September 2, 2012–January 27, 2013


Levi Fisher Ames, Mara or Patagonian Cavy and The Giant Kangaroo, c. 1910–1923; wood, graphite, ink, paper, fabric, glass, metal. John Michael Kohler Arts Center Collection.

Levi Fisher Ames (1843–1923), woodcarver and storyteller, entertained early twentieth-century audiences with his “L.F. Ames Museum of Art,” also known as “The Grand Museum of Art and Natural History, Whittled Out of Wood.”

After serving in the Civil War from 1862 to 1865, Ames earned his living by doing small carpentry jobs and crafting musical instruments. He took up carving and created a vast wooden menagerie depicting animals from around the world and bizarre or heroic characters from local legends and folklore. Ames possessed a natural curiosity and a gift for storytelling, and his carvings served as characters in his tales of mystery and wonder. He created over six hundred individual carvings, hand labeled each of them, and built their shadow boxes bearing his initials. He and his family took his carvings to local fairs and to Monroe Cheese Days, where he displayed them in a tent and regaled audiences with his knowledge of the animals he carved.

Having acquired whittling skills during the war, some of Ames’s earliest works were carved canes, chains, and other objects. Among them were pieces reflecting his dark memories of war, for example, severed hands and legs, crutches, skulls, and gravestones. He also experimented with materials—shell, stone, and wood among them—and subject matter including Masonic emblems, infantry regalia, and weapons, among others.

Ames enjoyed carving animals out of soft, smooth wood best of all. His early efforts were depictions of familiar creatures such as muskrats, chickens, and rabbits, but his curiosity and imagination eventually drove him to makes images of beasts from distant lands and even local folklore. Ames took special delight in rendering the mythical Hodag creature, the subject of much logging camp lore, with origins in the Rhinelander area of Wisconsin. After decades of carving, he became regionally renowned as the creator and proprietor of his “L.F. Ames Museum of Art” — a traveling tent show, complete with musical accompaniment, that toured via horse and wagon to Wisconsin towns.

For a time, Ames worked largely from memory, for example, carving a bear or butterflies from recollected glimpses. To capture likenesses of less readily accessible animals, he examined mounted trophy heads and pored over pictures in books, most likely at Monroe’s public library. Around 1880, Ames purchased a view camera that he used to photograph weddings as well as to take pictures of creatures for his own study. His eye was also drawn to the touring “cabinets of curiosity”—a fad of presenting odd and exotic creatures ensconced in glass cases or jars of liquid that dates back to the nineteenth century.

As the turn of the century approached, American circuses began absorbing and adapting various features of the cabinet of curiosities and offshoots such as the dime museum. Increasingly, large circuses comprised not only a main show under the big top with performers and clowns but also a menagerie of caged animals that were new to American audiences, creatures such as lions, elephants, and giraffes. A hugely popular facet was the “sideshow,” a direct adaptation of the dime museum’s cavalcade of oddities.

Between1870 and 1902—the Golden Age of the circus—Wisconsin became widely known as “the Mother of the Circus,” initiating and touring over one hundred individual circus shows. Circus culture was an integral part of the state’s identity, and Ames proved to be an apt student of its impact. The cabinet of curiosities tradition inspired him in his choices of subject matter, while the phenomenon of the circus shaped his notions about how to lure and captivate audiences with his art and storytelling.

Sometime in the early to mid-1880s, Ames perfected his method. He crafted glass-fronted shadow boxes that closed and opened like books. Ames sorted his early works by medium, for example nuts or shells, and by subject, such as subspecies of tigers. He then affixed a set inside one box, placing related items inside a paired box and joining the two at the center with a hinge. He then made a descriptive label for each and branded his initials on top. Ames hand built crates, assigned individual boxes to specific crates, and stenciled the crate number onto each shadow box. The boxes fit inside the crates like puzzle pieces so as to not rattle around while in transit. Finally, he painted a set of banners to entice audiences to come in and see his wondrous work. Ames never charged admission, though he did accept donations.

Ames never sold any of his carvings, believing that his creations needed to be seen as a comprehensive body of work in order to be fully appreciated and understood. In 2001, with the help of Ames’s grandson, Howard Jordan, the Kohler Foundation, Inc. acquired the entire body of his collection, thus respecting Ames’s wish.

The “Museum” has been conserved and gifted to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center for its permanent collection.

Related Reading
Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds; Built Environments of Vernacular Artists
Levi Fisher Ames: Menagerie

Levi Fisher Ames: Animals Wild and Tame is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Arts Center is grateful to Kohler Foundation, Inc. for its generous gift of the Levi Fisher Ames collection.