Wisconsin Part 2: The Holy Ghost comes to Dickeyville

Dickeyville 3

Many art environments are built without a precedent. There is typically no direct inspiration from one place to another, or if there was an antecedent it is lost to history. There is one environment though that appears to not only been inspired by another, but also helped ignite the art environment craze in the Midwest – The Dickeyville Grotto. The last statement is true only if two or three art environments constitute a “craze”.

The Dickeyville Grotto sits on the grounds of the Holy Ghost Church in Dickeyville, Dickeyville 1WI. Father Mathias Wernerus, a German immigrant and several helpers built the site between 1918 and 1930. While maybe not the craziest or weirdest environments in the land it is one of the oldest, most influential and displays some beautiful mosaic craftsmanship.

Father Wernerus was influenced by the German grotto building tradition of his homeland. Additionally, there is a high possibility (though not 100% confirmed) that he was inspired by the Grotto of the Redemption, an art environment just shy of 250 miles to the west in West Bend, IA.

The Dickeyville Grotto and shrines are made with concrete, crushedDickeyville 7 glass, shattered china plates, sea shells and assorted other knick-knaks. Besides the main grotto at the front entrance (pictured up top, which sort of looks like a giant bird face about to eat someone) there are several other large shrines and embellished garden paths. Like many great art environments, Father Wernerus built the grotto with minimal if any planning or blueprints.

There are two central themes throughout the site, god and country. The main grotto is flanked with an American flag on one side and a catholic flag on the other. Other shrines around the grotto are monuments to Jesus, his mommy Mary as well as Christopher Columbus, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

The tree of life

The grotto quickly became a very  popular tourist and pilgrimage site. Although, maybe not as popular as it was in the 1930s (one story has it that it once received 10,000 visitors on a single Sunday) it still receives tens of thousands of visitors a year (not too shabby for a folk art environment). The Dickeyville Grotto is part of the Wandering Wisconsin map and directly inspired at least three additional sites on the trail; Paul and Matilda Wegner’s Grotto in Sparta, WI, the Rudolph Grotto in Rudolph, WI and Nick Engelbert’s Grandview in Hollandale, WI.

There is also some evidence that the Dickeyville Grotto was an inspiration for Simon Rodia, the man who built the amazing Watts Towers in Los Angeles, CA. Rodia claimed in an interview that he was a contracted laborer at Dickeyville. In one story related to interviewers by Rodia’s friends, after finishing some work on the grotto he asked Father Wernerus for his paycheck and instead of cash he was given bupkis and was told he was doing “god’s work.” It is unclear whether this is true or not, and some details concerning Rodia’s life before Los Angeles just don’t add up, but it makes for a great story (although it makes Father Wernerus sound stingy).

The grotto is one of the more well known, well kept and popular environments in Wisconsin. The mosaic work is really something else and its dual themes of patriotism and religion represent an old fashioned sincerity that you don’t see much in tourist attractions these days (for better or worse). Whether you see it as a pilgrimage site, an old-school tourist attraction or great example of a folk art environment it makes for a fascinating excursion.Dickeyville 8

How to Visit:

The Dickeyville Grotto is located at 305 W Main St, Dickeyville, WI 53808 in the southwest corner of the state. Like most of the sites on the Wandering Wisconsin trail, the Dickeyville Grotto is open 365 days a year during daylight hours. They ask for a very reasonable $2 donation, so don’t be a chisler (like Father Wernerus) and drop a few singles to help with upkeep. Guided tours are available everyday in the summer and on weekends in the fall. There is a gift shop selling mostly Catholicism related goods and books. The store is open daily April to the end of October, and on the weekends in November and early December. There is plenty of street parking out front and when it is open, there is a bathroom in the Holy Ghost Church next door. Check out their website for the most up to date tour and bookshop hours.

In the Area:

The Grotto is located on the great river road near the borders of Illinois and Iowa. For a little road trip it is about three and a half hour drive from Chicago, IL, two and half hours from Milwaukee, WI.

This whole section of the state is pretty rural and there are some really charming small towns, including Mineral Point about 30 minutes away. Go another 13 miles further east and you will run into the really quirky and great art environment Nick Englebert’s Grandview in Hollandale, WI.

In the immediate area is a really fun little museum, the combined Mining Museum/ Rollo Jamison Museum which is only 15 minutes northeast in Platteville, WI. The mining museum takes you underground into an old lead mine where, and you probably saw this coming, you learn about Wisconsin’s mining history. The other part of the museum highlights objects amassed by Rollo Jamison. Jamison was an avid collector during his lifetime who built his own museum in the 1950’s to showcase his collection of everyday early and mid 1900s objects and assorted oddities. After Jamison passed away in the 1980s, his collection was saved and moved by the city of Platteville to the new museum.

Go now!


