Restless but uneasy about mingling with lots of strangers during this pandemic year? Then gas up for a road trip around rural Wisconsin, to roam unusual art environments in unexpected places.
The massive projects are made with scrap yard materials or concrete embedded with stone, chards of glass and other discarded items. They appear next to farm fields, a salvage yard and even small-town churches. You will be surprised by some of the otherwise modest, countryside settings.
Each is an art environment because we’re not talking about an encounter with just one or two rural sculptures. These extensive and obsessive embellishments take over buildings, yards or parklike settings.
Each is the work and legacy of someone, now departed, who likely never took an art class: retired lumberjacks, farmers, carpenters, clergy. Each was determined to come up with a way to interpret the world, preach what they believed about it or express their gratitude.
Kohler Foundation is on top of it all, having grown since the late 1970s into a global leader to identify, preserve and recruit long-term caretakers for these works of outdoor folk art. In addition to making this a priority in Wisconsin, the foundation has worked on sites as far away as India. kohlerfoundation.com/preservation
John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, is home to artifacts from some of the art environments and smaller-scale art environments, but access for now is limited to what can be seen outdoors.
Opening in 2021 is the $40 million and three-level Art Preserve, the first place in the world dedicated to artist-built environments. jmkac.org
Not all of the sites below are Kohler Foundation projects. Admission tends to be free or by donation. For directions to nine foundation-identified sites, check jmkac.org/visit/wandering-wisconsin.html.
Dickeyville Grotto, Dickeyville (Grant County): Filling the grounds and between gardens at Holy Ghost Church since 1930 are shrinelike structures with biblical and patriotic themes, created by the Rev. Matthias Wernerus. dickeyvillegrotto.com
Dr. Evermor’s Park, Sumpter (Sauk County): Next to Delaney’s Surplus is Tom Every’s trash-to-treasure scrapyard sculptures. Biggest is the Forevertron, 50 feet tall and 300 tons, created in the 1980s. The artist died in April. worldofdrevermor.com
Grandview, Hollandale (Iowa County): Dairy farmer Nick Engelbert, who died in 1962, saw the Dickeyville Grotto and was inspired to transform his farmhouse and yard. His dozens of concrete sculptures took 30 years to create. nicksgrandview.com
Jurustic Park, Marshfield (Marathon County): Retired lawyer Clyde Wynia and wife Nancy, a retired nurse, Nancy, present and sell an “Iron Age” menagerie of ancient life. His art recycles industrial materials. Her specialty is fabric sculptures. jurustic.com
Painted Forest, Valton (Sauk County): The magic is inside this ordinary little building. Ernest Hupeden in 1899 immersed walls and ceilings with murals. It was a project for Modern Woodmen of America. finearts.edgewood.edu/painted-forest
Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden, Cochrane (Buffalo County): Farmer Herman Rusch, an immigrant from East Prussia, bought an old dance hall and turned it into a museum of oddities upon retirement. Then he decided the grounds needed personality, so he built a world of fantasy under a 260-foot arched, stone fence. He died at age 100 in 1985. kohlerfoundation.org
Rudolph Grotto Gardens, Rudolph (Wood County): On a garden-lush five acres are spiritual shrines, bridges and sculptures made of stone and glass that the Rev. Philip Wagner began in 1919. Some works are in a cave-like passageway. rudolphgrotto.org
Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden, Sheboygan (Sheboygan County): James Tellen’s Depression-era hobby was woodcarving, but he later molded 30-some cement statues at the family vacation cottage. kohlerfoundation.org
Wegner Grotto, Cataract (Monroe County): Paul and Matilda Wegner built an enormous wedding cake outdoors, for their 50th anniversary. That was in addition to embellished concrete fences, a prayer tower and little church (where his funeral was held in 1937). monroecountyhistory.org
Wisconsin Concrete Park, Phillips (Price County): Lumberjack-farmer Fred Smith in 1948 began telling stories of history and myth by creating 200-some sculptures. He died in 1976, and his work was the Kohler Foundation’s first preservation project. friendsoffredsmith.org