Inspired by the many circuses and exotic animal shows that toured and wintered in Wisconsin in the late 1800s, Civil War veteran and folk artist Levi Fisher ames created his own remarkable menagerie of animals both real and imagined.
Meticulously carved from fine-grained basswood, not only does his collection have a toad, an elephant, and a hippopotamus, it also contains fantastical tableaux never seen in nature: a gorilla astride a crocodile, grasping and pulling the reptile’s front feet; a lion forcing a buffalo to the ground, its massive teeth around the victim’s neck; and even a hodag, the mythical creature of the Wisconsin Northwoods.
“Levi Fisher Ames created an amazing environment, with all these little creatures and animals. It’s one of those special Wisconsin treasures,” says Terri Yoho, executive director of the Kohler Foundation which acquired Ames’ work in 2001. Today Ames’ collection of more than six hundred miniature creatures is housed in the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan. But because of their age and fragility—most of the pieces are only three to six inches in size—Ames’ delicately carved sculptures are rarely placed on exhibition for the public and few have been fortunate enough to see this amazing treasure.
Perhaps even more amazing than the size and diversity of this collection is the fact that one man hand-carved it all. Viewing and understanding Ames’ work offers not only insight into the process of a master craftsman but also a snapshot of Wisconsin’s social milieu of the time.
Ames, a Civil War veteran who lived from 1840 to 1923, was a “quintessential folk artist,” says Leslie Umberger, the former senior curator of exhibitions and collections at John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Speaking about Ames in a cavernous storage room at the center, with paintings and other exhibition materials in the background, Umberger describes Ames work as “abso- lutely first rate,” adding that he’s one “of the most important American folk artists.”
Author of Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds: Built Environ- ments and Vernacular Artists, (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) a volume about folk artists and what informs their work, Umberger is somewhat of an expert on the life and career of Levi Ames. A brief chat with her provides a fascinating crash course on the man and his unique folk art.
Umberger tells how Ames first began whittling while a Union soldier in the Civil War. He enlisted in 1862 in the 37th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers. After serving three years, Ames was wounded and discharged only to reenlist a few months later. He was assigned to the 31st Regiment of Wisconsin Volunteers, which fought under General William Sherman and participated in his famous march through Georgia. Ames, however, likely did not take part in the fighting according to Umberger, as he was ill during much of the time he was in the unit (records don’t indicate the nature of his illness).
Ames’ family, with Swiss roots, moved to the Midwest from Pennsylvania while Ames was young and settled in Green County in south central Wisconsin, possibly attracted to its fertile soil and affordable land. When he returned from the war, Ames bought his own farmland in the Monroe area, built a house, and, with his wife Lucinda, raised six children.
But the illness incurred during his wartime service left him unable to do much farm work. In search of income to support his growing family, Ames turned to making and repairing musical instruments—and developing his wood-carving talents.
Wood carving, which he had taken up to pass the time while ill, became a sort of obsession. Ames could often be seen in front of his house with a mallet and chisel roughing out the form of an animal from a block of basswood. Then, using sharper tools, he would carve the fine details that gave his animals such a lively appearance.
Ames didn’t need a fresh piece of wood to start his carving, but could use his imagination to help transform unlikely bits of wood into animals. His great granddaughter Bonnie Cunningham of Beloit recalls: “He [once] took a root from a tree, and carved it as a snake. He painted it black and positioned it as a kind of cobra- looking position,” she explains.
His collection of animals grew so large that Ames began to develop an idea for a touring show. In 1890 he completed construction on shadowboxes and glassed-in cases for a kind of tent show complete with banners announcing boldly, “See the Life Work of Prof. L. F. Ames—the Greatest Jack-Knife Artist,” and “Animals Wild and Tame—Whittled Out of Wood—Nothing Like It Shown Anywhere.”
With a penchant for showmanship and the help of his now- grown children and wife, Ames took his “Animals Wild and Tame—Whittled Out of Wood” on tour for decades in and around Wisconsin. “Like many intrepid entertainers of the day, Ames was keenly aware of the popular appeal of the rare and exotic,” writes Umberger in Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds. “Taking his cue from the bombastic circus tactic of promoting never-before-seen beasts, he expanded his menagerie to include such longwinded oddities as the Hyeaeosaurus—A Huge Bone-plated Animal Combined Features of a Crocodile and the Lizard. Between twenty and thirty feet in Length and The Ponderous Iguanadon. Eight Times Larger Than the Most Gigantic Alligator. Length about 30’.”
