Partner News: John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Partner News: John Michael Kohler Arts Center

2014 was an exciting year for the Arts/Industry program. Not only did we celebrate our 40th Anniversary with a sweeping retrospective exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and a well-attended opening celebration, but we also had many opportunities to work with the NCECA Milwaukee conference!

The Arts Center partnered with NCECA to offer a special preconference tour of the Arts/Industry studios at Kohler Co. and of the exhibition Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation. It is always a pleasure to give group tours of the Arts/Industry factory studios and introduce visitors to the artists-in-residence, but never more so than when we have an interested and engaged audience. We also hosted an NCECA bus tour of the Kohler Design Center and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, and we were part of the 2014 Collector’s tour, led by Leslie Ferrin.

The Arts Center offered NCECA members free admission to the opening of Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation, and we were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response of conference attendees ready and willing to make the drive from Milwaukee to Sheboygan after a busy week of workshops, exhibitions, and lectures. Thank you! We were thrilled to see so many of our alumni, friends, and supporters.

Arts/Industry also partnered with NCECA on the 2014 emerging artist awards by offering a residency to an NCECA emerging artist. We are pleased to announce that David Eichelberger will be an Arts/Industry artist-in-residence during summer 2015. David was formerly an artist-in-residence at Penland School of Crafts and is currently teaching in Floyd, Virginia.

In some ways, we wish that the NCECA annual conference could always happen in Milwaukee so that Arts/Industry could be geographically nearby, but we are looking forward to being in Providence in 2015. Please stop at  our resource table to learn more about the many opportunities the residency program offers.

Although Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation, the exhibition, has completed its run, the companion book of the same name is available in both hard and soft cover. The volume covers the history of the program from the perspective of its founder, Ruth DeYoung Kohler. It also includes essays by Arts/Industry alumni and hundreds of gorgeous photographs of work produced by the artists-in-residence! You can purchase the book online at

Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation

Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation

In 2014, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center marks the milestone fortieth anniversary of its innovative Arts/Industry residency program, which is hosted and funded by Kohler Co. Opening on March 22, during the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Milwaukee, Collaboration and Revelation is the first-ever retrospective exhibition will comprise more than 300 works of art drawn primarily from the collections of the Arts Center and Kohler Co. displayed throughout the Art Center’s twelve galleries. This panel will, like the exhibition, look back at the forty-year history of this groundbreaking program and explore its effect on artists’ studio practices and ways of thinking, its critical impact in the broader art world, and its influence on the culture of the factory. The panel, moderated by curator Alison Ferris, will feature Dr. Ezra Shales who contributed an essay to the exhibition’s publication, and Arts/Industry alumni Ann Agee and Tom Spleth.

Arts/Industry began in 1974 as a bold experiment to make the creative potential of industry available to artists. Ruth DeYoung Kohler, granddaughter of the company’s founder, as well as an artist, educator, and the newly appointed director of the Arts Center, conceived this most unusual collaboration between arts and industry. Inspired by fond childhood memories of the factory and its people, and encouraged by a series of conversations with Ohio artist Jack Earl, she was intrigued by the prospect of giving artists access to the materials and processes of industry, and by the opportunity to introduce them to a place she found magical. As Earl later recalled, the first residency was “a mad dash at something.… a search for our place in a new environment—an environment of time, space, noise, heat, men, movement, materials, and equipment.”

Certain themes weave throughout the work produced over the four decades—concepts such as the multiplicity of industrial production, the adaptive potential of the sleek forms of plumbingware, and the massive scale made possible by the factory. In addition, the experience connects the artists’ work to the rich history of material culture and to the social context of the factory setting. Some artists have used their time in the factory to experiment with new media, while others used the opportunity to increase scale, create entire new bodies of work, fabricate components for installations, or realize major public commissions.

ai.spl.2013.0008Tom Spleth first came to Arts/Industry in 1985; no other artist has participated in as many residencies as he has. A nationally acclaimed ceramist, Spleth appeared on the Arts/Industry scene at a transitional moment in his life. He recently had left his teaching position at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University to explore, in his words, “new concepts.” Although all of his ceramics up to that point had been slip cast, in his application he proposed to “investigate more complicated forms, on a greater scale, with new techniques, at a time when changes in my work are unavoidable.” For him, the factory environment encouraged productivity as he continually tried to match the manufactory pace.

ann pic for benningtonOver the course of her two-year residency, Ann Agee engaged in an expansive investigation of local culture. She filled numerous sketchbooks with drawings of people and places she encountered during her residency—rows of machinery and product in the factory, Kohler Co. associates, the city of Sheboygan, and the surrounding rural communities. Using a cobalt blue and white palette deliberately reminiscent of Delft and Staffordshire ceramics, she transferred the sketches onto teapots, tureens, portrait platters, bathroom fixtures, wall tiles, and murals.

ai.2013.0001Dr. Ezra Shales conducted dozens of interviews with Kohler Company employees about the Arts/Industry program and puts forth in his catalog essay that “Skilled manufacturing can be considered craft; in fact, expert hands in many manufactories are ready to spring into action and demonstrate their ability to excel beyond their predictable assignments. The finest artisans at Kohler Co. have a skill set worthy of great respect; in fact their workmanship is a fragile and exceptional living resource. The Arts/Industry residency program provides the opportunity for Kohler Co. associates, as the workers are called, to work with artists outside of their specialized role in production. When accomplished men and women swerve from their everyday duty to standardization into the realm of creative challenge, the collaboration is often remarkable and memorable.”

Alison's picPanel Organizer Alison Ferris has been a curator for over twenty years and is known for her exhibitions that offer contemporary, critical engagement within a broad-based art historical perspective. As a curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center from 1992 to 1996, she organized three particularly powerful exhibitions:  Conceptual Textiles: Material Meanings, Discursive Dress, and Hair. Ferris returned to the Arts Center in 2010 and was the lead curator for The Drawing Season, the kids are all right (traveling to the Weatherspoon Art Museum and the Addison Gallery of American Art), and Uncommon Ground. She is currently the consulting curator for Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation