See the Wondrous Wooden Animal Menagerie of an Early Folk Artist at the Kohler Arts Center

The L.F. Ames Museum of Art included 600 creatures great and small, from ordinary animals like muskrats and chickens to exotic elephants and mythical beasts, and it all folded up into a crate carried by Levi Fisher Ames, a folk artist who lived from 1862 to 1923. While it has been decades since the menagerie carved from wood and housed in hinged shadow boxes toured around Wisconsin, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan has reopened the miniature zoo in “Levi Fisher Ames: Animals Wild and Tame.” The exhibition highlights an often overlooked character of early American self-taught art through his captivating tiny beasts.

Ames learned to whittle while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, and following his time in the military he worked as a carpenter, but kept doing his own carving on the side. He soon ended up with a whole ark’s worth of animals based on his memories of seeing them in the wild, or on taxidermy or illustrations. (He would later get a camera for more accurate models.) Also called “The Grand Museum of Art and Natural History, Whittled Out of Wood,” his compact museum popped up beneath a tent at fairs and other gatherings where the showman Ames would breath life into the small sculptures through his captivating storytelling.

The animals in the Ames Museum of Art represent all corners of the world, as well as realms of myth and imagination. Some of the more cryptozoological specimens include the “Hodag,” a popular local legend in the Rhinelander area of Wisconsin, said to have the head of a frog, the face of an elephant, massive claws, a dinosaur spine, and a speared tail. In Ames’s museum it stares across at the 10-foot-long “Tuskamogul,” a fellow monster of Wisconsin tales. Another box contains “A Monstrous Sea Serpent” alongside the two-headed “Dreaded Hellico-Bentum” lizard. However, it wasn’t all buoyant whimsy. Haunted by memories of the grisly Civil War, Ames also carved detailed dioramas of war, showing death with tombstones and skulls, and the horror of its brutality through assemblies of wooden severed appendages and crutches.

During his lifetime he refused to sell any of the pieces, believing they were inextricably linked to the stories and needed to remain together to be appreciated. Yet after he died, the art was all sold to a pawn shop for $133 and almost separated and lost until his family reclaimed them. His grandson would go on to facilitate the donation of the Ames Museum of Art to Kohler Foundation, Inc. in 2001, where the herd of wooden animals is now part of the permanent collection which focuses on self-taught and folk artists.

While his art remains obscure outside of Wisconsin, it is a truly delightful example of American folk art and entrepreneurial showmanship at a time when the public was hungry for curiosities and wonders, no matter how big or small. The exhibition is on view through January 27, 2013.

Below are more mini-exhibits from the L.F. Ames Museum of Art (all image courtesy the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Collection):

Levi Fisher Ames, “The African Elephant and The Indian Elephant,” c. 1910–1923; wood, graphite, ink, paper, fabric, glass, metal; 8 1/4 x 20 7/8 x 2 7/8 in.

Levi Fisher Ames, “Gloomey Den and Soldiers Home,” c. 1865–1885; wood, graphite, ink, paper, paint, fabric, glass; 8 1/4 x 21 1/8 x 5 in.

Levi Fisher Ames, “The Gorilla & Crocodile and The Hippopotamus,” c. 1900; wood, graphite, ink, paper, fabric, glass, metal; 6 1/4 x 17 x 2 1/2 in.

Allison Meier

(Top Image: Levi Fisher Ames, “The Celebrated Black Hodag Captured in Oneida County, Wis . . . Near Reinelander and The Tuskamogul of Wis., Weight 1,763 lbs’ Measures 10 feet 6 in” Length. Hight 5 feet 4 in” slain near Odanal, Wis Feb 15th 1897,” c. 1897; wood, graphite, ink, paper, fabric, glass, metal; 6 1/4 x 17 1/4 x 2 5/8 in. Courtesy the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Collection.)