Why You Need to Check Out the Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center

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Can you imagine having the itch, the innate need to create art and express yourself but being limited in materials with which to use? It might be an almost obsessive need to build something – get that idea out of your head until you get it just right – even if you have to do it several hundred times.

Why You Need to Check Out the Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center

I have always loved folk art for that very reason – the creativity and ingenuity that the ongoing explorations of these unique artists. That is why I was so tickled to visit the world’s first museum that was dedicated to this genre – with plenty of exhibition space for more than just a small sampling of the many multifaceted works of art.

It was also inciteful to learn that most of these artists had an “Angel” of sorts – someone who may have helped supply their creative pursuits by supplying physical items for them to incorporate, bring attention to their growing collection, or simply to be there to listen when they explained their process or inspiration.

I learned that, and so much more when I checked this place out – and was tickled to see some of the artists I am familiar with already featured. Fred Smith’s concrete park actually made it into my book 100 Things to Do in Wisconsin Before You Die.


The John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) promotes awareness of the concepts and methods employed by self-taught and contemporary artists. The Art Preserve, the World’s first museum to exclusively display artwork from environments created by artists, opened at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in 2021.

Why You Need to Check Out the Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center
The building itself is beyond impressive!

Three miles from JMKAC, the 56,000-square-foot, three-level building houses more than 25,000 pieces from the Arts Center’s renowned collection, including full and partial environments created by folk artists and self-taught and trained artists.

Over thirty-five artist-built environments are housed in the Art Preserve. Visitors get insight into the exhibition, art preservation, protection, and interpretation of the Arts Center’s primary collection, which occasionally includes unexpected materials like dough and chicken bones, thanks to a unique curated, visible storage method.

Field of Flowers North Farm
Click on the picture to check it out


The Denver company tres birds constructed the Art Preserve. Shawn Mather, a partner architect for the firm, recalled Ruth, remarking, “This museum was developed by humble people utilizing humble materials.”

With a dedicated gallery space showcasing its built environments, Ruth DeYoung Kohler II’s legacy of assisting visionary outsider artists is carried on. Here are just a few of the fantastic artists they housework from:


Self-taught Indian artist Nek Chand (1924–2015) made 160 pieces of concrete and fabric animals. The artworks come from his extraordinary 40-acre Rock Garden, home to 10,000 sculptures, located in Chandigarh, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas.

He used literal scraps from building wreckage to create these

To fulfill his particular vision and make an offering to the Supreme Being, Chand began gathering and sifting the rocks, boulders, ceramic shards, bits of broken glass, jewels, building materials, coal, and clay from the remains of devastated communities.

Over eight years, the sculptures in this center’s permanent collection were donated to it. During the selection process, the artist worked with the Arts Center and Kohler Foundation to choose pieces that would be kept and shown in important groups outside India.


During a visit to Eugene von Bruenchenhein’s tiny house in 1983, Ruth Kohler discovered a suburban home filled with the artist’s wife Marie’s sweetly erotic photos, apocalyptic paintings, clay crowns, and spindly sculptures made of chicken bones.

The towers of painted chicken bones are but a small fraction of his work

The Von Bruenchenhein home was surrounded by painted concrete relief heads representing Asian warriors and nobility and functioned as sentinels. Eugene painted the house inside and out with enormous shapes and vibrant colors.

The tiny foyer was stacked floor to ceiling with Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes filled with leftover chicken bones from a nearby restaurant. In partnership with the Kohler Foundation, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center became the largest repository of his works and was given the last of his estate’s artworks in 2017.

Kohler bathrroms
Even the bathrooms are literal works of art – make sure you check them all out!


Ray Yoshida’s collection included everything from ritual masks from New Guinea to self-taught art by respected colleagues to small toys and whirligigs. His search for and collection of these objects and images made him more aware of the physical world around him.

Yoshida’s home served as a livable artistic space that elevated conventional aesthetics. The apartment infused fine art with a broad spectrum of life experiences and gave a new way to look at and value objects and works of art through the show of his collection.

His work directly incorporated many of the qualities of these objects. His collection served as both an aesthetic and a philosophical source of inspiration. After he died, the Kohler Foundation gave his things and many examples of his work to the Arts Center.


Dr. Charles Smith’s 150 figurative sculptures trace a timeline of the experiences of African Americans in the United States. They revealed the artist’s enormous Aurora, Illinois, studio and lifelong dedication to social justice, racial equity, and education. They were made of the artist’s unique cement and wood pulp mixture.

These pieces speak volumes of African American history

After participating in the Vietnam War as an infantryman, Dr. Smith built a massive concrete archway to honor the 7,226 African-American soldiers who lost their lives. With his memorializing and instructive sculptures, the project quickly expanded to enclose his house’s front, side, and back yards. The Arts Center currently holds the most significant institutional collection of the artist’s work.


Albert Zahn began decorating the front of the hand-built house his family had moved into in Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin, with painted and carved wooden birds and animals. Zahn put a lot of brightly colored carvings on the home’s white exterior because it was the perfect place to show off bright colors.

This entire display was set up to look like you were in front of their house

His surroundings, which he called Bird Park, were animated by wind-driven whirligigs, populated by statues of sailors, ships, and angels, and watched over by a sizable central eagle over the front door.

