Chauvin Sculpture Garden: Kohler Foundation at work in Louisiana bayou

kenny-hill-self-portraitSeventy miles southwest of New Orleans, thick fields of sugar cane are plentiful and even gas stations sell shrimp po’ boy subs that earn raves.

I am here to seek signs of redemption and find them between marshy waterways in Chauvin, population about 3,000 and true Louisiana bayou.

Where the highway ends, a mere 15 miles beyond me, the Gulf of Mexico begins – not as a single, sleek shoreline of beach but a jagged mesh of watery channels and swampland. Cleanup from the 2010 BP oil spill continues in this compromised region; a new oil mat, weighing 2 tons, was just found under sand in mid-October.

What jeopardizes livelihoods also provides work. So what looks like uncomplicated living at first glance is a shell for much more. The vicinity that shows up in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” also is a film site for “The Butler.” Think cobbled shacks and sprawling plantations, a Deep South split personality.

My destination is Chauvin Sculpture Garden, but a local cop doesn’t know it by that name. Kenny Hill’s place? That’s another matter.

The longtime bricklayer in 1990 began churning out concrete statues of trumpeting angels and tormented mortals. Many of the 100-plus sculptures of saviors and devils carry religious overtones. Some are self-portraits. The biggest is a 45-foot-tall brick lighthouse whose many attachments include jazz musicians and combat soldiers.

All are crammed onto a plot roughly 100 feet wide and one-half mile deep, within short steps of a bayou.

Kenny is a self-taught artist whose works seemed spooked and motivated by the impending change of millennium. Shortly after the arrival of 2000, he moved from the area and never returned. Soon swamp grasses, banana trees and other foliage almost hid what he created.

That might have ended the story, had Sheboygan Falls native Dennis Sipiorski not discovered the site. The art department chairman at nearby Nicholls State University called the Kohler Foundation, which was gaining a reputation for identifying, buying, preserving and finding long-term stewards for such art environments.

“I suppose I was the door, Ruth Kohler was the key and Kenny the house,” Dennis admits.

The sculptures are “about living and life and everything I’ve learned,” Kenny explained to the art professor, who says “it’s hard to find a real-deal folk artist who does it for the right reasons.” He considers Kenny “the Michelangelo of folk artists.”

What does that mean? “He told me ‘if I take money for my artwork, I lose my ability to create. He wrote songs, too, and sold a couple but never cashed the checks.”

The Chauvin sculptures are 1,300 miles south of the Kohler Foundation’s first project, Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park near Phillips, where a retired farmer-lumberjack’s 200-some sculptures reveal another vision of the world.

This was the foundation’s first out-of-state preservation project and the only one where “a day of work was called off because of an alligator on the premises,” says Terri Yoho, executive director.

“It’s survived three hurricanes since we got involved,” she says, and a chain-link fence helps buffer the area. After securing the site and adding an art studio, the property was given to Nicholls University.

The sculpture park’s docent and caretaker is Loreli Lee, who grew up watching the mysterious Kenny Hill work. She points to a bigger-than-life concrete eagle and mentions it’s a favorite place for taking photos.

Stand between the wings, and you’ll look like an angel. Only the wings are uneven, and the backdrop is complicated, much like life itself – no matter where you live in the world.

Without the Kohler Foundation’s involvement, Dennis believes the site would have turned into a miniature golf course or tie-up for shrimp boats. He remains on the site’s board of directors but has since moved to Covington, La., and Southeastern Louisiana University.

He also has returned to his roots, making art as much as teaching it. “It’s a matter of deciding what work you really want to do with the time you have left to do it,” he says.

More important than an artist’s technique, he believes, is soul.

“When you make something that’s more valuable to you than money – that’s the secret” to success, he tells students. “Kenny paid a price, I suppose, but he lived that every day” in Chauvin.

Admission is free to Chauvin Sculpture Garden, 5337 Bayouside Dr., Chauvin, La. The site is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. A free Chauvin Folk Art Festival hand blessing of shrimp boats happens every April. Participants include net makers, accordion makers and food carvers., 985-594-2546

The Kohler Foundation also nurtures art environments in Ohio, Kansas and Maine. Admission is free to the John Michael Kohler Art Center, 608 New York Ave., Sheboygan, but donations are appreciated. No other institution in the world makes art environments its primary focus and priority., 920-458-6144

Download the art center’s online “Wandering Wisconsin” map for information about eight art environments that the Kohler Foundation has identified. They are the Wisconsin Concrete Park, Phillips; Dickeyville Grotto, Dickeyville; Grandview, Hollandale; Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto, Cataract; Rudolph Grotto, Rudolph; Woodland Sculpture Garden, Sheboygan; and Painted Forest, Valton.

Wisconsin’s “outsider art” was the last item on my Top 10 list of must-see destinations that make it different from other states. Next, I’ll share what you thought should be on this list.