For almost thirty more years—until his death in 1923—Ames would carve in front of audiences while spinning yarns about the animals in his show. Various family members would play on musical instruments made by Ames and tap dance to attract and entertain people. Though Ames did not charge admission to see his collection, he willingly accepted contributions to support his touring show. “Enthusiastic visitor response to his carving and storytelling were his main rewards,” writes Umberger.
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Ames is very much a Wisconsin original. He’s a man who took his extraordinary talent for working with wood and literally carved his niche into folk art. He clearly was devoted to his work, and wanted to make sure it was seen widely. His tent show served this need and fit in well with the entertainment culture of the time when a surprisingly large variety of traveling circuses flourished in Wisconsin and were eagerly anticipated each year by scores of small towns.
In fact, Ames’ tent show took place during the heyday of the traveling circuses of Wisconsin, which thrived in the region during the late 19th century. It was largely geography that helped make Wisconsin such prime ground for circuses. As railroads expanded in both number and territory across the Midwest after the Civil War, Wisconsin offered a new territory area “ripe for development” and served as a jumping off point for shows going to Minnesota and further west, says Fred Dahlinger, curator of circus history for the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.
Dahlinger notes how the proximity to Chicago and its network of railways gave Wisconsin-based circuses the ability to travel widely. Yet, by having their home base in Wisconsin they could winter their animals here and store their materials at far less cost than in Chicago.
“If you think about it, conducting business in Chicago or those [nearby industrial] flatlands of northwestern Indiana or north- eastern Illinois would be very expensive. Too, showmen, who had to buy crops to feed their animals through the winter, could buy cheaper crops in Wisconsin,” he says.
According to Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage (Grote Publishing, 1998) by Dahlinger and the late Stuart Thayer, the circuses established themselves in Wisconsin in 1847, when the Mabie Brothers bought land in Delavan. The brothers operated the E.F. & J. Mabie’s Grand Olympic Arena and United States Circus, which toured Wisconsin and neighboring states and featured the elephants Romeo and Juliet. Like most early circuses, the Mabies would set up their tents in town for a day or two and then move on to the next town. Admission was fifty cents, and children could attend for half-price.
The Mabies paved the way for over ninety or so circuses in Wisconsin over the next century. Of course the best-known Wisconsin circus was founded in Baraboo in 1884 by a family of circus owners and performers who would become synonymous with the American circus: the Ringling Brothers. Beginning with a Vaudeville-type show in Mazomanie (two brothers danced, two played instruments, and one sang), the five brothers soon had their own donkey and a Shetland pony, the makings of their first trick act.
Wisconsin Historical Society materials on the Ringling Brothers show how by focusing on small and neglected towns usually passed over by the larger circuses, the Ringlings quietly built their act—and empire. By 1910 the Ringling Brothers had one of the largest traveling shows with more than 1,000 employees, 335 horses, 26 elephants, 16 camels and other assorted animals that traveled on 92 railcars. “In no other place in America did the institution of the circus flower as it did in mid-nineteenth century Wisconsin,” write Dahlinger and Thayer in their book.
The menagerie was an integral part of the circus and many of the attendees, who lived far from any zoo, went there specifically to see rare and exotic animals. As they strolled into the Big Top to see performances by bareback riders and trapeze artists, patrons would linger at the cages and tents of exotic animals, admiring the zebras, camels, giraffes, and elephants. None of this was lost on Levi Ames. As Umberger notes, Ames drew inspiration for many new animals to add to his menagerie from those found in the circus.
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Ames also played on the appeal of the freakish circus sideshows, finding inspiration for his version of the bizarre in the fantastic tales passed down from Northwoods lumberjacks.
“In logging there was this kind of playfulness about imaginary beasts, or exaggerating the characteristics of existing animals to befuddle greenhorns or just for fun. It’s pretty clear [Ames] was a participant in that [tradition],” says James Leary, a University of Wisconsin–Madison folklorist and co-director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.
