Self-taught Artist Tour
Folk art. Self-taught art. Outsider art. Pop art. Whatever you choose to call it, Wisconsin has long been famous for the unique creations of these self-taught artists. Throughout the state, the final creative products of their expression, vision and inspiration have remained on Wisconsin back roads for the rest of us to appreciate and enjoy. Most of these exhibits are outdoors, providing visitors ample opportunity to experience the state's abundance of natural resources and recreation. The artists featured in this tour did not have any artistic training, but what these informal artists lacked in education was more than made up for by their inspiration, creativity, passion and drive to create.
Take a road trip and explore the state's collection of eclectic -- and sometimes eccentric --sculpture gardens that are the unique visions of untrained artists. To lovers of "outsider" art they are places of wonder.
Day One: Northern and Central Wisconsin
The Self-taught Artist Tour begins in Phillips at one of Wisconsin's most famous outdoor folk-art museums, Wisconsin Concrete Park. Created by artist Fred Smith, this open-air exhibit features concrete structures festooned with bits of glass, ceramics and stones. A former lumberjack, farmer and tavern owner, Smith documented the Northwoods way of life in more than 200 figures of mythical and real characters. At age 65, Smith began filling his front yard with statues of Paul Bunyan, Kit Carson, Abe Lincoln, Sacajawea, the Statue of Liberty and Ben Hur, among many others. Located on Hwy 13, south of Phillips, the park is open year-round from dawn until dusk.
A two-hour drive south on Hwy 13 leads art seekers to Marshfield's Jurustic Park, where artist Claude Wynia works with both iron and irony. Here, visitors can enjoy a whimsical array of junkyard creatures -- dragons, frogs, turtles and more -- all displayed outdoors. View more than 250 examples of swampland life from small 6-inch spiders and mosquitoes to 45-foot, 4,000-pound flying dragons. Adjacent to the metal sculpture garden is, Wynia's wife Nancy has her own studio/shop, the Hobbit House, exhibiting her handmade glass beads, flowers, sculpture and life-size soft sculpture dolls.
Just minutes away on Highway 34 in Rudolph, the floral walkways and gardens, folk-art memorials and shrines of the Rudolph Grotto Gardens and Wonder Cave await visitors. Created by Father Philip J. Wagner and Edmund Rybicki as shrine to the Blessed Mother, the Wonder Cave was built with a maze of walkways and a series of biblically inspired scenes made of sheets of tin with proverbs spelled out in pinholes and backlit by colored lights. The grotto is located on the parish grounds of St. Philip the Apostle Church.
Before leaving central Wisconsin, consider Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids as an overnight destination. Stevens Point offers a historic downtown district, excellent golfing and numerous multiple-use trails. Wisconsin Rapids is renowned for its cranberry harvest and cheese-making tours. Both cities offer a variety of hotels, motels, B&Bs, resorts and cottages.
Day Two: Western Wisconsin
Locally known as the "Glass Church," the Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto is located in Cataract just south of the Black River State Forest on Hwy 27. This rustic sculpture garden is a beautiful example of grassroots art. The most striking work is a glass and concrete re-creation of this German immigrant couples' fiftieth wedding anniversary cake. Upon Paul's retirement in 1927, inspired by the work of Father Wernerus, who created the Dickeyville Grotto, the couple returned to their Cataract farm and began turning the grounds into a sculpted environment of concrete, glass shards, china and porcelain pieces. In 1986, the Kohler Foundation, Inc. purchased the site as part of its commitment to document and preserve significant outsider art environments and folk architecture. Today, visitors can view the shared passion of Paul and Matilda.
The next stop takes art enthusiasts to the Mississippi River community of Cochrane. In 1959, at the age of 74, Herman Rusch was inspired to build the first concrete and stone planter that later grew into what is now known as the Prairie Moon Sculpture. His effort led to an interest in creating huge sculptures and related flower beds. By the time Rusch had entered his nineties, he had created nearly forty concrete, stone and rock sculptures. Dinosaurs, decorative fences and arches all share the grounds with a huge snake, castle tower, Hindu temple, rocket and the artist's self-portrait. Using inventive fabrication techniques and materials, including bricks, iron wheels, old grain drills, crockery, glass, and seashells, Rusch created a colorful folk art tour de force. Another preservation project of the Kohler Foundation, tour guides are available.
After spending the day touring art venues, overnight in La Crosse or any of the river towns along the Great River Road. Bicyclists will find no shortage of trails in the area. The Great River Bicycle Trail connects with more than 100 miles of other state bike trails, including the famous Elroy-Sparta trail. Other attractions in the area include the 6,200-acre Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge and Rieck's Lake. Or step back in time aboard an authentic steam-powered Mississippi paddlewheeler.
