The unmistakable look of recognition falls over Ruth DeYoung Kohler’s face. She’s admiring the woman in a smart dress with lace inlaid at the neck and wrists. The bold eyebrows, the open smile, the overall strength and directness are not unlike her own.
This visionary arts leader, known for seeing what others do not, is looking at a photograph of her mother, whose name was passed down to her in a manner more typical of fathers and sons. The image appears on one of the first pages of a slim volume, The Story of Wisconsin Women, written by the elder Kohler. I have slid the book across the table for Ruth to see.
“She really set me on a course that made me realize I could do good things in this world,” says Ruth, her voice catching with emotion. “She was so important to me. She was so good to me. She taught me so much.”
Ruth and I are sitting together in a wood-paneled room in the old part of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, about an hour north of Milwaukee. Ruth, who ran the art center for more than 40 years, has come to our interview looking smart herself, in a midnight blue blouse, glinting drop earrings and, despite the pandemic, a perfectly trimmed, pert hairstyle.
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Some of Ruth’s family and friends have prepared me for this encounter. Ruth’s memory is imperfect these days, they’ve told me, never using terms like dementia out of an elegant, if old-fashioned, form of respect. Access to her past varies from day to day, they say, like windows that are sometimes open, but often shut or just ajar.
Something is snarling Ruth’s brilliant mind. Still, I have so many questions. Mostly, this: How did this hard-to-know, complicated woman – who guided this off-the-beaten-path arts center to an international reputation for its unique commitment to overlooked art forms and artist-made environments, who has been as influential as any of the 1,500 or so women cataloged in her mother’s book – come to her singular perspective?
It’s especially prescient now, as her life’s work culminates in an unprecedented project on 38 acres of farmland not far from where we sit, a kind of apotheosis made possible by Ruth’s drive, ambition, unconventional ideas and name.
The Art Preserve is unlike anything in the world, as far as I can tell. When it opens next year, it will showcase the work of more than 30 environment builders – artists whose imaginations and worldviews take immersive and physical form, who often turned their entire homes and lives into works of art. The three-story structure at the center of the preserve is nestled into the landscape and influenced by the humble and organic materials used by the artists inside. It is a unique kind of art institution, a hybrid of a study center for scholars, curated art storage and museum-like venue that will be open to the public.
Before a pandemic sent the curators and art handlers home to shelter, Ruth had been making weekly visits to the Art Preserve to oversee the final touches.
When I visited in March, they were nearly done installing Emery Blagdon’s Healing Machine, a small shack jammed with intricate, radiating constructions made of bent wire, copper, aluminum foil, minerals, old TV parts and other oddments. A trove of handmade tools, self-taught art, flea market finds and ethnographic artifacts collected by the late artist and teacher Ray Yoshida were in place, too. About 80% of the 25,000 or so objects in the art center’s unparalleled permanent collection were ready for opening day, originally planned for August but now put off until June.
Generations ago, the Sheboygan area was known simply as “the mouth,” because it was situated where the Sheboygan River feeds into Lake Michigan. By the early 20th century, the family-dense community would close hilly streets on snowy days to accommodate sledding children. When Ruth was a girl, the Star Dusk drive-in theater was a point of local pride, thanks to its towering screen.
In the context of this ordinary Midwestern place, the Kohler family has been anything but. The plumbing-ware magnates are much remarked upon and a bit like royalty in Sheboygan and the nearby village of Kohler, the well-kept and bucolic company town also famous for the longest labor strike in U.S. history.
On a spring day in 1953, when Ruth was not quite a teenager, she stepped forward to represent the family name, standing in for her mother at the opening of the renovated Wade House Historic Site, a former stagecoach inn.
“There was a photograph of her and her father, and she did the ribbon cutting,” says Laura Kohler, Ruth’s niece. “That must have been, I mean, emotionally very hard.”
It had only been about a month since Ruth had discovered her mother dead, according to Laura Kohler. The elder Kohler died of a heart attack quite young, at the age of 46. That left Ruth the lone female, a young girl in a high-profile family, along with two brothers and her father.
