As many of you know I’m in the midst of my second Kohler Arts/Industry Residency. It’s one of the very few programs in the country where artists are invited to utilize a studio housed inside a working factory, and it’s the best of its kind. Residents are flown to Wisconsin, provided lodging and a small stipend, and given the opportunity to work on a level that only a factory can provide. At the Kohler pottery, I receive all of the slip (liquid clay) I need, endless mold-making and firing capabilities, and the expert advice of Shari McWilliams, one of the most amazing ceramic techs around. Working alongside the highly skilled factory employees every day allows me to draw from their expertise, too. In return for all these fantastic resources, I’m asked only to donate some of my work and a few hours of educational time.
The Kohler Arts/Residency Program was launched in the early 1970s by the tireless and remarkable Ruth Kohler, who also is director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Ruth’s dedication to philanthropy has had a huge impact in the local community and has benefited artists from around the world. In selecting me for the Arts/Residency program, Ruth resurrected my career, catapulting me forward into new artistic worlds, and benefitted me greatly.
This is my second residency at Kohler, so when I arrived I already had a number of old friends in the factory and immediately began making new ones. Strong relationships are vital to getting my work through the production system, and the hands-on time these workers spend assisting me in my projects is amazing. The friendships continue in the off-hours, too. Twice, Marty, one of the pottery inspectors, took me fishing.
Another day, my friend Dave took me and another resident on a tour of the local countryside, which really opened my eyes to the depth of Wisconsin’s beauty and the kindness of its people. Dave has been determined that I get the full Wisconsin experience this time, and made it his mission to make sure I take the time to do that.
In thanks for all of the warmth and hospitality I’ve received during this long stretch away from home and family, I asked each of the workers sign a fish in “The Ghost School,” so I could tangibly integrate the feeling of camaraderie, of working together, into my project.
Throughout this residency, negotiations between Kohler and the UAW Union (which represents most of Kohler’s employees) have loomed. In the past few weeks the tension has been building. It finally erupted when the company made an offer. The workers soundly rejected it and went on strike. Having made concessions during the previous contract negotiations, which happened during the recession, the workers are taking a principled stand in defense of the lowest paid among them. Risking their holidays — and who knows what else — to walk picket lines in Wisconsin’s bitter cold, these men and women are taking a step into the unknown to do what they believe is right. For that, I respect them now more than ever.
On the other side of the line are the Kohlers. As an artist and a participant in the residency program they have been good to me. They’ve promoted my work, provided opportunities I never could have imagined, and allowed me to work in their unparalleled facilities achieving things I never could have done on my own. These are amazing gifts that can’t be forgotten or underestimated.
I am allowed to cross the line and enter the factory at any time. The workers know me and understand I have a contract to fulfill and have many non-union friends going to work every day. The lines are not as clear as you might think. But I haven’t set foot inside since the strike began. Instead, I’ve been drawing and catching up on other work. Eventually I will go in to finish my work and complete what needs to be done. Meanwhile, the wind and rain are having a new and different significance as I think about my friends out on the picket line.
Sometimes life turns out to be more of an adventure than one bargains for. I hope for a quick resolution, though I’m not very optimistic about that. What I am certain about is the good that resides in all the people here. Their kindness has touched me profoundly and I owe everyone involved a deep debt of gratitude. Wisconsin is truly a beautiful place, and the Arts/Industry program has provided the experience of a lifetime.