The industrial technicians at Kohler make more than a desirable line of plumbing fixtures—they also impart their foundry skills to visual artists who are selected for the company’s prestigious Arts/Industry residency program. In 1974, Kohler launched the program to forge collaborations between visiting artists and the industrial artisans at its factories. For nearly a half-century, Kohler has welcomed 500-plus artists and provides them with the opportunity to work alongside master ceramic and metal technicians in the company’s pottery department, iron and brass foundries, and enamel shop.
THE KOHLER COMPANY
Kohler is a global manufacturing company that was founded in 1873 by John Michael Kohler and is headquartered outside of Milwaukee in Kohler, Wisconsin. Decidedly, Kohler is an industry leader known for its kitchen and bath products, but it also makes engines, power systems, furniture, and tile. In addition, the company has a growing toehold in niche recreational markets with its five-star golf resorts in Wisconsin and St. Andrews, Scotland, along with its luxury spas and hospitality centers in Kohler and Chicago.
THE KOHLER FOUNDATION
In 1940, members of the Kohler family established the company’s charitable trust—Kohler Foundation, Inc. Initially formed to improve the lives of the elderly, orphaned, infirm, and victims of national emergencies, over the years, the foundation’s focus shifted to art education and arts training. Notably, the foundation established the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in 1967.
The John Michael Kohler Arts Center
The John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) is a contemporary art museum and performing arts center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, that is dedicated “to making innovative arts programming accessible to a broad audience” through commissioned art works, exhibitions, performing arts programs, publications, and community arts initiatives. The Kohler family has actively guided the center’s founding, growth, and management over the years.
The JMKAC campus is expansive and offers amenities supporting a variety of arts programming. There are eight exhibit galleries at the center displaying print, painting, and 3D art, along with two stages for dance, music, and film performances. To support hands-on learning, there is a classroom and studio spaces used for scheduled studio arts programming and unscheduled “drop-in” sessions. Additionally, the center has a noncirculating art resource library, cafe, and museum gift shop. Recently, in 2021, the center opened the Art Preserve 3 miles away from the main complex. The Art Preserve showcases installation artwork from art environments, and its three-story museum houses more than 25,000 works from JMKAC’s world-class collection. Works include “complete and partial environments by more than thirty vernacular, self-taught, and academically trained artists.” With an active calendar of outreach programming, JMKAC offers its members and the general public exhibits, art classes, and concerts, and the center also runs an arts-based preschool.
THE ARTS/INDUSTRY RESIDENCY PROGRAM
Nearly 50 years ago, Kohler launched its Arts/Industry residency program to provide visual artists with the opportunity to explore new processes and mediums on its shop floors. Each year, up to 12 artists are selected for residencies in the Kohler company’s foundry or pottery factories and matriculate in cohorts of four, studying for 3-month periods. “Artists-in-residence receive 24-hour access to studio space, industrial materials, use of equipment, technical assistance, photographic services, housing, round-trip transportation, and a modest weekly stipend,” notes JMKAC.
Artists can be formally trained or self-taught, and many seek an opportunity to expand their artistic capacities outside the types of art they are proficient at. Printmakers, painters, fiber artists, bookmakers, and sculptors have been selected.
Kohler’s full-time studio technicians in the pottery department and foundries are on-site to instruct and guide artists on weekdays during business hours. Kohler technicians teach visiting artists shop processes until they are able to work independently on their projects.
Throughout their stay, artists have access to industrial fabricators working in the factory and can learn from them as they work. “An unexpected yet significant element of the residency has been the rapport which grows between the artists and the industrial personnel,” a company press release shares.
Kohler provides residency studios on the factory production floor in the foundry and pottery areas. In the foundries, artists have communal wood and metal workspaces, access to a tool room, and approximately 300 square feet of personal studio space. Kohler provides artists with benches, worktables, carts, and communal hand and power tools. In the pottery workspace, the company provides artists with personal protective equipment (PPE), basic potting materials, and tools such as turntables, casting benches, carts, splash pans, buckets, carts, worktables, and hand tools. Personal studio spaces are approximately 20 feet by 20 feet.
