Midwest rural art parks: a smooth blend with nature

lakenenland2When fall colors hit their peak, we hit the road in search of the most brilliant blaze of hues. That part is expected.

What adds surprise to the awe of autumnal landscapes? Plan it right, and rural sculpture parks pop up amidst the flaming oaks, maples, birches and sumacs.

These unusual destinations, with typically free admission, enrich a Midwest road trip during any time of year.

Lakenenland, 2800 Hwy. 28 E, Chocolay, Mich: Tom Lakenen moved his comical, patriotic and sometimes political scrap iron sculptures eight miles after township officials declared the lifelong welder’s front-yard art collage illegal. Now the artwork shows up on 37 acres along snowmobile trail No. 417 in the Upper Peninsula.

The collection exists and grows because “I quit drinking around 15 years ago and needed something to keep me occupied,” Tom says. Materials come from construction jobs for mines to paper mills and “it’s amazing what you can get in exchange for a case of beer.”

The woodsy park, 15 miles east of Marquette, is open 24/7 and the self-taught artist sometimes leaves snacks and coffeepots for his visitors. There is a bonfire pit, small overnight shelter for North Country Trail hikers and a pavilion (built with a $10,000 donation from an out-of-state fan).

Open mike performances tend to happen on Sundays, if weather cooperates. A skinny boardwalk twists through a scenic bog, and remnants of the 1880 Shot Point Iron Mine are preserved elsewhere.

“I hope I have all my scraps used by the time I die,” says the 51-year-old artist, whose mom does most of the sculpture painting. lakenenland.com, 906-249-1132

Jurustic Park, M222 Sugarbush Lane, Marshfield: A retired lawyer and retired nurse, Clyde and Nancy Wynia, turn central Wisconsin acreage near McMillan Marsh into a menagerie of scrap iron creatures, made with castoff farm and industrial materials. Clyde asserts that the figures are swamp life from the Iron Age, made extinct because of the effects of rust.

He makes, displays and sells a big mix of huge and tiny sculptures. Also on the Jurustic grounds is Hobbit House, a stone and brick building that is Nancy’s studio for making and selling jewelry, fiber and other art.

The rusty king of this iron forest is a grinning dragon. The park usually is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., May through October, but call to be sure before driving there. jurustic.com, 715-387-1653

Franconia Sculpture Park, 29836 St. Croix Trail, Franconia, Minn.: Artists and interns from as far away as Australia show up to turn rusty bedsprings, oil drums and other salvaged materials into larger-than-life expressions of heart and humor on 25 acres of restored prairie, 50 miles northeast of Minneapolis.

At least 100 sculptures – most made of metal – sit on a farm-like property with gravel paths and picnic tables. Two golf carts are available to transport visitors with mobility issues.

The site is visible from Hwy. 8 and open from dawn to dusk daily. Guided tours at 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 9, last at least one hour. Twice-monthly public talks by artists, May through October, include dinner for a $10 donation. franconia.org, 651-257-6668

Michigan Legacy Art Park, 12500 Crystal Mountain Dr., Thompsonville, Mich.: Thirty acres, most forested and next to Mountain Ridge Golf Course, is home to 45 outdoor sculptures and 30 poetry stones that hint at what is near and dear to the Wolverine State.

In the park are tributes to while-tailed deer, old-time logging camps, frogs, mushrooms and Ernest Hemingway (who spent summers in northern Michigan).

Look for the free guide that explains the artists’ mindset for the surprises that emerge along the park’s 1.5 miles of trails, which contain occasional slopes. Some contributions are easy to miss because colors and materials – which include stone – blend well with the rest of nature.

The best views above ground come from “Stockade Labyrinth,” which weaves to a little lookout at the top. “Color in the Park,” Oct. 5, means music and art lessons as family activities.

Open during daylight, daily. Admission is a $5 donation per adult. michlegacyartpark.org, 231-378-4963

Sculpture Trails Outdoor Museum, 6764 N. Tree Farm Rd., Solsberry, Ind.: Sculptors from around the world come here to create massive works of art from cast iron while inspiring others to do the same at the onsite foundry furnace. A welding workshop for beginners is Oct. 18-19; other types of instruction move indoors as temperatures cool.

At least 100 sculptures grace these wooded acres, 13 miles southwest of Bloomington, and “where the beauty of art and nature collide” is the slogan here. Founder-artist Gerry Masse takes pride is describing his fiery art-making process as similar to how iron was handled in the early 1700s. Open daily, 10 a.m. to sundown.

The site’s annual arts and crafts show is Nov. 1, and a 3-kilometer Tails and Trails walk for people with dogs is Oct. 25. The museum’s sister organization is Ironbridge Open Air Museum of Steel Sculpture in England. sculpturetrails.com, 859-619-8891

These sites are in addition to rural art environments preserved by the Kohler Foundation in and beyond Wisconsin. kohlerfoundation.org/preservation, 920-458-1972

Consult these sites for autumn road trip ideas or to monitor the peaking of fall color in the Midwest.

Wisconsin: travelwisconsin.com/article/things-to-do/11-scenic-drives-during-fall, travelwisconsin.com/fall-color-report

Minnesota: exploreminnesota.com/travel-ideas/rainbow-routes-10-fall-color-drives, dnr.state.mn.us/fall_colors/index.html

West Michigan: wmta.org/autumn-color-tours-19, wmta.org/west-michigan-fall-color-weekly-update-23

Upper Michigan: uptravel.com/fall-color-routes–55, uptravel.com/fall-color-reports-56

Multiple states: urbanext.illinois.edu/fallcolor/updates.cfm.