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New Sheboygan County museum displays works of prolific artists

Wisconsin Public Radio

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) — A visit to Art Preserve, a new Sheboygan County museum, starts at a bar.

It’s an evocation of Fred Smith’s bar up in Phillips, to be exact. The tavern owner was also a famous sculptor.

Museum employees used photos to re-create the bar, and they’re working with the Milwaukee artist John Riepenhoff to brew a Fred Smith lager. It’ll be an easy-drinking concoction since Smith only sold Rhinelander Shortys, said Laura Bickford, a curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.

“We really want this to feel really comfortable and really welcoming for everyone,” she said. “You can come in and get a beer, and you don’t even have to look at the rest of the museum if you don’t want to.”

Of course, Smith was known for more than his bar. With more than 200 sculptures, his concrete park is still a popular Northwoods attraction. But not every artist-built environment has met such a happy fate.

That’s where Art Preserve comes in. An annex of the nonprofit Arts Center, the new museum is the first of its kind, focused on conserving and displaying the objects that amassed around artists who just couldn’t stop making, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

It celebrates the impulse to create — something we all have to some extent, said Sam Gappmayer, director of the Arts Center.

The urge was strong for the West Allis artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, who is a big part of the Art Preserve’s origin story, Bickford said. He made sculptures of crowns with clay from his garden, crafted thrones out of poultry bones and photographed his wife, Marie. He created “profusely,” she said.

Over the years, Von Bruenchenhein developed a friendship with a police officer who visited the artist’s house on his beat. When Von Bruenchenhein died in 1983, the man worried about Marie and worked to attract interest in the artist’s collection. He got in touch with the Milwaukee Art Museum, who referred him to Ruth DeYoung Kohler, former director of the Arts Center. Up to that point the Arts Center, an exhibition space, wasn’t a collecting institution. But when Kohler visited Von Bruenchenhein’s home, it was a profound experience, Bickford said.

“She instantly sort of realized, like, we can’t just have one painting,” she said. “No one will understand the breadth and depth of his world, and so the first acquisition the Arts Center made was about 6,000 objects that came out of his house.”

At Art Preserve, everything is always on display. When it comes to Von Bruenchenhein, the use of visible storage allows visitors to see just how densely he lived among his work. Much of it’s showcased in a small structure within the museum that matches the footprint of his home.

Artist-built environments often spring up where artists live because that’s the space they have access to, Gappmayer said. There are other examples at Art Preserve, including a collection of items from Stella Waitzkin’s apartment in New York City’s famed Chelsea Hotel.

Unlike Von Bruenchenhein, Waitzkin was an art world insider who studied with Willem de Kooning, an abstract expressionist, and palled around with poet Allen Ginsberg. She was a performance artist, and she cast hundreds of books in gemstone-colored resin — a metaphor on knowledge, Bickford said. In fact, she named her apartment “Details of a Lost Library.”

“I think about (artist-built environments) in contrast to sort of the norm, which is artists that create serial one-off pieces, right?” Gappmayer said. “I make a painting, I sell it. I make another painting, I sell it.”

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