For proof, Leary points to a 1910 book by former Minnesota’s State Forester and Commissioner of Conservation Thomas William Cox, called Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, which illustrates a number of fanciful creatures with interesting names such as the argopelter, which hurled branches at passersby, and the squonk, which cried constantly because it was ashamed of its hideous face.
The hodag, a lizard-like beast with horns and a spike-studded tail, is perhaps the best-known Wisconsin example of a fantastic animal to come from the Northwoods. Ames, likely saw a “hodag”—a log covered in buffalo hide with wires to manipulate its movements—exhibited in the 1890s at the Oneida County fair by a lumberman named Eugene Shepard, who claimed to have seen the creature firsthand. Ames later carved one and paired it with another beast called the tuskamogul, which according to legend—Ames’, to be precise—weighed over 1700 pounds, was six feet long and over five feet high.
Ames represents a confluence of cultural strains unique to Wisconsin. An enthusiastic storyteller and showman, he adopted the trappings of the circus, which was very popular in Wisconsin at the time. Though Ames did not offer live animal acts or other typical circus acts, he had his own kind of tent show, and he drew people in through music and whimsical tales in the same way that circus barkers would bring people under the Big Top. His work consciously captured an important aspect of the state’s logging culture with his representations of the hodag and other fantastic beasts. His tableaus of animals locked in combat and his exotic creatures from foreign lands also provided a connection to the larger world for rural residents.
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When you consider the importance of Ames’ art, it’s astonishing to consider that were it not for the efforts of Ames’ grandson, Howard Jordan, this body of work might have been lost forever.
Nobody in Ames’ family really took an interest in the basswood menagerie after he died in 1923, explains his great granddaughter Cunningham. Ames’s work, which was meticulously stored in small boxes, which were in turn carefully packaged in large crates, moved around from porches to garages of various family members for years. When the family fell on hard times during the Depression, they were forced to sell the collection to a Chicago pawnshop for $133.
That Ames’s grandson Jordan was able to rescue the collection from that pawnshop in 1933 was “nothing short of a miracle,” says Umberger.
“When he [Jordan] retired he took a very keen interest in displaying [Ames’ work],” says Cunningham. “He built a whole wall of shelves in the basement, had all of the boxes lined up on the shelves. That was when he really made it his mission; he was the sole party who was interested in doing anything with it. It was my father’s goal to keep the carvings and the collection together.”
With the aid of a neighbor who was a professional photographer, Jordan and his daughter cataloged the entire collection, box by box, setting each one up against a black velvet background.
But there was still the question of making sure the collection would find a safe, permanent home. Taking a chance, Jordan got in touch with the Kohler Foundation. Executive director Terri Yoho, traveled to Jordan’s home in Beloit to view the collection. As Yoho descended into the basement, Jordan flipped on a light on illuminating Ames’ menagerie, which was housed in glass- covered cases. “I was totally amazed at what I saw. I was awe struck by the amazing feats of carving. I had never seen anything quite like it,” says Yoho. The photos she took of Ames’ work “mesmerized” the staff at the foundation, she adds.
Seeing Ames’ work was “one of the most moving moments I ever had” in more than four decades of working in the arts, says Ruth Kohler, president of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Kohler was moved not only by the beauty and craftsmanship of Ames’ work, but also by the devotion of Howard Jordan, who single-handedly rescued and preserved his grandfa- ther’s work.
Remarkably, today almost the entirety of Ames’s work is under the care of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center where it was exhibited in 2001, 2002, and 2003. It was also on view at the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago from December 2002 to March 2003.
While these exhibitions are rare, fortunately for us all Ames’ work will again be on display at the John Michael Kohler Art Center through February 24, 2013, in an exhibition titled Levi Fisher Ames: Animals Wild and Tame.
The work of Levi Fisher Ames is a reminder not only of the importance of Wisconsin’s artistic heritage—which is some- times found in surprising quarters—but also of the importance of preserving it.
Maintaining the state’s artistic legacy is vital, says Kohler. “It is at the heart of what we do,” she asserts. She points to venues such as the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend and the James Watrous Gallery in Madison as devoted to keeping alive the work of Wisconsin artists.
For more information or to plan your visit to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, visit jmkac.org