Artists are encouraged to push creative boundaries, and yet works face logistical limitations. Maximums, in large part, are based on an artist’s lifting capacity, with anything more than 50 pounds requiring a team lift. Pottery studios are outfitted with hoists to assist with turning and lifting molds, and projects are limited to dimensions of up to 96 inches in length. Foundry capacities are much greater, with casting ladles able to lift a maximum of 1,700 pounds of molten iron. Kohler’s enamel ovens accommodate the size of a full-length cast-iron bathtub.
Before commencing work, artists and studio technicians enlist input and work approval from foundry foremen, who assess the feasibility of proposed projects and assure they fit within the factory’s capacities.
During residencies, artists hold meet-and-greet sessions and welcome visitors into their studio spaces to see their work, discuss their art, and learn about their experiences at Kohler. Visiting artists frequently teach workshops and classes at the center, and some exhibit work in gallery spaces.
Artists are often prolific during their residencies and produce a sizable amount of work. JMKAC says. Kohler “will ship artists’ work to their homes via freight directly from the factory” if they pack their own materials and accept the risk of damage during transit, at an expense that is significantly less than a fine art shipper would charge.
Lodging and Travel
The residency program covers round-trip travel expenses and provides artists with private room lodging in two homes located a short distance from the factory campus, reachable by walking or bicycle. Residents share communal living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry facilities.
Kohler provides domestic artists in its residency program with a biweekly stipend to cover living essentials such as food and toiletries. International artists are not given a monetary honorarium, but the program instead covers the expense of shipping their works.
The residency program is well-respected, with an international reputation, and it has competitive admissions. Applicants are required to provide a resume, a written project proposal articulating their vision for working in the factory, three images supporting their project proposal, a portfolio of work, a letter of recommendation, and two professional references. Applications are reviewed twice a year, with additional information available on the application site.
Recent Residency Participants
By design, residency administrators seek to diversify the program and give opportunities to artists working in various mediums and coming from a range of art backgrounds. Here are the artists who participated in 2022.
Charlie Wetzel is a sculptor and photographer whose work explores themes of transgendered womanhood and social experiences. Tim Stone is an abstract painter and a member of Arts of Life, a nonprofit organization supporting artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities. During their residencies, Wetzel and Stone hosted several daylong meet-and-greet sessions in their studio spaces and taught workshops and classes.
Artists Angela U. Drakeford and Jessica Campbell both hold M.F.A.s and have exhibited their work in galleries and museums throughout the country. Drakeford is an accomplished interdisciplinary artist, and during her residency, she held workshops centering around grief recovery, one focused on gardening and the other on writing. Campbell is a published cartoonist and visual artist. During her residency, she held several rug-tufting workshops in addition to a comic strip workshop.
Yoshie Sakai is a sculpture and installation/performance artist from Gardena, California, whose work looks at consumerism and pop culture. Molly Bounds is an illustrator and printmaker from Denver whose work is influenced by alternative zines and comics. Sudan-born Azza El Siddique holds an M.F.A. from Yale University School of Art and focuses on painting and sculpture. Pakistan-born Sara Khan is a multimedia visual artist and scholar and two-time Fulbright recipient.
2023 Residency Participants
Kohler is now spotlighting four artists who are part of the program in 2023: Sarah Blood, Alessia Cecchet, Dutes Miller, and Lee Running.
Blood, born in the U.K., has exhibited her work internationally and has been a professor in the Sculpture Dimensional Studies Program at New York’s Alfred University since 2013. Her focus is on light and phenomenology, playing with the tension among material, object form, and space to create object-based sculpture, performative interventions, video, and immersive experiences.
Interdisciplinary artist and writer Cecchet comes from Italy and grounds her work in historical and archival research. She focuses on human and nonhuman histories of displacement, loss, and suffering. Her award-winning films have been exhibited at film festivals around the world.
Chicago-based Miller has exhibited his work around the U.S., and he has been covered by various national media outlets, such as HuffPost and the Chicago Tribune. His collaborations with his husband Stan Shellabarger have won awards and have been covered by Artforum and other major outlets. His focus is pottery.
Running’s sculptures engage people’s relationship with the natural world, with one of her exhibits consisting of sculptures made of roadkill animal bones, kiln-cast glass, and precious metals. Various locations in Iowa and Kentucky use her window installations of native plants. She is the artist-in-residence with Opera Omaha for 2022–2023 and was a 2022 speaker at TEDx Omaha.