Kohler champions outsider art environments

“Think like Nick,” the teacher advises her students, in kindergarten to grade 6.

About 235 children will bring their treasures and stories to school May 16, and at 1 p.m. begin walking – one mile west, all uphill – to give up the material goods and cement the memories.

“If we don’t get rained out, it’s a wonderful event,” says Marilyn Rolfsmeyer, a K-12 art teacher in the Argyle School District.

The Great Grandview Parade is a nine-year tradition in Iowa County’s Hollandale, population 300. The trek begins at the elementary school and ends at Nick Engelbert’s Grandview, a spectacular and unusual art environment on Highway 39, between New Glarus and Mineral Point.

No one else in the world possesses a precious but rough jewel quite like Grandview, named that by Nick because of the peaceful and pretty landscape that surrounds his homestead.

The dairy farmer, who died in 1962, spent 30 years lovingly and obsessively creating concrete sculptures of elves, peacocks and other creatures throughout his yard and home. All are embellished with stones, shells, colorful glass bits and throwaway materials.

No one knows if the adornments are simply scraps of trash or more. Look closely, and you’ll occasionally see something more personal than broken bottles, lightning rod insulators and shards of unidentifiable origin.

Are remnants of porcelain figurines, for example, in the mix on purpose or by accident? That’s where the exercise for children comes in; this month they add personal items to a wall of a storage shed, built on Grandview in 2001.

“They leave a piece of their own history, their own time capsule,” embedded in wet cement, Marilyn explains. “They each bring one thing to immortalize” their lives.

“When you are old and gray, what would you want others to see as a reminder of you?” she asks her students. “You’d be surprised by what they bring, and the stories.”

It could be a piece of grandma’s jewelry, or a cherished little toy. Marilyn’s own contribution was a baby spoon, one that fed all three of her children.

Nick’s Grandview was inspired by his visit to the garish but glistening Dickeyville Grotto – an art environment of similar spirit, at Holy Ghost Catholic Church, 50 miles southwest of Hollandale.

Both sites are manmade shrines of self-expression, produced by people with no formal art training. Wisconsin is a global leader in the identification and preservation of such projects, also known as outsider art.

Who says? Several people, including Iain Jackson, architecture professor at England’s University of Liverpool. He and other outside art specialists were in Wisconsin for an international conference in 2007.

Opening this month at the John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, is “American Masterpieces,” a new exhibit about art environments in the art center’s collection. It follows the success of last year’s dynamic “Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds” exhibit.

Although “American Masterpieces” is a smaller version of its predecessor, it introduces several new items. The show is in place until the end of 2008.

For more: www.jmkac.org, 920-458-6144. The art center is at 608 New York Ave.

To plan a tour of outsider art on your own, go to www.kohlerfoundation.org, where eight art environments are described. For questions: 920-458-1972.

Curators, art historians and others will make presentations at 5:30 p.m. May 16 at Grandview, the first such gathering since the site’s grand opening to the public in 1997.

A similar event occurs at 1 p.m. May 17 at the Painted Forest, an art environment created by drifter Ernest Hupeden in Valton, 40 miles northwest of Baraboo. This get-together includes an art activity for families.

Admission is free; contact Amy Ruffo at 920-458-6144 with questions. Similar events will be June 7 at Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park, Phillips; June 15 at Herman Rusch’s Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden, Cochrane; June 22 at James Tellen’s Woodland Sculpture Garden, Sheboygan; and July 12 at Albert Zahn’s Birds Park, Baileys Harbor.

The Dickeyville Grotto is not a part of the Kohler preservation sites; the owner is the Catholic Church. For more: www.dickeyvillegrotto.com, 608-568-3119. The grotto is at 305 W. Main St., Dickeyville.

For more about Grandview: www.nicksgrandview.com, 608-967-2151. Grounds are open until dark daily. The house/museum is open by appointment and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

A June 25-26 field trip about outsider art, available for continuing education credit through UW-Platteville and Edgewood College (Madison), also can be audited through the Pecatonica Educational Charitable Foundation, which owns and maintains Grandview.

Audit cost is $65, which includes transportation, admission to six art environments, presentations and one night of lodging in La Crosse.

The group will visit Grandview, the Painted Forest, Dickeyville Grotto (Grant County), Dr. Evermor’s Art Park (Sauk County), Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden (Buffalo County) and Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto (Monroe County).

For more: www.nicksgrandview.com/foundation.htm, 608-967-2322.

The foundation also presents the annual Grandview Academy, three- to six-hour art classes, throughout June. The registration fee is a steal, a mere $2 per class, including materials. Although grants subsidize this effort, donations surely would be appreciated.

About 30 students, children to senior citizens, can be accommodated per class; sometimes a grandchild and grandparent will work as one. The schedule begins with Native American weaving on June 10. Other topics include concrete steppingstones, garden markers, rug braiding and scarf dying.

Consult the foundation for more information.