The resurrection of the Wade House, once on the plank road that threaded through old forests between Sheboygan and Fond du Lac, had been a singular and intense focus for the elder Ruth Kohler for the last three years of her life. By several accounts, it was her finest accomplishment in a life already rich with accomplishments.
The first Ruth DeYoung Kohler was a feminist and activist, a 1928 graduate of Smith College in Massachusetts who did graduate work at the Sorbonne in Paris. She was a journalist and women’s editor at the Chicago Tribune in the 1920s and ’30s, when newspapering was a male-dominated world. She also brought her perspective to the airwaves in 1940, with the “Women World Wide” radio show on WGN in Chicago.
The elder Ruth married Herbert V. Kohler, president of the Kohler Co., in 1937. Her father-in-law was John Michael Kohler, the Austrian-born agricultural equipment manufacturer who created a hybrid between a horse trough and hog scalder, put fancy feet on it, coated it in enamel and sold the bathtubs to area farmers. Today, the Kohler Co. is a global giant, pulling in $7 billion in revenue, according to Forbes, on furniture, tile, engines and the luxe plumbing fixtures for which it is famous.
“Her mother was a strong, individual leader and ahead of her time, absolutely amazingly ahead of her time,” says Laura Kohler. “Honestly, I don’t think that her mother was a warm person. I don’t find any of that in the archival letters or anything. But I do think that Ruth admired her strength for speaking her mind. … I think that’s why the memory of my grandmother has been so vivid for Ruth.”
Ruth’s mother oversaw more than the architectural restoration of cedar shakes and timbers at the Wade House. She fussed over every minute detail, including 19th-century furnishings and fashions, often with young Ruth at her side.
The project was meant to “preserve something of the spirit and fortitude which made America great,” the elder Kohler said in an address to the American Association of Museums, which honored her work for the Wade House several months before she died. “Each of us is a trustee of the past. We have the important task of living up to our inheritance and adding something to it.”
To be sure, the experience bequeathed much from mother to daughter. Ruth would “never let go of” her interest in history, preservation and unique, authentic places, says Laura Kohler. Her tendency to speak her mind and “go very deep” into her own interests and projects can be traced back to that formative experience and others like it, she adds.
As a young woman, Ruth spent swaths of her life away from Wisconsin, visiting art museums all over the world and living in places like Austria and Portugal. Like her mother, she went to Smith, where she studied art and art history. She pursued further studies at UW-Madison and the University of Hamburg and spent a year teaching art in the public schools of Beloit before joining the faculty at the University of Alberta in Calgary, where she founded its printmaking program.
She was living the life of an artist in Spain when the modest arts center that would define her life was founded in 1967. The center, an independent nonprofit started by the Sheboygan Arts Foundation, had been named for her grandfather, since the family gave his Gilded Age home to the project.
It was her father’s failing health that called Ruth home to Wisconsin. She set aside the vernacular and Paleolithic art of Spain that she was exploring at the time, as well as her own art-making, to devote herself deeply to her father’s care, her two nieces say. She also took on a volunteer gig at the arts center.
By 1972, just four years later, she was elevated to the position of director, after a short stint as assistant director. Some on the center’s board were not keen “to hire a woman or anyone with the last name of Kohler,” worried that the Kohlers would have undue influence over the modest community center, Ruth told The New York Times in 2009. The connections between the Kohler Co., the Kohler Foundation and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center could prove confounding even for some embedded within them, and the Kohlers would indeed go on to create an art empire, of sorts.
From the start, the arts center’s mandate was an anti-elitist one, to show art that anyone could enjoy without specialized knowledge, from farmers to factory workers to first-graders, without in any way dumbing down the work shown. “All the arts for all the people,” was the motto. For Ruth, early on, this meant a turn toward underrepresented art forms, especially contemporary craft, which was unfashionable in the larger art world at the time.
A year after Ruth took over as director, the arts center staged one of the largest exhibits of contemporary ceramics ever organized in the U.S. “The Plastic Earth” was named for the pliable properties of clay and surveyed the work of 87 leading and emerging ceramicists.
