The John Michael Kohler Center for the Arts celebrates the 50th anniversary of the arts/industry program

The John Michael Kohler Center for the Arts celebrates the 50th anniversary of the arts/industry program

“It really was a renegade program in a way,” JMKAC Chief Curator Jody Throckmorton said of the beginnings of the Arts/Industry Program.

SHEBOYGAN — The John Michael Kohler Center for the Arts’ fascinating and renowned arts/industry program celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, marked by an accompanying exhibition theme.

Developed in collaboration between siblings Ruth DeYoung Kohler II and Herbert V. Kohler Jr., the residency program has grown to host nearly 600 artists since 1974. Its origins stem from a 1973 summer exhibit at the JMKAC called “The Plastic Earth.” Along with the exhibit, ceramists were invited to the Kohler Company to engage with factory workers and learn material techniques and technologies.

“It really was a renegade program in a way,” said chief curator Jody Throckmorton.

The first artists to participate in the program were Jack Earle and Tom Laduza, from Ohio and Louisiana, respectively, who created more than 120 works of art. The program expanded to the foundry in the late 1980s.

The arts/industry program provides an opportunity to exchange knowledge between artists and workers, Throckmorton said. It lends itself to “seeing how the work they (workers) do every day can be viewed in a different paradigm and respected by a group of people who come from a different angle of craft or art.”

Artists can “really respect their position in the factory and what they do because it’s an incredibly skilled place. So much of it is still handmade,” she continued.

The program currently hosts 12 artists-in-residence annually. Cohorts of four have three months of work in the factory’s pottery or foundry. Each artist donates one piece of art to JMKAC and Kohler Co. at the end of his residence.

Although some artists may not have material experience with ceramics, cast iron or brass, they receive technical support.

Justin Favela, a Las Vegas artist whose work typically involves paper and cardboard for large installations or sculptures, said he is still getting to know the processes at the factory and is interested in how his work will translate to other materials.

“The tools I use are very easy to work with — scissors, utility blades — and I usually work with my hands, so I had to relearn how to use all the saws in the carpentry shop, all the metal tools,” Favela said.

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Favela said she explores themes of identity and her Latino heritage in her art, specifically defying expectations for a first-generation artist of color.

“In the art world, we’re usually expected to make art about our biography or our trauma,” Favela said. “You know, institutions love that, and I hate it. I think about myself and my family and my history, but I like to push back against those expectations and kind of make fun of that.

In some of his work, Favela questions authenticity, claiming and pointing to symbols that are fake Latin. He said one of his arts/industry projects will look at Doritos, a “generic Mexican” corn chip that originated in the 1960s in the US. He plans to use cast iron for smaller pieces and make a larger wall that can be enameled.

Exhibitions explore the history and influence of the arts/industry, offer interactive creation opportunities

The JMKAC theme ‘Work in Progress’ runs from February 3, 2024 to March 1, 2025, capturing a sense of the program’s past, present and future. Several exhibitions will rotate during this time, but some include Mad Dash: 50 Years of Arts/Industry, The Secret of Muddy Water, Workplace, and Joyce Kozloff: How We Know What We Know.

Mad Dash showcases works from the various eras of the program dating back to Jack Earle. According to Throckmorton, he noted how the factory felt a little wild, like a “crazy hit on something.”

“You’ll notice it’s a little crowded, it’s a little all over the place, and that’s very intentional as a way to show the wide variety of what this program has produced,” she said.

The Secret of Muddy Water displays works that showcase the unique materials found in Wisconsin and the influence of the Kohler Co. The phrase was coined by one of the program’s first technicians, Clayton Hill, to describe how the clay material and factory methods to produce factory goods could only be found in the state.

Workplace is a multifunctional space with an interactive workshop, an immersive factory display and a traditional gallery. It was designed by artists Billy Dufala and John Greig. There, visitors will have the opportunity to participate in projects with resident artists.

“The videos are of the factory, the sounds are of the factory that you hear in this space as a way to set the stage for, ‘How can you convey to our visitors what it’s like to be in this incredibly overwhelming environment?'” Throckmorton said. “Because it’s huge for an artist to go there. You know, it’s hot, it’s noisy at times, the smells are different.”

There’s also a tribute to a 50-year Kohler Co. employee. Jerry Thorpe, whose last role was as a carpenter. The artists displayed his bench, artifacts and various tools.

Some of Joyce Kozloff’s work over a 20-year period in the historic home’s gallery demonstrates the impact of her residency in the program in 1986. In the program, she used materials for a commissioned ceramic tile piece for the People Mover station at the Detroit Financial Center. From there, her work explores themes such as feminism and systems of power through the Pattern and Decoration Movement, with materials such as textiles and cartography.

The Arts Center will host a community event on a new theme

JMKAC will host a community celebration on the theme of “Work in Progress” from noon to 4:00 p.m. on March 16. Learn more at

Contact Alex Garner at 224-374-2332 or [email protected]. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @alexx_garner.

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