Kohler Conference — Day One

“Taking the Road Less Traveled: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists”
co-hosted by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and the Kohler Foundation, Inc.
An International Conference – September 27-30, 2007
Sheboygan, WI

Let’s just get this out of the way – The Kohler’s are visionary, self-taught, vernacular, your-term-here artists greatest champions.  The museum is jaw-dropping, their work to save and restore environments is inspiring.  

A mid-morning flight delayed my arrival at the opening of the symposium, but photographer extraordinare and Houston’s Orange Show Eyeopener Tours host, Larry Harris met me at the Milwaukee airport and we made the hour drive up to Sheboygan.  

Here is my feeble attempt at processing some of today’s highlights in information overload:

Jo Farb HernandezCatalonia’s Labyrinth: Life Cycle of an Art Environment 
Jo’s obvious passion for the environment and love of the artist rang through. She told her well-documented tale of Josep Pujiula i Vila’s impressive labyrinthine environment in Spain, it’s rise and ultimate dismantling. She has recently written a book that includes this environment, among others in Spain, “Forms of Tradition in Contemporary Spain”

Iain Jackson: Interpretations, Readings and Deductions of Nek Chand’s Rock Garden
In addition to the largest body of Nek Chand’s work outside of India on display at the Museum, Iain’s presentation sealed the desire to go to India and witness first hand the masterpiece environment, the Rock Garden of Chandrigarh.

A conversation with Dan Dryden and Don Christensen lead by Leslie Umberger on saving Emery Blagdon’s “Healing Machine.” 
This is the story all folk art lovers dream about.  While Dan Dryden was working as a pharmacist in Nebraska, a rather scraggly gentleman named  Emery Blagdon came in looking for “elements.”  Intrigued, Dan eventually drove out to Emery’s home in the Garfield Tables, a part of the Sand Hills (North Platte), and was amazed by what he saw.  A 20 x 24 ft. wooden shed filled with sculptures of complex wire, scrap metal, ribbon, foil, beads, and magnets, believed by Emery to be “Healing Machines.” The deliberately constructed pieces generated electromagnetic pulses, thought to bring relief from pain and perhaps cure disease.  Emory would adjust and readjust his machines based on the phases of the moon, working solely on intuition.  
Dan, along with his friend Don Christensen, together acquired Blagdon’s shed and all of it’s contents as one lot at the public auction held after the artist’s death.  They have spent the last 18 years cataloging the collection, and  with the help of the Kohler Foundation, another 2 years on conservation in order to have the exhibit ready for this conference.

Henry Drewal Dreamscapes: Sacred Spaces in Africa and the African-America’s.
Henry Drewel gave a riveting talk about the Mami Wata, goddess of West African capitalism.  Based on 19th century chromolithographs of a Samoan snake charmer in a German circus, the image of the Mami Wata may have been appropriated as a symbol of prosperity by the West Africans when trade with Europeans was open. The traditions of water-spirits, particularly female, were not uncommon before the introduction of European trade, nor was the experience of dual natures of good and evil (water brings you life, but you can also drown.)  
Shown were numerous examples of altars to the Mami Wata, an aftrican woman with snakes and long wavy hair (like a mermaid) and with mirrors acting as the spiritual surface and the more literal surface of water.  Often there were sweet smells and tastes to please her.  Sometimes there were crosses, in part Christianity and also symbols of the crossroads there this world and the other world meet.  In this world, life is brief, when we leave we return home and meet in the otherworld.

Phyllis KindThe On-going Challenge of the Extraordinary 
Phyllis Kind open my eyes to the symbology of Kenny Hill’s Garden of Salvation, in Chauvin, LA.  On many of his sculptures there are 9 circles precisely placed, and matching the layout of the overall placements of the sculptures within the environment.  Could these circles represent the 9 planets?  Kenny Hill walked away from his masterpiece in January 2000…is there a correlation between the symbols and the new millennium? 

Dinner at the historic Waelderhaus in Kohler, WI