It was not your average art-world do. During the opening, artists were invited to mix with workers at the Kohler factory, to see demonstrations of mold-making and slip-casting. The exchange was like a chemical reaction. People were buzzing. “Both ceramicists and engineers were heard to express the hope that these discussions would mark the beginning of an ongoing cooperation between individual artists and industrial technicians,” wrote Elena Karina Canavier in an article for Ceramics Monthly at the time.
Not long after that, Ruth began needling her brother Herbert V. Kohler Jr., who ran the Kohler Co., to create what would become one of the world’s most idiosyncratic and esteemed artist residencies, the Arts/Industry program. There were no long-term residencies that brought artists and industrial workers together in a manufacturing setting, they concluded.
In August of 1974, two ceramicists, Jack Earl and Tom LaDousa, were granted pilot residencies for a month in Kohler’s industrial pottery. Some of the factory associates assumed the artists were “strange, lazy dilettantes,” before they witnessed their work ethic, according to an essay Ruth wrote along with Susan Barnett and Emily Schlemowitz for Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation, a book produced to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the residency.
To date, the program has brought nearly 500 artists to the factory floor for an exchange of inspiration and expertise. Each year, 16 individuals are selected from a field of 300 to 400 applicants for two- to six-month residencies in the pottery, the iron and brass foundries or the enamel shop. The artists work out in the open, and factory workers are among their first audiences – and critics. “Art is about communication and working together, and Arts/Industry pulls that out of you whether you like it or not,” artist Kim Crider said of her residency in the 40th anniversary book.
Until recent years, Ruth met one-on-one with all of the artists as they prepared to leave. This is also when she would select artworks for the permanent collections of the art center and the Kohler Co., and she always homed in on the very best work, says artist Beth Lipman, who was a resident artist in 2003 and the Arts/Industry program coordinator from 2005 to 2009. While Ruth could be irresolute in certain circumstances, second-guessing decisions about events or marketing materials, according to some, these were telling moments of clarity.
“She always knew,” says Lipman, a nationally recognized artist who has continued to live in Sheboygan, in part to be close to the arts center. “Every single time I witnessed those conversations … she went right for the best work that was made. It was so clear to her.”
And Ruth, who is shy and hesitant to talk about herself, could be at ease with artists, Lipman adds. Because she believes that the brilliance of artists isn’t confined to the objects they make but experienced in their lives and working practices, Ruth had a palpable desire to be in their company, several people around her say.
According to Lipman, who describes herself as a devotee of the art center, the residency and Ruth – someone who has “absolutely drunk the Kool-Aid” – Ruth was the only person who could have created such a residency because of her family connections, resources and discerning eye.
“You cannot overstate the impact that having access to that industry has had on our field,” says Lipman. “It’s massive.”
When she was a girl, before she lost her mother, Ruth’s parents often piled the Kohler kids into the Packard convertible for Sunday rambles. Wandering country roads without expectation was her father’s way. The manufacturing patriarch greeted farmers working in the fields and neighbors with a toot of the horn and a wave of his worn, wide-brimmed hat. Ruth’s mother preferred more predetermined pilgrimages, for lemon meringue pie in Port Washington or maple-sugaring near St. Cloud, for instance.
On these weekend jaunts, the Kohlers spotted countless bathtub shrines. Smooth, white tubs turned on end and half buried in the dirt, they were designed to draw the eye to the Virgin Mary. One’s level of devotion could be read in the elaborateness of such structures, some of which incorporated old farm equipment.
“One farmer would do it, and then somebody else would do it, and they’d have to make it a little bit bigger and a little bit better,” Ruth said of the shrines in an interview for an animated short film, It’s Gotta Be In Ya, for the arts center’s 50th anniversary.
