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Lake Magazine
May. 19, 2017 #22-138 LK1
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Scenes of Lake Michigan,
sprinklers and other
waterworks flood the
view in “Sheboygan Men’s
Rooms,” by Ann Agee.
PRETTY POTTY SHEBOYGAN MUSEUM’S BATHROOMS ARE AFLUSH WITH ART

Text by JEANETTE HURT

Swirls of cerulean blue glow from the ceiling, setting the framework for New York artist Matt Nolan’s installation, The Social History of Architecture. Hand-painted ceramic tiles detail the different periods of design across one wall, while the other portrays the men who embody those styles. Flying buttresses and church spires highlight the Gothic epoch; a pair of praying hands reach across from it on the opposite wall, with the script “Aspiring Toward Heaven.” Discreetly tucked below the hands, the work is labeled “Pontiff ,” and that inscription sets off a delicate painting of stained-glass windows—inside the bowl of a urinal.

Welcome to America’s best bathroom, or the world’s third-best bathroom, depending on the poll. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, boasts the world’s most extensive collection of works by “environment builders,” or self-taught artists who turn their homes, yards and even churches into works of art, and it brings in cutting-edge programs and exhibits from across the nation. But this art museum’s reputation is truly in its toilets.

“We even had one family from North Carolina jump in their car and drive straight here to see them,” says Ruth DeYoung Kohler, museum director.“They saw us on the Travel Channel, and they drove here without even packing a suitcase.”

Though the Travel Channel last paid a visit to this Lake Michigan community four years ago, rating Nolan’s masterpiece the third-best bathroom on the planet, the TV show still runs every so often and every time it airs, more visitors flock to Sheboygan to go to the bathrooms. Nolan’s work, featured in the men’s restroom right off of the main entrance, is the most publicized, but the museum also offers five other artist-designed public bathrooms.

The artists who designed the bathrooms had never been commissioned a public work before being selected, and except for Nolan, all had been participants of the Kohler Arts/Industry residency program. One of the most unusual industry-sponsored art programs in the country, the center invites 16 artists to spend two to six months working directly in the factory of Kohler Co., a top bathroom fixtures manufacturer located in the town of Kohler, immediately west of Sheboygan. Participating artists learn to work with pottery, iron and brass foundries and enamel to create murals, reliefs and sculptures.

The genesis for creating restrooms of art developed indirectly from a series of public meetings held before the museum’s main structure was even built in 1974, and several artists attended those gatherings.

“They wanted to know how we were going to involve artists in creating the museum,” DeYoung Kohler says. “Most of our museum had to be a blank canvas so we could change exhibits and performance spaces. The space that could most easily accommodate permanent exhibits were the bathrooms.

” Then there’s the clear family connection between the museum and the company, the first getting financial support from the second. A piece of the museum is in an old Kohler family home.

And so, as the center fleshed out its building, its most permanent exhibits began to be flushed out in areas that most often are afterthoughts. The museum unveiled its most recent restroom this past summer. Massachusetts artist Cynthia Consentino painted and sculpted “The Woman’s Room,” aptly located in the women’s restroom on the main floor. Consentino’s installation replaced a previous work, entitled “Powder Room,” which had involved walls of mirrors filled with various makeup powders that could be atomized with a mechanical pump. The pump frequently clogged up and had to be removed, and museum staff eventually decided that the art would work better as an occasional installation rather than as a permanent and well-used restroom.

The new room is bathed in a sea of pink. The rosy tone is interspersed on one wall with raised tiles that surreally mix and match female and animal body parts with plants and flowers, creating recognizable and fantastic figures. The other walls sport more than 120 glaze paintings of accessories and undergarments. One stall playfully sketches brassieres across the back; another sports stockings and handbags, each with flowers and designs inscribed directly in or on the toilets. And every tile across the edge of the wall depicts shoes, while the tiles just beneath the ceiling feature pictures of hats.

While Consentino’s work is the most recently celebrated, the bathroom that is most popular with local residents is Ann Agee’s “Sheboygan Men’s Room.” Stark white tiles reveal cobalt wall murals of water scenes—everything from the lakefront to the sewage treatment plant to a car wash—which are then set off by hundreds of actual Sheboygan houses.

“People come in here to see their homes,” DeYoung Kohler says. “It’s almost like a memory wall.”

Each of the other three bathrooms has its own theme. A secondary women’s restroom boasts cast-iron sculptures of lace towels, decorative mirrors and other toiletries. The preschool bathroom features 73 individual tiles that were painted by all the children attending school there one year, as well as fiber sculptures of stuffed animals. The family bathroom shows off silhouettes of faces and names, with short sentences that arts center members sent in to Canadian artist Carter Kustera to use in her work “Tell Me Something I Don’t Already Know,” including such gems as “Dorinne is a woodland druidess,” and “Brian eats pizza with peanut butter.”

Every bathroom in the museum is open to members of the opposite sex. But visitors of differing gender are asked to knock first before entering so users are not surprised or interrupted. (The family and preschool bathrooms are unisex, single-stall spaces; there’s less chance of an embarrassing incident there.)

“Before the family from North Carolina left, they wrote in our guidebook ‘It was worth the trip,’” DeYoung Kohler says. “These bathrooms really have created a place that brings people together.”

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Enter this restroom and you’re in the middle of artist Matt Nolen’s mural of architectural forms.