Dr. Charles Smith, Dred Scott: Asked Supreme Court to Free Him, c. 1985–99 Credit: Courtesy John Michael Kohler Arts Center Collection (Gift of Kohler Foundation Inc.)

Before Black Lives Matter was a movement, Black lives mattered in the work of Dr. Charles Smith. A Vietnam vet and prodigious self-taught artist, he’s spent decades recreating the Black American experience in figurative sculpture, from the time of the slave ships to Harriet Tubman, MLK, and beyond.

The fact that, for a long time, people either weren’t interested or dismissed him as “crazy” didn’t diminish his output. He was on a mission.

“Dr.” Smith (he gave himself the title) now lives in Louisiana, where he was born. But in 1999, when I interviewed him for the Reader, he was living in Aurora, Illinois, where his sculptures had spilled out of his modest home and were densely populating a sizable yard. “The yard gradually became his museum,” I wrote, “thronged with hundreds of prisoners, runaways, and martyrs,” each face “unique and expressive,” every piece with its own story.

This was the African American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive, a drive-by, walk-through, sculptural history installation—free to all, and likely as not to be narrated in person by its creator.

“God said, ‘Use art. I give you a weapon,’” Smith told me then.

This story stuck with me over the years, in part because I made a colossal mistake in it, misidentifying Smith’s medium, which he has never exactly revealed. (He’ll now say only it’s a “masonry mix,” secret as the recipe for Coca-Cola.) But also because I found his figures so intellectually engaging I photographed them myself and the Reader published my photos.  

So it was disturbing, earlier this year, to hear that Smith’s Aurora home/museum had fallen into disrepair and was being bulldozed. But, as it turns out, not as unfortunate as it might have been: in 2000, the Sheboygan, Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation purchased approximately 500 of Smith’s Aurora pieces. About half of them were distributed to museums all over the country, and more than 200 went to Sheboygan’s John Michael Kohler Art Center, which will feature them—along with “immersive” exhibits of work by other artists—at its new outpost, the Art Preserve, opening June 26. (It’s free, but reservations required at jmkac.org.)

It’s a good reason to pile in the car and head north for a day trip or a weekend.

Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI.
Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI.Credit: Durston Saylor, courtesy John Michael Kohler Arts Center

The Art Preserve is housed in a new, 56,000-square-foot, $35-million building whose most striking external features are the stacks of towering timbers, like so many pick-up sticks, that shade its large windows. Designed by Denver architectural firm Tres Birds, the three-story facility sits on 38 acres of former farmland about two-and-a-half miles from downtown Sheboygan (and, depending on traffic, two-and-a-half hours from downtown Chicago). It was the culminating project of Ruth DeYoung Kohler II, who died last November at the age of 79.

Granddaughter of the Kohler Company founder that the Art Center’s named for, and daughter of the former Chicago Tribune “women’s” editor that she was named for, Kohler II was the Art Center’s director from 1972 to 2016. She was responsible for the Center’s strong reputation as an institution focused on folk and self-taught artists and, with her brother, Kohler Co. board chair Herbert V. Kohler Jr., launched a residency program that has had hundreds of artists collaborating with the company’s plumbing fixture artisans since 1974. The Art Center’s bathrooms are perennial winners in world’s best public toilet listings, and a highlight of that museum.

Artist-designed washrooms (including one by SAIC professor Michelle Grabner) are also a not-to-be-missed highlight of the new museum, where they fit neatly into the Preserve’s focus on artist-built environments. Rather than the usual cherry-picked collection of a piece or two by many artists (often the same artists, no matter the museum), the preserve has collected many pieces from a smaller number of artists, all distinctive for creating their own “visionary” worlds.

Many of these artists were unrecognized by the larger art world during their lifetimes, and most of the environments they created occupied their own living quarters, some of which have been moved to or partially rebuilt at the Art Preserve: they include the glitter-encrusted Mississippi home of Rhinestone Cowboy Loy Bowlin; the Nebraska shed that houses the kinetic conglomeration of wire, foil, minerals, and what-have-you that constitutes Emery Blagdon’s The Healing Machine; and a reproduction of part of the Chicago apartment of longtime School of the Art Institute of Chicago teacher and artist Ray Yoshida, brimming with his wide-ranging collection of folk, pop, Indigenous, and other work. The Art Center owns 2,600 pieces from Yoshida’s collection, and 6,000 objects from the estate of Milwaukee-area multigenre artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein. The idea throughout: the whole is more than the sum of the parts. It’s a curatorial mission no less obsessive than the work it collects.        

When I visited, Dr. Smith’s people were lined up on metal storage racks on the third floor. Curator Laura Bickford told me they’ll be installed according to Smith’s directions when he comes to the museum in the fall. That should be worth a return trip.

Meanwhile, Smith told me by phone, he’s working on a second African American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive in Hammond, Louisiana, where he’s also welcoming visitors, hoping to impress them with a history that’s still not well enough known.  v