Art Preserve restrooms carry on artists legacy of John Michael Kohler Art Center

When I first visited the John Michael Kohler Art Center, the first thing that stood out to me were the wildly artful restrooms. As the JMKAC prepares to open its new facility, the Art Preserve, I am happy to know the Art Preserve restrooms will carry on that tradition.

The Art Preserve, the first museum devoted to artist environments, will open on June 26, 2021. Presented by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC), and complementing JMKAC’s main location in downtown Sheboygan, the Art Preserve will provide exhibition space and visible storage for more than 25,000 works by over 30 artists in the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s world renowned collection of art environments.
To foster the sense of wonder and discovery inherent in art environments, the Art Preserve will also feature artist-designed washrooms that respond to the collection. Four installations maintain the exploratory spirit that pervades the building and provide a link to the Arts Center’s celebrated Arts/Industry residency program, a collaboration administered by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and hosted and funded by Kohler Co. The artists commissioned – Michelle Grabner, Beth Lipman, and the team Joy Feasley and Paul Swenbeck – were given access to the materials and support team of the Kohler Co. factory to execute their washrooms.
On the first floor, Wisconsin-based artists Beth Lipman and Michelle Grabner were tasked with creating spaces that speak to some particularities of Wisconsin. Lipman cites the physical landscape as inspiration for her washroom, Wild Madder, which depicts over 1,000 flora species found in Sheboygan County. Grabner chose a combined investigation of the materiality and the labor of art environments through a study of familiar Midwestern domestic surfaces and textures for her washroom Patterns and Practicalities. For the third-floor washrooms, the team Feasley and Swenbeck have created an immersive, fantastical environment, Listen, the Snow Is Falling. The aurora borealis is the central image of their icy wonderland landscape.
Each of the new artist-designed washrooms is an immersive experience. Ambitious in experimentation and boundary-pushing vision, each serves as a reminder that there is no limit to how and where art can come into one’s life.
“JMKAC is famous for its fanciful, artist-designed washrooms,” Sam Gappmeyer, director, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, said. “We couldn’t open the Art Preserve without continuing the tradition.”


Michelle Grabner, Patterns and Practicalities

Detail of Michelle Grabner’s Patterns and Practicalities washroom installation at the Art Preserve, 2021.

In tribute to the work ethic, manufactory and home economics of Wisconsin, Michelle Grabner’s Patterns and Practicalities offers the contrasting materials of ceramic and metalwork combined with the textural evocation of fiber arts. Inspired by a crocheted granny square blanket, the washroom showcases floor-to-ceiling patterning with ceramic tiles and cast-brass afghans. Encouraging mindfulness around unseen labor, the washroom also features ceramic objects such as toilet paper rolls, spray bottles, and a fully loaded custodial cart cast in pottery.

An artist, writer, and curator Michelle Grabner’s most recent association with the Arts Center was as guest curator for the group exhibition Makeshift (2018). Her work is in the collections of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Milwaukee Art Museum, WI; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Grabner co-curated the 2014 Whitney Museum Biennial, New York; and was the artistic director for the 2018 Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.

Beth Lipman, Wild Madder

Detail of Beth Lipman’s Wild Madder washroom installation at the Art Preserve, 2021.

Beth Lipman’s Wild Madder is inspired by herbariums, places where collections of preserved plant specimens and associated data are used for scientific study. The washroom walls depict over 1,000 flora species found specifically in East Central Wisconsin, with emphasis on examples found in Sheboygan County. Imagery of these species is visible floor to ceiling in bright, saturated ceramic and illuminated glass tiles embedded in the walls. Her grand glass one-of-a-kind chandelier cinches together the verdant composition and illuminates Lipman’s mastery of techniques, materials, and mediums.

Primarily a glass artist, Beth Lipman lives and works in Sheboygan Falls, WI. She has shown her work over the last 15 years in various JMKAC exhibitions and is an alumna of Arts/Industry in both Pottery and Foundry. Her work is represented in museum collections including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Corning Museum of Glass, NY; Museum of Art and Design, New York; and Milwaukee Art Museum, WI.

Joy Feasley and Paul Swenbeck, Listen, the Snow is Falling

A diorama of a wintry alien landscape is central to Joy Feasley and Paul Swenbeck’s washroom experience, Listen, the Snow is Falling. Installed in a secret room located between two washrooms, the diorama is viewable from apertures integrated into each washroom’s walls. The first washroom, resembling the interior of an ice cave, looks out onto a great candelabra representing the aurora borealis. The second washroom looks onto a hexagonally-shaped, ice-covered ledge with a ladder leading to the depths of a crevasse. Built-out nooks and shelf projections in the restroom house paintings and sculptures of the phantasmagorical denizens of an alien world. Both washrooms include one of a kind sinks fabricated in the Kohler Co. Foundry.