Day Three: Southern Wisconsin
Start the day with a drive on the Great River Road, recently named one of "Ten Best Scenic Drives" by the Society of American Travel Writers. Thirty-three quaint river towns and stunning vistas are located along this 250-mile road etched into limestone bluffs. Some must-sees along Hwy 35 include Wyalusing State Park and the Villa Louis and Stonefield historic sites.
Among Wisconsin's best-known outdoor art venues is the Dickeyville Grotto in Dickeyville. Built between 1925 and 1931 by parish priest Father Mathias Wernerus, the grotto is actually a cluster of caves and small shrines elaborately embellished with natural curiosities from throughout the world -- coral, shells, starfish, petrified sea urchins, petrified wood, coal, quartz, iron ore, onyx, stone, glass and Indian relics. Constructed using 6,000 bags of cement, it features both religious and patriotic themes. The Grotto is open year-round.
About an hour's drive east of Dickeyville is the small town of Hollandale, home to the Grandview Sculpture Garden. Here, Austro-Hungarian immigrant Nick Engelbert converted his wooden house into a decorated concrete palace, surrounding it with concrete sculptures reflecting his heritage and sense of humor. He named his garden after the "grand view" of the surrounding farmland. After suffering a sprained ankle in the mid 1930s, Engelbert created his first statue. By the 1950s the entire yard was transformed into an artistic landscape of more than 40 concrete sculptures, many arranged in elaborate settings with lush colorful garden beds. Today the site functions as a community arts center and the grounds are open year-round during daylight hours.
The last art stop of the day is Prairie du Sac, where the fantastical machines of the famous Dr. Evermor's Forevertron will delight art seekers. The centerpiece of this sculpture garden is a massive celestial traveling device that is also the world's largest scrap metal sculpture. Taking salvaged factory parts and using Prairie Style elements evocative of Frank Lloyd Wright, Dr. Evermor fashioned sculptures that evoke both the natural world and scenes out of Star Wars. Dozens of mechanical creatures, ranging from waist-high to 20' feet tall, flock in clearings. Disintegration chambers, spaceship gun turrets, and huge contraptions suggest pre-historic or space-age insects. There are no labels or explanations, so you'll need to talk to Dr. Evermor himself.
Travelers will find a wealth of attractions, accommodations, and several state parks and trails among the rural towns of Spring Green, Mt. Horeb, Baraboo and the Mineral Point and Dodgeville area. Lodging accommodations -- from camping to golf resorts -- are available to suit every traveler's needs. Numerous area attractions include American Players Theater, House on the Rock, Taliiesin, Cave of the Mounds, Folklore Village, Wollersheim Winery, Pendarvis Historic Site, Devil's Lake State Park and Circus World Museum.
Day Four: Eastern Wisconsin
The last day of the Self-taught Artist Tour takes art spectators to the shores of Lake Michigan. A shady, wooded lot in Kohler, just a stone's throw from the shoreline, is the home to the James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden. Here stands a rustic cabin surrounded by 30 realistic, and often whimsical, concrete statues. Former furniture factory worker James Tellen turned his family's summer cottage into a dramatic sculpture garden filled with figures depicting prairie settlers, Native Americans and woodland creatures. Although not formally trained as an artist, Tellen adhered to classical notions of art following nature, and strove to make his work as realistic as possible. Tours are available by appointment through the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.
End your art adventure with a short drive north to Manitowoc, where the Rudy Rotter Museum of Sculpture is located. Fourteen-thousand pieces of rare wood, stone and bone carvings, ceramics and plaster, metal casting, mixed media constructions and other pieces of sculpted art created by self-taught artist Rudy Rotter are on display. Rotter has been called the most prolific artist in Wisconsin history, creating an estimated 16,000 works of art over a 45-year period. His artistic output is considered remarkable in that he had no formal art training, just industrious hard work over many decades. Be sure to contact the museum for an appointment.
Visitors have many choices of leisure activities and accommodations in Wisconsin's coastal towns. At the American Club in Kohler, the Midwest's only five-diamond resort hotel, travelers can relax and renew at the Kohler Waters Spa or play a round of golf on the Whistling Straits course, site of the 2004 PGA Championship. Overnight in Manitowoc, Wisconsin's Maritime Capitol, where a fine selection of cozy inns and bed and breakfasts and plenty of maritime attractions await.
Ready for more fine art? Check out this visual arts tour of Wisconsin's east coast!