattern of the English garden villages. The Olmsead Brothers, the same people who had laid out Central Park in New York City, were responsible for the layout of the village. The workers of Kohler did not just have labor, but they also had roses. There was a school and a park for the children. There were safe places to walk and enjoy the countryside. The village had everything that was necessary for a good life. This was a good place to live and to raise a family, and if you consider the alternatives that were available at the time, you can easily appreciate just what a remarkable community this was.

Maria Phillips at work inside the Kohler facility.

In the same spirit with which the American Club was founded, the tradition continued. Today, the American Club has been restored and is a five star hotel. It has been placed on the National Registry of Historical Places. In 1967, the John Michael Kohler Art Center was founded as a visual and performing arts center. Philosophically, the center is dedicated to working directly with artists and to providing opportunities for them in both the visual and performing arts. In the summer of 1973, a national ceramics invitational exhibition titled THE PLASTIC EARTH opened at the art center, and began a new collaboration between the arts and industry. After the one day seminar that brought engineers and artisans together in demonstrations and discussions, the groundwork was laid for a continuing dialogue between artists and industry. In 1974 the Arts and Industry program was begun with a four-week pilot program. The first two participants were Jack Earl and Tom LaDousa, both ceramists.

These first participants produced over 120 sculptures, fashioned from plumbingware fixtures which they cup apart, reassembled or altered. A significant and unexpected element of the residency was the rapport which grew between the artists and the industrial personnel. In fact, the pilot program proved so rewarding for all involved that it has been continued ever since.

The Arts/Industry residence program is open to all emerging and established artists working in any discipline. Applying artists need not be trained ceramists or metal sculptors. However, they must have the capability of quickly mastering the industrial technologies. Artists may choose to work in either the pottery, the foundry/Enamel shop, or both. Proposals are accepted any time, however, there is an August 1 deadline for residencies for the following calendar year.

Maria Phillips at work inside the Kohler facility.

The program provides the artist with free residency for the length of their internship, up to six months. There are four artists in the program at a time, and they share one of the original village houses. Bicycles are provided for the artists so that they can easily get from one place to another in this bucolic country setting. They easily transport their equipment from the village house to the place of work. The site is a country-like village setting surrounded by lakes and woodlands. The house is close to the factory and a pleasant commute. The artists are reimbursed for basic roundtrip travel expenses within the continental United States, and are also given a small monthly stipend. All artistic equipment and supplies are provided. There are no restrictions on the size or volume of their production. The artists are required to leave one piece of their work for the permanent collection at the John Michael Kohler Art Center.

Work completed by Maria Phillips while attending as resident artist in the John Michael Kohler Arts/Industry program from July 6 to September 27, 2003.

In 2003, Maria Phillips was one of the artists selected for participation in the program. Maria is a metal smith and an enamel artist. Maria received an A.B degree and a BFA from Loyola University in New Orleans in Advertising Design. She went on to receive a MFA from the University of Washington, Seattle, in Fine Arts, with a concentration in Metals. Maria has presented workshop at Penland and at various Universities around the country. She is a visiting professor at the University of Washington at this time. In the past Maria has been a Resident Artist at the Penland School of Crafts, a program sponsored by the Warhol Foundation and the NEA. Maria has shown her work nationally as well as internationally.

For her project at Kohler, Maria selected to recreate the 14 chickens that were part of the original purchase price paid for the first bathtub. Further, she adapted the chickens to accept a drain plug. She choose to do this in keeping with the spirit of being part of a plumbing fixtures operation. This was her idea, and in no way reflected any suggestion or pressure by the company. The artist is free to do what ever they like, but most cannot resist 'playing' with the fixtures that are part of the environment in the foundry. For Maria, the chicken became an adventure because she had to master the process of making molds, getting the material cast, polishing, finishing etc., all within an industrial setting and at a scale that is not possible for an individual artist to execute individually. The sheer weight of pouring hot metal into a huge mold is beyond the strength of a single female artist, but in the industrial setting that is just what happened!

Work completed by Maria Phillips while attending as resident artist in the John Michael Kohler Arts/Industry program from July 6 to September 27, 2003.

Maria began with a small plastic chicken, about 8″ in height. She began to refine and reproduce that plastic chicken in brass, to modify it in a variety of ways and ultimately to cast and chrome plate her chicken. She made a flock of over 40 chickens in total. All of this had to be done in concert with the industrial production that was scheduled. The pace of the industry did not alter because there were artists underfoot! It takes a bit of an adjustment for both the workers and the artist. The artist does not work within the same time constraint that the worker does. There are three different shifts that go on at an industrial production plant, and a worker has to produce a given amount of work. The workers must meet the production schedule and make a living. The artist, on the other hand, does not have the same hourly time limits, but must make allowances for the people who do. There is a lot of give and take between the working partners It is necessary to understand the rhythm of the work on the floor in order to participate in the process.

Work completed by Maria Phillips while attending as resident artist in the John Michael Kohler Arts/Industry program from July 6 to September 27, 2003.

There are a great many new things to learn for the artist. Although the artist comes into the industrial complex with a body of information and has performed many of the operations on a small scale, the sheer size of the project dictates changes. For example, we enamelers fire our pieces somewhere between 1400°F and 1675°F, however, commercial enamels are fired at 1700°F. Further, we fire a piece, take it out and let it cool, deliberate, re-enamel and fire again. Some of the cloisonné people do as many as 20 firings. Well, not so in industrial enameling. You cannot remove and cool down your piece. You can put on several coats of enamel, different colors, but you must do so in one continuous operation. The enameled piece goes into the kiln to be fired, is removed, and before it can cool, more enamel is added. The piece is then returned to the kiln before it has time to cool. Once the piece cools, it cannot be returned to the heat. The artist has to develop a whole new mental set in order to produce a large piece. A whole different way of thinking about the piece, how to place it in the kiln, how to add color, and so forth.

The artist who is accustomed to handling a firing fork has to re-adjust to having the firing fork as part of a machine that is manipulated mechanically. Other questions such as how to get an awkward heavy piece into the kiln must be resolved. It becomes quite an adventure for the mind and quite a challenge. The artist has a vision, but is very dependent on the industrial staff to solve some of these technical problems. The industrial people understand the technical difficulties and can make something work. It is this collaboration that adds a new dynamic to the process. A process by which both help each other to achieve the end product, often so very different from the daily production pieces.

For anyone interested in participating in the Kohler Arts and Industry program, an application can be downloaded from their web site or obtained in writing from: Arts/Industry Coordinator, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 608 New York Avenue; PO Box 489, Sheboygan, WI 53082 -0489; (414) 458-6144.

I sincerely hope that many more enamel artists apply for one of these wonderful fellowships and explore the possibilities that exist when art and industry cooperate.

I would like to thank Kim Cridler (Arts/Industry Coordinator at the JMKAC) and Karen Platner (Kohler Hospitality Communications) for all the held and information that they provided to me, as well as permitting me to visit the facilities.

By F.R. Nichols [Volume 23, Number 2, April, 2004]
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glass on metal
Glass on Metal is the only publication dedicated to enameling and related arts. Technical information, book reviews, how-to articles and insight on contemporary enamelers highlight each issue.

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F.R. Nichols

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