Religion, Rock and Rebar: Wisconsin’s Outsider Folk Art Environments

by Tony Rajer

Sid Boyum Lion, Madison, WI
Wisconsin is home to an unusually large number of outdoor folk art environments. The state is rivaled in this regard by only two others—Georgia and California. One reason for this rich heritage is that European immigrants who settled in Wisconsin brought many cultural traditions of their homelands, as well as building skills and a desire to leave a permanent legacy here. Many terms are used for constructions of art and architecture set within the landscape. I use the term Outsider Folk Art Environment to describe the whole body of work that includes self-taught art sites, grotto art, visionary environments, and grassroots art.
Of the dozen or more folk art sites in Wisconsin, none is better cared for, documented, and visited than the Wisconsin Concrete Park near the town of Phillips. It is Wisconsin’s most recognized outdoor folk art museum, it features nearly 200 handmade concrete sculptures, many decorated with glass, shells, and other embellishments and it is now listed on the National Register.
Fred Smith (1886-1976), a retired lumberjack from Phillips, Wisconsin, began creating sculptures at age 65. He used the yard surrounding his home and began embellishing it with a rock garden and other constructions. This work was in addition to his other activities as a local tavern owner, farmer, and dance hall musician. Smith worked on the site for nearly fifteen years, creating over 200 figures with wooden armatures wrapped in chicken wire and covered by layers of handmade cement and broken beer bottles.
Smith was inspired by diverse sources, including popular magazines, local legends (Paul Bunyan), and American history icons (Abraham Lincoln). After his death in 1976, the Wisconsin Concrete Park was transformed from a roadside attraction to a public park through the intervention of the Kohler Foundation, which bought the site, restored it, and gave it to Price County. Years later, a support organization called the Friends of Fred Smith (FOFS) was created to help raise funds and organize community support to maintain the site. Although seemingly made of a permanent material, Smith’s sculptures are fragile due to their wooden interiors and thin concrete shells. The site will require ongoing preservation forever to keep it well maintained and open to the public.
My personal favorite Wisconsin art environment is the James Tellen site near Sheboygan because I was raised in the same neighborhood and remember spending many a summer day as a child playing among the sculptures. Tellen (1880-1957), a devout Catholic, had a love of nature, community, and church. He and his family lived in Sheboygan but spent their summers south of town in the family’s rustic log cabin. That setting, combined with his interest in art and with encouragement from family and friends, prompted him to begin making sculpture in 1942, a hobby he maintained until his death in 1957. During the winter he modeled his cement figures at his home in Sheboygan. During the summer he completed the work by creating realistic tableaux that blended into the woods and enhanced the landscape. He also enjoyed painting, wood carving, and metal work.
Turning his attention to the front yard along the driveway, he filled the entire area with figures of little people as well as a youthful Abraham Lincoln and a woman at the well. One of his noteworthy pieces is Whistle While We Work, which may have been inspired by Walt Disney. With a band of elves playing musical instruments and other elves making wine, it is a joyful work of art that Tellen and friends occasionally used as a backdrop for photographs. Eventually he covered the entire site with concrete sculptures.
European colonization of Wisconsin was primarily from Germany, Italy, Poland, and Scandinavia. Italy in particular has had a long, vibrant tradition of grotto architecture, both secular and sacred. Well-known examples are the Boboli Gardens in Florence and the Great Giant at the Gardens in Pratolino. Almost every church in rural Italy has some type of grotto shrine dedicated to the Virgin or a local saint. The makers of these structures, particularly at religious sites, often used the term grotto—a cave-like environment—for a place where devotion and veneration could take place in a more natural setting, in contrast to the structured, formal surroundings of the church.
A hundred years ago, Wisconsin was still a blank canvas to be filled in, and many men of faith created visual symbols that immigrants could identify with as they built the kingdom of heaven on earth. Grotto architecture is not isolated to Wisconsin. Examples abound in surrounding states, notably Father Dobberstein’s multiacre Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa, which influenced developments in Wisconsin, including the Dickeyville Grotto.
In contrast to the singular efforts of Fred Smith, the Dickeyville Grotto was and continues to be a community-based effort that transformed a small farming community into a regional pilgrimage site. Its creator, Father Mathias Wernerus (1873-1931), was able to combine patriotism and religious faith in his grotto of the Holy Ghost, the largest and most unusual religious site in Wisconsin. It was in Liege, Belgium, where Wernerus attended religious school, that he may have first been exposed to a grotto construction at the Benedictine Abbey of Peace. In 1904,Wernerus left for Milwaukee, where he was admitted to St. Francis Seminary and where a small grotto made out of concrete and rock already existed. He was ordained in 1907 and shortly thereafter served in several small Wisconsin parishes before coming to Dickeyville in April 1910. The Holy Ghost parish would be his greatest challenge and triumph, a place where he demonstrated that faith could indeed move mountains, in this case the human-made mountains of rock and stone that formed the grotto of the Holy Ghost.
Upon his arrival, Wernerus immediately set out to improve his small, rural, German American parish. In quick succession he built a school, a convent, and other enhancements. He began the first of many commemorative works in 1918—the crucifixion scene in the parish cemetery. The actual statues were purchased from the Munich Statue and Altar Company in Milwaukee.
By 1924, Father Wernerus had another project underway, a Eucharistic altar in the form of a grotto with a domed room, columns, gilded tiles, semiprecious stones, and other embellishments. This was followed by an even more ambitious project dedicated to Christ the King and the Virgin Mary, which became the largest free-standing grotto structure in Wisconsin. Concrete flags of the Vatican and the United States embellish the front of the grotto. Composed of two parts, the roofed grotto holds a white marble statue of Mary and the Christ child with an open walkway behind it dedicated to Christ the King. Surfaces are embellished with niches, quartz, petrified wood, and colorful minerals. Assisting Father Wernerus in these projects were his devoted congregation and modern means of transport and the access to building materials, including concrete and heavy stone. The shrine complex was formally dedicated on September 14, 1930, by Wisconsin’s governor. Sadly, Father Wernerus’s health declined soon after and he died in 1931.