Years later, early in her tenure at the arts center, Ruth went on another fateful ramble, to Fred Smith’s tavern in Phillips, Wisconsin, thanks to an arts center board member who enticed her. The “Up North” bar was a spectacle from the road, surrounded by more than 200 larger-than-life concrete sculptures, including figures of Paul Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln and Ben-Hur. Smith, a retired lumberjack and fiddler, inlaid glass from broken beer bottles, as well as stones, mirror, marbles and other reflective shards, into his figures. Ruth worked with the Kohler Foundation, the Wisconsin Arts Board and the National Endowment of the Arts to save the environment, now called Wisconsin Concrete Park. “Fred was an amazing man, tough and funny and determined,” Ruth said in the film.
Her childhood sojourns and Smith’s roadside sculpture garden changed the way Ruth thought about art. They opened her up to devout expressions of the imagination, creating a desire in her that would be consummated the day she crossed the threshold of a tiny West Allis home in 1983.
That’s when, on a tip from the Milwaukee Art Museum, she visited the home of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, not long after he had died. She discovered a pocket-sized home painted inside and out, overrun with sweetly erotic photographs of Eugene’s wife, Marie; liquidy apocalyptic paintings; clay crowns and sensor pots; and spindly sculptures delicately constructed from chicken bones.
“It was amazing what he did, what he created,” says Ruth, who has described the experience many times over the years as among the most astonishing and moving of her life. “It was an originality that I hadn’t seen before.”
Von Bruenchenhein used materials he could put his hands on, including clay dug up near State Fair Park, paintbrushes made with Marie’s hair, salvaged car paints and, famously, poultry parts. Ruth describes as “just wonderful” his colorful thrones fashioned from bones. “Each one, for me, has a voice that tells a slightly different story.”
Ruth was transported by the work of EVB, as he’s now known in the art world – rather well known, in fact, in large part because the arts center stepped in to preserve the work, including the things that other museums might have passed on: notebooks, audio tapes, writing and other ephemera.
It was a lot to take on. There weren’t any established best practices for the care of such work, no experts to ring up for advice. Larry Donoval, the arts center’s longtime registrar, created hammock-like slings to transport the chicken-bone towers to Sheboygan. “I would never do that again, but I couldn’t stand them up and have them bounce down 43,” he says of his fateful trip up the interstate.
A few years later, the Kohler Arts Center organized the artist’s first solo museum show, and a couple of decades after that, the larger art world caught up. EVB was everywhere, it seemed, written up in The New York Times and on view at the oldest exhibit of avant-garde art in the world, the Venice Biennale.
“He just happens to strike a chord right now. … it is his moment,” Brett Littman told me a decade ago, just after he had curated an EVB show for the American Folk Art Museum. In that moment – three decades after the show in Sheboygan – the art world was looking more seriously at artists who were less tied to dominant art world dialogues. “People have jumped on the bandwagon, yeah,” says Donoval, “but we were the ones that hitched the horses up first.”
EVB’s fantastical work and its particular form of escape enchanted Ruth. After years of enlightened programming related to contemporary art and contemporary craft, including textiles and ceramics, Ruth and the curators who worked with her began to guide the art center’s mission more decidedly toward the work of vernacular or visionary artists.
During my interview with Ruth, I slide another book across the table to her. This time it’s the “Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds” exhibition catalogue from the seminal 2007 show, expertly curated by Leslie Umberger. The tome represents the study, preservation and collecting of artist-built environments in the years after the EVB discovery and perhaps the art center’s most important exhibition.
I open the book to the chapter on the late Mary Nohl and a picture of the artist, wearing a bright outfit daubed in paint, leaning against one of her sunny-faced figures. Again, there is recognition in Ruth’s face. She knew the artist well and spent more than 30 years trying to save her Fox Point cottage, the legendary drive-by that locals sometimes call “the witch’s house.” Nohl bedecked her home, inside and out, with cheerful abstract forms and populated the property with scores of woodland sculptures that teenagers found spooky in the moonlight.
Inside, a serpent is carved into the mantle, zigzagging toward an apple, the forbidden fruit of curiosity, reminiscent of that mischievous first woman and the rotten rap women have been getting for centuries. Nohl was no exception to that rule. When she left the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late ’30s, when most of her female classmates plunged into marriages and mothering, she devoted herself to a very specific place and the pursuit of art.
