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Jesse Howard was compelled to cover wood with neatly lettered messages.
Jesse Howard was compelled to cover wood with neatly lettered messages.

Art Preserve: Museum of Visionaries

Field review by the editors.

Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Just north of America's Tallest Flagpole on I-43 is Art Preserve. Like the Pole, its purpose is to champion part of the USA's visual legacy. Not America's flag; America's folk artists.

Museum entrance suggests the unschooled art within.
Museum entrance suggests the unschooled art within.

Art Preserve is a satellite campus of the John Micheal Kohler Arts Center. It opened to the public in June 2021. Visitors can walk through exhibits mimicking the workspaces of the artists, and watch real-time preservation of their often brittle handiwork.

The "artist-built environment" is a fairly new curative concept: the belief that with some Folk/Self-Taught/Outsider/Vernacular artists, the sum is greater than the parts, and that everything within their orbit -- including old paint brushes and paper scraps -- needs to be seen as a whole.

Salvaged sculptures from the barn of Frank Oebser.
Salvaged sculptures from the barn of Frank Oebser.

This idea of collecting both The Kit and The Caboodle began at Kohler in 1983, when the Arts Center purchased all of recently deceased artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein's things -- over 6,000 pieces -- including his thousands of chicken bone thrones. These are displayed in Art Preserve in a structure matching the footprint of his tiny home.

Shelves stacked with the creations of Dr. Charles Smith.
Shelves stacked with the creations of Dr. Charles Smith.

The "Healing Machine" of Emery Blagdon -- which supposedly channeled the Earth's electromagnetic field -- is also exhibited as it was in his house: hundreds of mobiles built out of Christmas lights and wire. Loy Bowlin's "Beautiful Holy Jewel Home" is here as well, its walls entirely covered with paint, construction paper, and glitter.

Unlike the cluttered basements, rooms, and barns where folk art is often found, Art Preserve is orderly and very, very clean. In the galleries, artworks are sometimes filed away in large metal towers, or stacked on industrial shelving, with only a fraction of work peeking out. Much thought has been given to this anti-display. It suggests that this a place for art conservation, and that maybe you should feel lucky to see it.

Tools of an outsider artist: rolling pins, rusty chisels, and wire.
Tools of an outsider artist: rolling pins, rusty chisels, and wire.

It would be unfair to view the Arts Center as a modern-day Indiana Jones, plundering folk art sites to fill walls and square footage in Sheboygan. The Kohler Foundation has spent decades lending its cotton-gloved hand to the restoration and preservation of dilapidated sites around the country in situ, from the Hartman Rock Garden to The Wegner Grotto. Only as a last resort, Kohler says, does it move the art permanently to the Art Preserve.

The Kohler Company is best known for its bathroom fixtures, and the washrooms in Art Preserve, as in the larger Kohler Arts Center, are given special attention. Their designs, with placards included, have been handed over to contemporary, school-learnt artists. We did not see any bathroom chicken bones.

Art Preserve: Museum of Visionaries

3636 Lower Falls Rd, Sheboygan, WI
I-43 exit 126A. Drive east, take first exit onto TA Taylor Drive. Turn south and drive one mile. At the stoplight turn right onto Indiana Ave. Drive a half-mile. You'll see the museum entrance on the right.
Tu-Su opens at 10, closing times vary. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

America's Tallest FlagpoleAmerica's Tallest Flagpole, Sheboygan, WI - < 1 mi.
World's Most Artistic BathroomsWorld's Most Artistic Bathrooms, Sheboygan, WI - 2 mi.
Wreck of the Lottie CooperWreck of the Lottie Cooper, Sheboygan, WI - 3 mi.
In the region:
National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, Milwaukee, WI - 50 mi.

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