What made Fred Smith’s and Father Wernerus’s creations possible was not just inspiration and faith in their own abilities but technological advances early in the twentieth century, including the ready availability of cheap concrete. Just as the computer transformed American society in the late 20th century, cement changed the building trades in the early part of the century. Though none of the visionary sculptors in Wisconsin had a background in the building trades, they all quickly took to the use of cement, which is malleable when wet and durable when dry. Concrete can be given any form, lends itself to rapid, low-skill construction, and is easily embellished. Inspired by faith, religious leaders galvanized their congregations into work groups that constructed religious art environments in the vicinity of their churches. These sites were not static monuments but backdrops for religious and patriotic festivals, such as the May crowning festival in Dickeyville.
The Dickeyville Grotto inspired many people to build their own backyard environments, including Paul and Matilda Wegner, who created the Wegner Grotto. The couple had immigrated from Germany in 1885 and settled eventually in the Cataract area. After their retirement in 1929, the Wegners visited Dickeyville and were inspired by what they saw. Neither had any formal training in art. Their imaginative grotto arose from a powerful personal vision outside the academic tradition of fine art and even beyond the ethnic and community traditions of folk art. With time provided by their retirement, the Wegners began construction of their summer home at Cataract and continued the work from 1929 to 1936.
Developed over a period of several years, their extraordinary concrete sculpture environment slowly grew to include many creations, including a fanciful American flag, a reproduction of the Wegners’ fiftieth wedding anniversary cake, and a small glass-encrusted chapel. Their Peace Monument served as a place for quiet reflection, wedding ceremonies, and public preaching, as well as family picnics and community gatherings. Still surrounding the yard is an ornate fence with a concrete archway that spells out the word “home.” The site is now owned by Monroe County since Kohler Foundation gave it to them in 1987.
While it might seem that Wisconsin has excelled in preserving its art environments, quite a number have been lost, such as the Mona Webb site on Madison’s east side, or Frank Oebser’s farm in Menomonie. Generally, urban sites have proved the most difficult to preserve because of local building codes Not everything can or will be saved. But if a site cannot be preserved intact, it should be properly documented and photographed. And in some cases, portions can be saved.
This was the case with the Sid Boyum sculpture site in Madison. Boyum (1914-1991) was an industrious person, an amateur builder, and a local eccentric. Over several decades in his small back yard on Madison’s east side, he created twenty-nine monumental, painted concrete sculptures that ranged from pure abstraction to vivid realism: a gigantic head of Buddha, the mouth of hell, female erotic shapes.
In 1992, with the help of University of Wisconsin-Madison students and a grant from the Smithsonian, all of Sid’s sculptures were inventoried and documented by the group SOS (Save Outdoor Sculpture). In 1995, neighbors proposed that individual pieces be removed from the property and placed along a new city bike trail located nearby. Working Madison city parks commissioner, the Friends of Sid Boyum organization selected suitable pieces and asked neighborhood residents to vote on a variety of locations. Large photographs of the pieces were displayed in a local architectural firm’s office, along with a ballot box to collect opinions.
Twelve pieces were chosen and presented to the Madison City Council, which voted to accept the art donation and approved public enhancement money to move and conserve the pieces. Over three years, University of Wisconsin-Madison students and I moved and conserved the pieces to their new sites. The pieces are now sited throughout the Atwood-Olbrich neighborhood in parks, green spaces, and at the local elementary school. A brochure and site map help visitors find and learn about the sculptures. Local volunteers created. Though the site as a whole could not be saved, significant parts have now become landmarks of the community.
One of the largest and most amazing sites in North America is the Forvertron Sculpture Park, built by Tom Every, a.k.a. Dr Evermor (b.1938) near Prairie du Sac from recycled industrial scrap metal. The ten acres park includes gazebos, giant whimsical beasts, and fantasy space vehicles. The centerpiece is the six story high Forvertron. Unfortunately the future of the site is not certain, as Dr. Evermor lost the land lease. He and others, including his wife Lady Eleanor Every are searching for a suitable new location that could accommodate twenty-five monumental metal sculptures and suggestions of possible sites are appreciated.
What do these examples of public sculpture tell us about the people of Wisconsin—and people everywhere? They affirm the human need to embellish our environment, to create worlds that reflect our sense of beauty and duty, our aspirations, hopes, and fears—and to give material form to abstract concepts. Each satisfies a deep inner need to create something permanent. Some of the artists described here are deceased, but many living artists continue to create and embellish the landscapes around them. What we have in Wisconsin are many testimonials to the creative human spirit that mark our passing through this world and expand the boundaries of art and public sculpture in the place we call home.
Anton (Tony) Rajer is a Wisconsin native, born and raised in Sheboygan County. He worked at the Kohler Arts Center before becoming a professional art conservator at Harvard University. He is a trustee of the Nek Chand Foundation, which supports the world’s largest folk art environment in Chandigarh, India. Author of several books and former Fulbright scholar, he teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His new book, Museum, Zoos, and Botanical Gardens of Wisconsin, is now available from the University of Wisconsin Press.

Sid Boyum Lion, Madison, WI Fred Smith Concrete Park, Phillips, WI Wegner Grotto Glass Chapel, Sparta, WI Dickeyville Grotto detail, Dickeyville, WI James Tellen with concrete well, tree, woman and dog, Sheboygan, WI
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