“I think it’s astonishing, what she did,” says Ruth of the home, which has been embraced as an oddity but less recognized for what it is: an integrated work of art. “The breadth of what she focused on and the beauty of it, the strength of it…”
Ruth trails off. As she continues, there’s a shift. Ruth is knitting together narratives about her mother and Mary Nohl, it seems. She is returning to the start of our discussion, about the elder Ruth, as a way to reset or relocate herself within our conversation. I know enough about memory misfires from my own family experiences to not attach too much meaning to the conflation, but it is poignant nonetheless.
Nohl represents one of the great challenges of Ruth’s professional life, and her defense of one of the few women among the environment builders that she and the arts center cast a spotlight on. There’s perhaps an irony in Ruth’s story: the feminist’s daughter has devoted so much of her life to embracing the work of artists who are, on the one hand, underrecognized, but also mostly white men. In this sense, the arts center’s focus on visionary artists (though not its whole program) shares some problematic similarities to the rest of the art world. There are some unique reasons for this imbalance, including the fact that women and artists of color are less likely to own property that can be transformed into art, but there’s still some art historical reconsideration called for.
I’ll never forget when Ruth took the stage at the Milwaukee Art Museum in the summer of 2014 to defend her controversial plans to move Nohl’s whole cottage, one of the few intact environments in the world made by a woman, to Sheboygan. It was the only way to preserve it, she argued that night, surrounded by arts people who were critical of the plan, myself included. For a woman often described as reticent, Ruth made a forceful case, describing the village of Fox Point as obstructionist, a “gated community without a gate.” In the end, the arts center and its board were swayed to keep the house where it is, beside Lake Michigan, which had been an important source of inspiration and materials for the artist.
As I think about Ruth and Nohl, who both remained fiercely single-minded about their art-infused lives and committed to a place, I wonder whether Ruth has been misunderstood, too. What are the expectations that go along with her life, with being a woman and a Kohler, for instance? Some of the people I interviewed for this article worked alongside Ruth for years but never gained a deep understanding of her life. They wonder, too.
Mindful that my questions about the past put Ruth on the spot, I briefly change the subject to something light, her lovely manicure. When I ask for a peek at the Easter-egg pastel color that I can’t quite make out from our social distance, she balls her hands into fists and slips them beneath the table, insisting they look terrible. Another detail, tucked away.
“I think there’s a part of her that we’ll never get to,” says Richard Balge, a longtime board member at the arts center. “She’s a complex, complex person, but yet she’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.”
Was it assumed that “Ruthie,” as she is sometimes called around the factory, would become the “arts person” in the family, wonders Lisa Stone, a scholar of vernacular art who has collaborated with Ruth many times. Ruth’s older brother is called “Mr. Kohler,” by the way, almost without exception. People wouldn’t dream of calling him “Herbert,” says Lipman, who speaks from experience – having deigned to use his first name once while a new resident artist at the factory. She and Ruth got a giggle out of how she was corrected.
When I ask Ruth what it was like being a Kohler, she says, simply, that it was hard. Her brief answer has the force of truth. This is not a response she searches for.
Ruth’s nieces describe another side, a Mary Poppins-like figure. They have powerful memories of Ruth’s home studio, with its long maple tables, pools of natural light and the garden outside. It was a space filled with paints, sequins, fabrics and all manner of texture. “Her house was magical,” says Laura Kohler. “It was freedom. ”
In her capacity at the art center, Ruth shed her shyness when crowds came to see art. She was in her element then. But she’s also been described as a demanding and, at times, tough boss, by some, driven by an unrelenting conviction about her work. Some would say “tough” is a euphemism.
Ruth often hired smart curators who were in a career-making phase of their lives, gave them resources and then pushed hard. “They give them total free rein,” Stone says of the Kohler curators. The art center took a “free-form approach that was not trying to be what everyone else was doing,” she says. “Not to sugarcoat that (Ruth) was easy to work for.”
When I asked Ruth herself if she’s been difficult, she says: “I don’t think so, but I did think that this was an important mission, and that we should try to follow through on it.”
