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In the late 1970s, Loy Bowlin in McComb, Mississippi, styled himself as the “Original Rhinestone Cowboy.” From his slate-blue 1967 Cadillac to his dentures, he adorned everything in his life with rhinestones and spangles, including the entire inside of his house, which he anointed the Beautiful Holy Jewel Home.
“He covered the walls with patterns of cut-out paper, paint, glitter, and collaged photographs and magazine illustrations,” Karen Patterson, associate curator of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, told Hyperallergic. “The result was a kaleidoscopic and dazzling home interior.”
When Bowlin died in 1995, that sparkling home was sold and set to be demolished, until its purchase by Houston artist and collector Katy Emde. The house was completely taken apart and later acquired by the Kohler Foundation, and after four years of preservation gifted to the Kohler Arts Center along with many of Bowlin’s ostentatious hats, suits, and furniture. Next year, the art institution is devoting its main gallery to conserving the Beautiful Holy Jewel Home, where the public can witness the meticulous work on their permanent collection’s sole comprehensively relocated art environment.
Since it was established in 1967 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the Kohler Arts Center has made vernacular art environments central to their programming, and in 2017 the entire art center will host an exhibition on the work of creators like Mary Nohl whose eclectic cottage they recently helped preserve in situ in Fox Point, Wisconsin, Emery Blagdon of Nebraska whose “healing machines” once installed in a barn were acquired in 2004, and Nek Chand, the Indian artist who died this month, known for sculpting the sprawling Rock Garden of Chandigarh in India.
“We now care for 30 large bodies of interrelated objects from dismantled art environments which is the largest collection of art environment components held in any museum,” Patterson said. “Each case is treated differently and often starts with looking at preservation records, listening to oral histories and interviews, digging through archives, if there are any, and as much research as possible. As an exhibitions team, we acknowledge that the loss of the original context has happened and respectfully walk the line between recreating and evoking, of museum displays and evolving narratives.”
As for Loy Bowlin, the Rhinestone Cowboy who was inspired by the Glen Campbell song for his flashy style and persona, that same care will be devoted to his glitzy legacy. He was initially inspired to transform his life into one of glamor and light in a time of depression when those lyrics caught him: “But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me / Like a rhinestone cowboy.”
“Here, Bowlin saw, was a way out of his sorrows,” Leslie Umberger wrote in the 2007 catalogue for the Kohler’s Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds exhibition. “He soon began thinking about how to adopt the rhinestone cowboy persona — starting with his own personal appearance — and do all he could to ensure that, wherever he went, the lights would shine on him.”
Part of his living room was exhibited in 2000, but this will illuminate all his self-taught sewing and collaging with the repeated patterns of his Mississippi palace, where the rhinestones were as meticulously patterned as a DIY Persian mosque. As Patterson said: “The arts center’s mission is to encourage and support innovative explorations in the arts, and that has translated into 50 years of saying, ‘this is worth looking at’”
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