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A Local Chairmaking Tradition Inspires Older Adults at John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Category: Alliance Blog
Exterior of a building with a large chair-shaped sculpture outside.
In the John Michael Kohler Arts Center's creative aging program, participants looked for links between their personal histories and their city's storied chairmaking tradition. Photo credit: Royalbroil on Wikimedia Commons

In 2018, twenty organizations enrolled in a special museum cohort of Aroha Philanthropies’ Seeding Vitality Arts program. With funding from Aroha, and training provided by Lifetime Arts, these museums are developing high-quality, intensive arts learning opportunities for older adults. Many of these museums are contributing guest posts to this blog sharing what they’ve learned. Today’s post is from Claire Carlson, Audience-Centered Program Coordinator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.

Note: The activities described in this post took place before the COVID-19 pandemic. For information on how museums are continuing their creative aging work during this period, see this post.

Sheboygan, Wisconsin, is a medium-sized city on the shore of Lake Michigan in which industry and nature coexist. As of 2019, it is the stimulating backdrop for Art Links Sheboygan, a series of art classes at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center that serve our “fifty-five and better” population. In this program, participants learn about the city’s history and consider how it might connect to their own life stories. They are encouraged to illustrate this connection through the projects they make, using the techniques being taught—always with the freedom to conceptualize in their own ways.

The first workshop series focused on mosaics. Taught by Milwaukee-based artist Becca Kacanda, it took place at the James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden, an artist-built environment in the JMKAC’s collection that is located just south of Sheboygan. James Tellen was part of the thriving mid-twentieth century chair industry in Sheboygan. Inspired by this rich history and its connection to Tellen, each participant in the workshop created a mosaic chair. Participants drew inspiration from the forest and Tellen’s cabin, as well as his many concrete sculptures, which entice visitors to meander about the property.

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We set up shop in the Boy Scout Lodge, built adjacent to the art environment in the 1940s, which was always cozy and bustling. In close quarters, it was easy to make friends, share supplies, and tend to everyone’s needs. We began the first session by asking participants to describe an important or favorite chair. This consideration of a seemingly mundane object was valuable as a way to begin articulating personal histories—and a fun way to become acquainted with one another! In the process, participants shared memories of grandparents, childhood homes, first apartments, wedding gifts, upholstery projects, and enchanted cottages.

The second meeting was held off-site at the Sheboygan County Historical Society and Museum. The knowledgeable staff there educated us on the history of furniture makers in our city from the early to mid-1900s and gave us special viewings of wooden artwork from that era. Some of the wood carving techniques were related to mosaic techniques, and the participants were excited to get up close to such old and interesting relics. Standing in the museum’s chair gallery, the class listened intently and used sketchbooks to take notes and draft design elements for their upcoming mosaic chair. They were encouraged to find links between Sheboygan’s identity as “Chair City” and their own personal narrative. I saw this was a group of lifelong learners, hungry for new ways to tell their stories. The role of Sheboygan in each person’s statement and process was unique to the individual, which yielded fascinating results in the end.

As the participants became more empowered over the eight weeks, they took risks and made bold design choices. We offered them a vast palette of tiles to use, and most expanded upon that palette by bringing in items like family heirlooms, musical instruments, stones from the lakeshore, teacups, cattails, and all kinds of other treasures to incorporate into their chairs. Nobody was afraid to ask questions, get their hands dirty, or make “mistakes.” Most had preplanned their chair concept from the outset, while some allowed the day’s process to influence their next design choice. I enjoyed circulating the room and asking the participants about their chairs because it gave me a chance to learn more about who they are and to witness their budding skills. We had every level of art experience represented in the group, from complete novice to professional, but mosaic was a new form of expression for all of them, and it put everyone on equal footing. The cohort shared friendly advice and praised each other’s work; the atmosphere was ideal for growth, stimulation, and socializing.

We hosted our culminating event for the workshop at the Tellen sculpture garden. We were fortunate to have gorgeous weather late in October, so we displayed the chairs right in the middle of the forest. Their vibrant colors and whimsical elements contrasted beautifully with the serene backdrop of trees, acorns, leaves, and concrete sculptures. The pride was palpable as our creators showed their loved ones what they had been working on for the past eight weeks. They explained their motivation and inspiration, and pointed out the techniques and special elements that were part of their chair’s construction. This rewarding day felt like the perfect celebration of all that was accomplished during Art Links, not only by the talented participants but also by our extraordinary teacher, Becca. She made it possible for all of our artists to gain confidence and skill, which they developed and then ran with!

The community and the class can look forward to two more exhibitions of these meaningful works of art. The first will be at the Senior Activity Center of Sheboygan, which is a valued community partner to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center; the second will be in a gallery at the Arts Center. This display will be accompanied by a video that shares commentary from each participant, as well as a full-color booklet with photographs of each item made during Art Links. It will be exciting to see the public’s response to the concept of creative aging. We hope it empowers and inspires visitors to engage with their own creativity, no matter their stage in life.

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