As is often the case with arts institutions, narratives sometimes get mythologized, too.
“The arts center is not easy to encapsulate,” says Umberger, the art center’s senior curator of exhibitions and collections from 1998 to 2012, who was as responsible as anyone for the scholarship around artist-made environments in those years. All of its positives – the good to the community, the value to artists, the important preservation work – cannot be diminished, she says. “But the cumulative efforts that have made the place what it is are that of many people over many years. No single person crafted it.
“That may erode the myth of the place,” says Umberger, who is now the curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “but it’s an important point. The hearts and minds of many bright and dedicated souls have made the arts center lastingly important, people of vision who believed deeply in the work.”
Rachel Kohler, Ruth’s niece, says that Ruth and her two brothers always struggled to have healthy, lasting relationships, whether personal or professional. She assumes this was, at least in part, because of the loss of their mother at a young age. Ruth’s younger brother, Frederic, who suffered from schizophrenia, died in his 50s.
“Even though my aunt insists that she is not like my dad in any way, all of us who know them both know they are birds of a feather – they’re just different genders,” Rachel Kohler says of Ruth and Herbert. “They are truly the same person at the end of the day – both stubborn, both pigheaded, both brilliant, both really creative.”
She continues: “They have this vision and they have this desire to create and to have impact, and they will make sure that happens irrespective of, you know, how many bodies are on the side of the road.”
Stone suggests that Ruth is unlike some Wisconsin women of wealth and power, who tend to put themselves out in public more. “She realized that her visions were so original that they spoke for her,” Stone says, “you know, that they are her.”
In the interview with Ruth, there was a question I wanted to ask that felt especially impertinent with someone so private: Have you ever been in love? I’m not surprised when she’s brief in her response. She was in love for several years, she tells me, matter-of-factly, but she chose to remain on her own.
Rachel got an unexpected glimpse into Ruth’s private life while traveling with her in Spain some years ago. Ruth wanted to stop at a certain post office for old time’s sake. A man she had once dated had worked there. To Ruth’s surprise, the man was still behind the counter. “So she goes up to him, and the look on his face is staggering,” Rachel recalls. “He doesn’t say anything. He just opens his wallet. He takes out a picture. And it is a picture of Ruth and him that he’s been carrying around for 40 years.
“Talk about impact. … She does, you know, touch people,” says Rachel.
I know that Ruth and the curators who have worked for her have touched me and influenced my own thinking on art in the last 20 years, from their first exhibit I saw, “Blurry Lines” in 2000, to the recent and revelatory Lenore Tawney retrospective – shows that radically reframed the ways drawing and weaving can be understood, respectively.
As Michelle Grabner, one of our state’s most significant artists, says, Ruth Kohler has a legacy of lasting questions about art world hierarchies that transcend even the particular work she cared about. “She committed to a place and she committed to a life, and through that has evolved abstract questions around value,” says Grabner, who is designing one of the bathrooms at the Art Preserve. “What is the imagination? What is valuable to culture? What is fantasy, and why do we need to escape?”
It is also a life, whether a product of expectation or not, that has given Ruth a voice. The Art Preserve is as much a reflection of her legacy as it is the art center’s. The architects, Denver-based Tres Birds, made sure we’d see that, quite literally.
The light fixtures in the towering, concrete stairway, for instance, are inspired by “hobo symbols,” markings left behind by migrant or homeless workers to communicate with each other – art forms that, like the bathtub shrines, Ruth saw and loved as a child. One symbol high on the Art Preserve wall looks like a figure eight and translates to say, “a kind woman lives here.”
As my time with Ruth winds down, I ask her what she thinks about the world today. She’s worried, she says, about how much of the world doesn’t care about the role of artists and what they do for the rest of us.
“If I could do it again, I would get involved more. … I would still proselytize for this organization forever, with my last breath.”
Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center
WHAT: A 38-acre property and facility that’s the first space dedicated to artist-built environments
WHERE: 3636 Lower Falls Rd., Sheboygan
WHEN: Opening now planned for June 2021; admission will be free