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Arts program marks 40 years

By JANET WEYANDT Sheboygan Press Media

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. - For Ohio artist Sean Foley, the proof is in the dog skull.

A visiting artist taking part in the John Michael Kohler Arts Center's Arts/Industry residency program, Foley has spent his career as an artist developing new interests and new ways of making his work speak.

First it was paintings on canvas, then paintings hung on painted walls, then 3-D installations on top of the paintings on the painted walls.

After a few weeks in Kohler's foundry, Foley's work will include huge installations using pieces and supports he creates out of molds he makes himself.

"I'd never made a mold in my life before I came here," Foley told Sheboygan Press Media. "I was only making flat things and I wanted to make round things and see if I could make my own hardware."

The Arts/Industry program, which invites 13 artists per year to set up shop for a few weeks in Kohler Co.'s foundry or pottery shop to learn industrial processes that add to their body of work, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

The "extremely famous" residency program will make a major difference for Foley, he said, starting the minute he returns home to Ohio.

"I have a painting at home I've been working on for 3½ years and I can't finish it because I can't figure out how to show it without looking cliche or too obvious or too esoteric," he said. "I come here and all of a sudden, I can make dog skull instead of painting a dog ... So it's changed everything."

The program started in 1973, the year after the Arts Center held the nation's first major exhibition of contemporary works in clay.

Ruth DeYoung Kohler was the Arts Center's new director, and she recalled wondering how to entertain the 87 visiting artists.

"We decided that I would go back to Kohler Co. and ask if some of the engineers and technicians would be willing to do demonstrations on the technologies used in the (industrial) pottery," Kohler said.

The success of that event sparked the idea to put artists inside the factory, working alongside craftsmen, to explore news ways of creating art. The following year, with the permission of the Kohler Co., the Arts/Industry residency program took off.

After 10 years, the program expanded to include the foundry, and became a year-round program instead of a summer residency. Applications grew steadily, and now the program receives more than 300 applications for the 13 slots every year.

"It's so much more than we ever thought," Kohler said. "We were really going from year to year, wondering, 'OK now what can we do?' We realized that one thing that could really change (artists') lives was to give them access to the company."

Sculptor Leslie Fry, of Vermont, first attended the program 18 years ago and is back again, this time working on her first-ever clay project.

"I was here in 1996, doing cast iron," she said. "That was a really a huge influence. It was an important experience in my development as an artist."

Leaning on the assistance of Shari McWilliams, lead technician in the pottery studio, and many of the Kohler Co. employees who are experienced in slip casting and finishing, Fry is creating an exhibit called "Supports," which are large brackets that will be carved and finished to include human body forms such as muscles and hands.

Also in the pottery studio, artist Lee Renninger of Gulfport, Miss., is casting a multitude of circular forms using everything from Bundt cake pans to Jell-O molds to create a floor installation called "Botanica: Candyland."

The project will be exhibited in September at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, as part of a solo show.

Renninger said all artists, especially those who work in clay, try for a spot at Kohler's Arts/Industry program.

"We all vie for this," Renninger said. "The minute you say 'Kohler residency,' people are immediately jealous. It will boost my knowledge and, I think, what I go on to do in the future and how I approach my work."

The artists-in-residence are required to leave behind two of the works they create in the factory, said Arts/Industry Coordinator Kristin Plucar. One becomes part of the Kohler Co.'s permanent collection, and one belongs to the Arts Center collection.

Foley said his time in the Kohler Co. foundry promises to change his entire career.

"What this is going to give me is constant sense of surprise," Foley said. "And wonder, and this imaginative spark. Door after door opens up. It's a sea change for everything that I can do."  

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