By Carol Larson
Is Wisconsin the Folk Art capital of the US? Although not an official designation, some experts say yes. But you won’t find our most extraordinary folk art in museums. For that, you have to travel to some of the most beautiful places in the state.
“Wisconsin is a hotbed of folk art,” according to Kohler Foundation Executive Director Terri Yoho. Yoho says our state’s art reflects its people, especially during the 1930s. That’s when “art environments” started popping up around Wisconsin.
Art environments range from religious grottos, to historic concrete sculptures, to fields of dancing cranes made from musical instruments. The John Michael Kohler Art Center website provides maps and info for many art sites the Kohler Foundation has helped preserve.
“This art reflects a work ethic as well as working from the heart,” observed Yoho. “These people had a history of working with their hands, pent up energy to build and no restraints on their imaginations. The result was really inspirational sites, all free to see, with something everyone in the family can relate to.”
Foremost on any folk art tour is the Dickeyville Grotto. Located in Southwest Wisconsin near the Illinois and Iowa borders, this series of shrines sprawls across the grounds of Holy Ghost Parish where the story begins.
Parish priest Father Mathias Wernerus was a German immigrant, and an energetic man looking for a way to express his great love both for God and his new country. Using what was available: stones, broken glass and concrete (a poor man’s clay), Wernerus began to sculpt. As his shrine grew, so did public support. People brought him different materials such as sea shells, geodes, petrified wood, fossils, broken dishes,and eventually rock from every state and many countries.
“These are acts of celebration,” according to Jim Draeger, architectural historian at the Wisconsin Historical Society. “This art celebrates freedom, but not just the freedom of religion which brought these people to America.”
Draeger links Wisconsin’s folk art to our immigrant past. Most of Wisconsin’s early folk artists were immigrants, or their children. The rigid social structures they left behind restricted much of life, including artistic expression.
Folk art, Draeger says, is often the exuberant expression of newly found independence, dreams come true, and big concepts like faith and patriotism. Draeger also points out that it was “contagious.”
There are a number of parks, grottos and folk art that have been inspired by previous artwork. People were compelled to create, using whatever was at hand. The “I can do that!” attitude inspired other Wisconsinites to follow their artful obsessions.
Dr. Evermor’s Art Park
‘Imagination set free’ is at the heart of Wisconsin’s internationally famous folk artist, Tom Every, aka Dr. Evermor, whose art literally reaches for the sky. Dr. Evermor’s Art Park, 7 miles from Prairie du Sac, and conveniently located next to Delany’s Salvage yard is free, and a jaw-dropping experience.
Every began as a teenage ‘salvage man,’ assembling industrial scrap into new shapes born from his creative thinking. Now in his 80’s, and when weather and his health allow, Every gives tours that include his Forevertron, a huge and astounding “machine” that makes us leave earthly thinking behind.
Whether talking about space travel or his dancing cranes made of old French horns, Every provides insight into a long line of Wisconsin folk artists. These people came from ordinary circumstances, but saw extraordinary potential in everyday objects. Rocks and broken glass became a way to express big dreams, big ideas worth celebrating.
Today you can still talk to art environment builders at places like Jurustic Park in Marshfield. Clyde Wynia and his wife Nancy are both artists, though Clyde claims he is a “paleontologist,” digging up extinct species from the nearby marsh. These “reassembled” rusty creatures are laugh-producing, and kids love them.
Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park
One of the larger parks is Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips. A retired lumberjack, Smith ran the Rock Garden Tavern, and over 15 years embedded broken bar glass and machine parts in concrete to create 237 giant historical and fictional characters, from Abe Lincoln to Paul Bunyan, to a recreation of Iwo Jima’s famous flag raising.
In 1930 Nick Engelbert was inspired by Dickeyville, though it was humor that emerged in his sculptures. Engelbert’s home in Hollandale, called Grandview for the spectacular vista, is entirely encased in colorful stones. The yard displays his whimsical creatures, including an elephant, birds, monkeys, and a Viking warrior standing in his own boat.
Father Philip Wagner was motivated by the Grotto of Our Lady in Lourdes, France. After being healed at the springs, Wagner vowed to build a monument to Jesus’ Mother Mary. Wagner began his shrine after his appointment to Rudolph.
Using local lava rock and melted glass, the first shrine was completed in 1927. This European-style grotto inspired volunteers and other priests to join Wagner. Together they created more monuments, elaborate lush gardens, and an actual stone hill with a catacomb-like tunnel one-fifth of a mile long lined with statues and Bible passages.
Herman Rush’s Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden and Museum
In contrast, visitors to Herman Rusch’s Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden are dropped into a sun-drenched wonderland. Near the Mississippi River south of Cochrane, Rusch began sculpting in the 1950s after retiring from farm life. There’s a stone castle, a red brick fence, fanciful archways, and planters galore using color and flowers to celebrate nature. Rusch kept working to age 100, saying “beauty creates the will to live.” Touring Wisconsin to view their work just might, once again, prove contagious.