by Lybra Olbrantz
for The Beacon
Coming down Indiana Ave. you’ll see an industrial building protruding from the hillside with timber beams jutting out from the front.
This is the new John Michael Kohler Art Preserve, opening to the public June 26. The Beacon was offered a pre-opening tour.
Through the front doors you’ll enter a replica of Fred Smith’s North Woods bar, which will be serving specialty curated beers from artist John Riepenhoff and Company Brewing out of Milwaukee.
As we begin the tour we are greeted by Laura Bickford, Curator for the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. “A real way to see an artist’s body of work is to see them all together.” That’s what this new experimental playground has in store for the public, a space that captures the essence of each artist’s lifetime work encapsulated to a whole monumental exhibit. The first floor feels cozy and continues with a local theme as all artists are from the Midwest.
One of my favorite artists from prior exhibits at JMKAC, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, is in full effect at the Art Preserve with the walls of a pastel house surrounding his wild body of work. “Why is his house all different colors? Because that’s how his house looked,” said Bickford. Upon entering you’re greeted by an explosion of colors, forced into motion both abstract and political in message. Tiny furniture made from chicken bones, from a restaurant behind his and his wife’s house, painted in various hues, line the shelves.
We whisk over to the exodus dolls under the stairs where everyone’s imagination starts to take off, “these people all look like they’re at a silent disco,” said Bickford. Another woman chimes in, “Well, she’s definitely getting down, that’s all I can say.”
As you make your way up the staircase you’ll notice windows in the walls. They overlook the workspace of the registrar. When the lights are on, you’ll be able to see what they’re working on as a meta vision of the preservation of the art environment itself.
At the top of the stairs you’ll be greeted by the infamous Rhinestone Cowboy house and a wall of skull paintings by artist Gregory Van Maanen, which speaks to the ills and terrors he was working through after serving in the Vietnam War. One of the only living artists in the collection, he will be coming later in the year to do a specially commissioned piece.
Another inspiration on the second floor is the Lenore Tawney room. She decided at fifty she wanted to be an artist, abandoned her life in Chicago and moved to New York to create a whole new life. She worked as a fiber artist for fifty more years, where she completely transformed the world of fiber arts, until her death at 100. “She could grab anything and incorporate it into her next work of art and make it work because to her it’s all the same,” said Bickford. Deeply inspired by Guatemalan open-loom weaving, Bickford hopes to curate this style to fill the space on the concrete walls adjacent to Tawney’s work.
Wandering throughout the floor you’ll find Eddie Owens Martin who received a message while living in New York to move back home to Georgia and start a new religion. You’ll find Ray Yoshida, a teacher at the School of Art Institute of Chicago who taught the famous “Chicago Imagists” and taught all his students to trust their instincts.
Suddenly you emerge into Stella Waitzkin’s library, but no ordinary library. The Lost Library is an immersive culmination of her time spent living in the Bohemian culture of the Chelsea Hotel. Friends with Alan Ginsberg, he told her, “words are lies,” and it’s evident by the facade of books that line these shelves that he had a great deal of inspiration on the artist. You can find your imagination whisking you away to a different time and space while romanticizing the culture on the modern mid-century brown sofa, lost in the jazz music provided by Waitzkin’s musician boyfriend.
Atop the staircase, you’ll enter the third floor, where the entrance opens up to sculptures covered in mosaic tiles standing on terracotta bases. Designed by artist Nek Chand from Chandigarh, India, the statues reflect on an ideal society where everyone has a role.
Lastly you’ll enter the full immersive experience of Emery Blagdon, entitled “The Healing Machine.” Blagdon created the space because he believed that there are healing and curative properties in electromagnetism and the Earth’s magnetic field. The walls are lined with the floorboards of the original space and filled with symbols that faced the Earth that he believed aided in healing too.
The Art Preserve is free and opens to the public June 26. See: jmkac.org/art-preserve.