What is an artist-built environment?

At the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, we use this term to describe a unique form of art making encompassing spaces that have been significantly transformed by an artist to embody and express aspects of their history, place, or culture.

Artist-built environments span many artistic practices, and their creators range from academically and studio-trained artists to self-taught and vernacular artists. The artists’ reasons for art making vary widely, and each offers a singular voice.

By nature, artist-built environments are site-specific. They typically are characterized by the artists’ access to materials and the ways in which the particular surroundings and regional traditions and customs spark personal modes of creativity. Sites may include sculpture, painting, found objects, or any number of other forms. Many of these artists take familiar, humble materials and turn them into something spectacular.

To understand artist-built environments, the secret lies not in the artist or the place but the relationship between the two. This connection to place presents challenges for any institution involved in exhibiting, collecting, and preserving the works of art.

When an environment enters the Arts Center collection, a rupture or “break” has happened between the in-situ environment and the relocated components of that art environment. As such, a variety of creative strategies have been employed by the Arts Center to evoke the integral qualities of the original site. Whenever possible, large bodies of works from an environment are presented together in a context that suggests the whole. JMKAC exhibitions of the works have also incorporated a collaborative model that includes new works of art created in response to the environments.

The John Michael Kohler Arts Center Collection

The Arts Center has been committed to presenting and studying this category of art since the 1970s. When it is not possible to keep an artist-built environment on its original site, the Arts Center safeguards components in its exceptional collection.

Researchers and the public will be able engage with the collection year-round at the Art Preserve, which opens August 29, 2020. More than a dozen tableaux and curated visible storage allow an unprecedented experience of this remarkable art form.

Since the initial acquisition of works by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein in 1984, the JMKAC collection has grown to approximately 25,000 objects. Among the environments in the Arts Center’s collection are Loy Bowlin’s Beautiful Holy Jewel Home, the Mary Nohl Art Environment, and the James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden. Significant portions of environments created by Emery Blagdon, Dr. Charles Smith, Ray Yoshida, and Stella Waitzkin are also among the more than 30 sites represented at the Art Preserve.

We invite you to discover the extraordinary field of artist-built environments at the Art Preserve, located at 3636 Lower Falls Road, Sheboygan.