Ruth Kohler, a true woman of vision who recognized that in Maximalism one might dive in to enlightenment tinged with the spirit of overlooked artists, died in November, 2020. For more than forty years she made it her mission to find, document and preserve the works of relatively unknown artists and art environment builders who did not always operate within the mainstream world of gallery and museum exhibitions, makers who—some, but not all—hardly considered art their vocation. Their work’s impact has been felt in Wisconsin, throughout the Midwest, and United States, at least, and Ruth Kohler was one who drew attention to it. It was relatively recently that her Kohler Foundation helped conserve and find a steward for Bernard Langlais’s home and land with his blocky, outdoor sculpture in Cushing, Maine, but decades earlier Ruth Kohler began discovering many more sites, distinctive for the creativity that spilled from home to garden to public display over yards, if not acres of land. Fred Smith’s Concrete Park in Phillips, Wisconsin, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s unusual art-packed home, Mary Nohl’s house and sculpture-laden yard along Lake Michigan are just a few examples. And it was to Ruth Kohler and the Foundation that the contents of the Rhinestone Cowboy’s sequin-encrusted house, furnishings and costumes—and the very walls and ceiling of the home itself—as well as the eerie soundscape contents of the Emery Blagden barn, were brought for conservation and inclusion in her growing museum collections.
When I worked with the Foundation and subsequently at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center before coming to Maine, I was immersed in research for the artists, my notebooks spread out on office tables at JMKAC, surrounded by flat files and sliding walls filled with hundreds of dazzling works in a state-of-the art storage room. Much there consisted of parts of art environments that had not been able to be saved—objects that had been rescued from their original, deteriorating sites, their makers long gone—or objects given to Kohler by such as Nek Chand, who wished to have preserved samples of his figures that covered many acres of walled gardens and waterfalls in Chandigarh, India. If objects emit an aura, these all did, daily for over four years, conveying a sense of the even denser universes from which they had all been extracted.
Emery Blagden’s Healing Machines of dangling wire, metal sounds, and minerals wrapped in yellow masking tape, brought from all that filled a barn in lightening-prone Nebraska; a sampling of Nek Chand’s silk-draped cloth and concrete figures that could not withstand the outdoors; the painted chicken bone thrones, greenware crowns, props and photographs of his drapery-clad wife Marie, and the explosive, rainbow-colored, atomic bomb paintings on cardboard—all by Eugene von Bruenchenheim—all within the office viewscape. The glass-decorated castles and animals of Carl Peterson’s garden of Eden or Fred Smith’s lions embedded with beer bottle shards; and Mary Nohl’s spacey silver jewelry and David Butler’s painted steel animal silhouettes; Albert Zahn’s carved wood bird trees—what a wonderland of a workplace!
Maximalism, though I had never called it that—was everywhere. The artist Mary Nohl transformed the home she had shared with her parents until their deaths, declaring then, “I’m really coming into my own at last,” as she proceeded for over a decade to impose a more imaginative pattern of her own upon the family home. She sponged, drip-painted, and stippled nearly every inch of walls and linoleum floors, inside cupboards, some of the fabric upholstery, and even her own clothes, partly to avoid repairs, patching, and vacuuming. Her small to life-size sculptures composed of wire and found objects randomly gathered on beach walks filled corners like colorful surprises; between stair rails she hung other-worldly figures in profile painted on the shapes left from between jigsaw-cut wood pieces (composing her massive front gate), and she suspended flying wire figures from ceilings—some with features rather resembling her own. She covered the upstairs walls with her framed paintings, all of a similar palette, placed colored glass in windows to enhance the light from the lake, and then painted black faux leading between them. Living happily within an evolving assemblage, she extended her vision, imposing bas-relief forms upon the house façade before tackling the acreage beyond it. Her gardening extended to making pebble-embedded cement pathways, concrete sculptures reminiscent of Easter Island monuments and human-fish figures, driftwood animals, tree totems, wind chimes, a fountain, and a fanciful wooden fence. Her inventions would arrest you and draw you into a world where every inch added to overall relevancy—this fantasy realm occupied my own as I grew from student to researcher, attempting to document imaginations far more powerful than my own.
If you haven’t yet wanted to emerge free of the bricolage of home during this COVID-sequestering era, or even if you have, I recommend that anyone might discover some maximalist minds behind some wondrous environments, thanks to Ruth Kohler. If you don’t know Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007)—it is guaranteed to be a best, first guide.
Image at top: A glimpse at Mary Nohl’s house façade, Fox Point, Wisconsin (photo: Jason Engelhardt).