Joy Feasley and Paul Swenbeck, collaborators for the past 25 years, had their first solo museum exhibition at JMKAC—Out, Out, Phosphene Candle (2018)—which incorporated elements from their Arts/Industry Foundry residency the year prior.


Begun in 1974 as a means of supporting artistic exploration by providing artists with access to industrial technologies, Arts/Industry gives artists from around the world the opportunity to create new bodies of work using the facilities, technologies, and materials of Kohler Co., the nation‘s leading plumbingware manufacturer. Hundreds of artists have benefited from the program since its inception. Conceived and administered by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and hosted by Kohler Co., Arts/Industry offers artists the time and space to focus on the creation of new work and provides a unique location for their studios. Artists-in-residence work at the Kohler Co. factory in the Pottery or Foundry, and are exposed to a body of technical knowledge that enables and encourages them to explore new ways of thinking and working.

Washroom Legacy

The Art Preserve was the brainchild of Ruth DeYoung Kohler II (1941–2020), who envisioned a center devoted to art environments. She served as the director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center from 1972–2016. In the late 1990s she oversaw the commission for six artists to transform the building’s public washrooms into individual works of art. Now internationally renowned, the artist-designed washrooms by Ann Agee, Cynthia Consentino, Carter Kustera, Casey O’Connor, Merrill Mason, and Matt Nolen were realized in the Arts/Industry residency program in the Foundry and Pottery at Kohler Co.
“The Art Preserve washrooms showcase the ongoing achievements of the Arts/Industry program and demonstrate the Arts Center’s commitment to nurture and support artists throughout their careers,” Faythe Levine, Arts/Industry program manager and assistant curator, said. “Over the past 40 years Arts/Industry has given nearly 450 artists the opportunity to create using the facilities, technologies, and materials of Kohler Co. The washrooms highlight the collaboration between art and industry and the continued relationships that develop as artists propose new ideas.”


John Michael Kohler Art Center Art Preserve in Sheboygan, WI
John Michael Kohler Art Center Art Preserve in Sheboygan, WI

John Michael Kohler Arts Center is opening the Art Preserve, on June 26, 2021. The Art Preserve’s 56,000-square-foot, three-level building will provide exhibition space and storage for more than 25,000 works by over 30 artists in the Kohler Arts Center’s world renowned collection of artist environments. Located in Sheboygan, a small city along Lake Michigan an hour north of Milwaukee, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center is known for its exhibitions, study, and preservation of the work of self-taught and contemporary artists. Considered a local treasure with an international presence, it holds the world’s largest collection of art environments, a unique art form created by artists who often transform their homes and yards into multifaceted works of art.
Twelve of the Art Preserve’s more than 30 artists will be represented with major presentations of their work, including Levi Fisher Ames, Emery Blagdon, Loy Bowlin, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Nek Chand, Annie Hooper, Mary Nohl, Dr. Charles Smith, Fred Smith, Lenore Tawney, Stella Waitzkin, and Ray Yoshida. The $40-million Art Preserve will be located within an attractive natural setting on 38 acres on Sheboygan’s west side. Tres Birds, a Denver-based firm, served as architects for the project. The design embraces community accessibility and interaction with the artwork while addressing exhibition and preservation concerns. The building is primarily concrete structure, a material choice in keeping with the prevalence of concrete as a medium in the creation of many art environments. Visitors entering the building will move through a forest of soaring timbers angled like trees growing on the site.
The exhibition spaces will present the artists’ work through tableaux as well as curated, visible storage of the works of art. In addition to exhibition areas, the Art Preserve will be a center for academic study and research, and will include an education area, library, study collection, and other spaces that will provide access to the collection for researchers, tour groups, and the public. The Art Preserve is located at 3636 Lower Falls Road, Sheboygan, WI 53081. For more information visit Admission is always free.

About the John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Founded in 1967, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center is dedicated to making innovative arts programming accessible to a broad audience that ranges from artists to academics to families. Central to its mission is promoting understanding and appreciation of the work of self-taught and contemporary artists through original exhibitions, commissioned works of art, performing arts programs, community arts initiatives, and publications.
The Arts Center’s collections focus primarily on works by art-environment builders, self-taught and folk artists, and works created in the Arts/Industry residency program. Since the 1970s, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center has preserved, studied, and exhibited art environments. Today, with well over 25,000 individual works of art by more than 30 different creators of art environments in the collection, the Arts Center is the world’s leading center for research and presentation of this work.
Looking to the future, the Arts Center will continue to foster creative exchanges between an international community of artists and a diverse public at both its New York Avenue and Lower Falls Road locations. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is supported by corporate and foundation donors, government grants, and its many members. The Arts Center is not an entity of Kohler Co. or its subsidiaries.
The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is located at 608 New York Avenue, Sheboygan, WI. Admission is always free. For information, call 920-458-6144, or visit jmkac.orgFacebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

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