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.
Tom 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.
Over 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.
Dr. 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.”
Panel 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