Even though the art gallery has been deconstructed, the house still stands. Between 2004 and 2017, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center received 86 carvings from Zahn, thanks to the Kohler Foundation.



Lenore filled her space with natural objects like feathers, eggshells, bones, studio supplies, thread skeins, collectibles, and other items she’d picked up on her extensive travels. Her weavings, collages, and assemblages used these items as inspiration and raw materials.

Cleanly crafted wood furniture, stacked stones, and suspended translucent works of art all contributed to the ethereal atmosphere in the white, open spaces, which spoke to Tawney’s commitment to deliberate, meditative working methods.

She blurred the line between her life and her artistic practice by transforming each space she lived in into a unique art form. In 2018, Lenore G. Tawney Foundation, which she started, worked with the Kohler Foundation to give the John Michael Kohler Arts Center important studio furniture and four essential pieces of art.


Mary Nohl’s (1914–2001) cottage, famously known by locals as the “witch’s house,” was decorated with carved wooden faces that turned toward one another in conversation and cheery concrete woodland animals.

Mary NOHL art
I find it interesting that a person can turn their home into a literal art museum

Sculptures, paintings, and decorative items abound in Mary Nohl’s lakeside cottage and yard. Nohl created a vibrant and imaginative world using every material imaginable, drawing inspiration from her life on the shores of Lake Michigan.

She created her own stained glass, painted the walls and furniture with carpet swatches as brushes, and displayed her paintings and ceramics throughout the house. Nearly every surface is embellished.

Nohl’s life’s work was given over to the Kohler Foundation after her passing in 2001. The foundation donated the land and the particular works of art to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in 2012.


Between 1948 and 1976, Fred Smith, a homesteader, created about 230 concrete sculptures on his farm and around his tavern in Phillips, Wisconsin. He used recycled beer bottles and other things to decorate the sculptures. Locals called Smith’s property the “Concrete Park,”

I have been fascinated with Fred Smith’s concrete park and even put it into my book.

This incredible collection is on Smith’s property near the Phillips hamlet. It includes characters from local, regional, and national history, legends, and inventions that Smith made up in his head.

After a severe storm severely damaged the Wisconsin Concrete Park in 1977, Ruth organized funding from the Kohler Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the state arts board, private donors, and others. Smith’s masterpiece was then expertly restored, and the county received it as a gift the following year to be used as a public park.


Loy Bowlin (1909–1955) was known as “The Original Rhinestone Cowboy.” He wore beautiful outfits covered in rhinestones and glitter, and he played the harmonica, danced, and told jokes every day at nearby shopping centers, fairs, and flea markets.


He redirected his creative energy to his home in McComb, Mississippi, turning it into the Beautiful Holy Jewel Home in the middle of the 1980s as he got older and could no longer go out and entertain.

The house is a complete and total work of art, with walls covered in rhinestones and the interior covered in panels of glitter-coated construction paper wallpaper. Bowlin even decorated the ceilings and furniture.

Katy Emde, a Houston-based collector and artist, bought the house from Bowlin after passing in 1995, requiring it to be removed from the grounds. In 1998, Kohler Foundation, Inc. purchased all the parts after Emde photographed and dismantled the house. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center received the residence from the foundation along with some Bowlin hats, suits, and furniture pieces.


The 161 tiny, individually made wooden boxes that make up the L.F. Ames Museum of Art contain a wooden sculpture that neatly fits inside seven crates. Ames traveled throughout Wisconsin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, entertaining onlookers for years with storytelling, banjo, violin performances, carving demonstrations, and other activities.

This was difficult to get a picture of as you have glass behind even more glass. There were so very many of these intricate gems!

The menagerie was where Ames told his stories. It had real animals and more than 600 carved animals to show off his carving skills. Ames passed away in 1923. The wooden animals and insects were handed down through his family (with a brief stop at a pawn shop during the Great Depression) until 161 shadow boxes and 40 other pieces were donated to the Kohler Foundation in 2001. The foundation gave the collection to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.


Emery Blagdon’s Healing Machine can be found on the top floor of the art preserve. The machine is a shed covered in intricate, radiating structures made of baling wire, copper, tiny paintings on wood, minerals, Christmas lights, and other oddities designed to channel the earth’s electrical energy to treat human ailments.


The more than 400 parts, including perforated aluminum sheets, mechanical trinkets, and mineral vials, are displayed in an area of rough-hewn dark planks that resemble the shed. Entering the tiny village, visitors can explore a dizzying variety of moving objects that sparkle in the holiday lights.

Dan Dryden acquired the “machine” after his passing in 1986. The work was looked after for many years by Dryden before Kohler Foundation, Inc. bought it in 2004. In 2007, the Arts Center received a gift from it.

Final Thoughts

Art settings are meant to be experienced in their natural habitat, despite frequently being produced without institutional support or context. The Art Preserve is interested in artists whose worldviews take on a physical form and who often turn their whole homes into compelling works of art.

You really need to get to Sheboygan Wisconsin and check this place out for yourself – my words and humble pictures can’t translate what you will feel from seeing these collections yourself. Some will amaze you. Some will disturb you. Some will make you feel sad. Some will bring you joy.

Isn’t that what art is all about?

The Arts Preserve is at 3636 Lower Falls Road, Sheboygan, WI 53081, (920) 453-0346

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Make sure you try some Fred Smith Lager while you are there!

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