Niles, S. A. (1997). Dickeyville Grotto: The vision of Father Mathias Wernerus. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Stone, L., & Zanzi, J. (1993). Sacred Spaces and Other Places: A Guide to Grottos and Sculptural Environments in the Upper Midwest. Chicago: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago Press.



Wisconsin Part 1: The land of cheese, beer and curious giant statues

There is no such thing as an official tally of art environments. It is fair to say there are at least a few hundred in the United States alone. There are probably many many more that as most are not well documented. While the total amount of existing American art environments is unknown, the state with the largest number of identified sites is probably California. Makes sense; you got a huge state, with lots of open space, flush with hippies, freaks and free thinkers. In the wide-open California desert, where the majority of the state’s environments are located, there is still a bit of the wild west. There seem to be fewer rules, more uncharted territories and lots of room to be able to keep to yourself. It is an area that caters to those with a strong independent streak who don’t mind dealing with insanely hot summers. This same alchemy of rough geography and off the grid rebels alternately promotes the construction of art environments as well as meth labs. But while California makes sense, it is less commonsensical that the state with the second largest amount of identified, still existing environments is Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has large swaths of rural communities, nasty winters and a large population of German and other European immigrants from countries with a tradition of ornate gardens and religious cave-like grottoes. Curiously, next-door neighbor Minnesota, the state probably most often confused with Wisconsin by us Californians, has very few documented environments. Lazy, lazy Minnesotans. Actually, I take that back, as someone told me that Minnesota may have the most examples of “world’s largest” versions of different stuff roadside attractions. Including the worlds largest ear of corn, peace pipe and most impressively, the largest ball of twine tied by one person.

Arguably, the main reason that Wisconsin is pouring over with environments is due to the Kohler Foundation, located in Kohler, Wisconsin. The same Kohler family that makes your fancy bathroom sinks started the foundation. Since the 1970s, initially under the direction of art environment and vernacular art lover Ruth De Young Kohler, the foundation has been working hard and spending lots of excess spigot cash protecting and preserving some amazing places. A few they have had to relocate in order to save, but many they have been able to save “in situ” – in its original place. Kohler goes into communities, buys the property that the environment sits on (if needed), painstakingly documents and conserves the site and then they gift it to a local organization, like a museum, to manage it. Pretty awesome, right? So please consider buying more toilets.

So how does this help you? Well eight classic sites (about half of which were saved by Kohler) and one museum have joined forces to create Wandering Wisconsin. Wandering Wisconsin is a cultural heritage trail complete with suggested itineraries, informative short videos and a pretty map that will help get you around the Badger state. You can email them here and they will send you a free fold out collectible map.

All of these sites are free to visit and most are open 365 days a year. This includes Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park (a personal favorite of mine), the Dickeyville Grotto, The Rudolph Grotto and Wonder Caves, James Tellen’s Woodland Sculpture Park, The Wegner Grotto, Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden, Grandview, the Painted Forest and the John Michael Kohler Art Center. The Art Center as the name implies is a museum, but they do have relocated pieces from disbanded art environments on exhibit and they deal with a lot of the management of the Wandering Wisconsin program (and as you may have noticed, the museum also has the name Kohler in their title).

The great thing about the eight Wandering Wisconsin sites is that they are all old and for the most part very rural.  The oldest site, the Painted Forest (which is one of the most fascinating relics of the “old, weird America” you will ever come across), was completed in the late 1890s, the others were started in the 1920s to early 1950s, with the baby of the bunch, Prairie Moon, finished in 1974. They are all a peek into recent, yet forgotten time, with nods to religion, politics, rural living, patriotism and the immigrant experience.

By banding together these eight sites are able to help each other out. Advertising is the first obvious benefit. The traveler strolls by one site, thinks it is one of the coolest thing they’ve ever seen, picks up a Wandering Wisconsin map and voila, they suddenly have a much busier day ahead of them.  And look I get it, art environments are not for everyone, Hamtramck Disneyland is never going to eclipse Anaheim Disneyland (which is how I prefer people to refer to it from now on) in popularity; but most these places are pretty obscure and they can use all the publicity they can get. Also the eight environments that are part of the trail have started running programs together. Several of the sites put on an annual plein air painting contest, where you show up at the environment and paint  a picture outside with a bunch of strangers and then win prizes.

These eight sites are not all that Wisconsin has to offer. There are at least three major art environments that are not part of the Wandering Wisconsin Trail. This includes two where the artist is still alive – Jurustic Park and the Forevertron and also the late Mary Nohl’s House, which is sadly a strict – view from the street only – due to neighborhood politics. It would be a mistake to skip these three sites, in fact the Forevertron in my humble opinion is one of the two or three greatest art environments, or places in general, in this country. It is the perfect combination of inspired madness, resourcefulness, technical skill, artistic ability and storytelling. It is a true jaw dropping, holy shit, experience.

Over the next month or so, I will be writing individual post for all the above places. There are many more cool, strange things to see and do in the land of beavers and I plan to highlight some of my other favorite attractions while I am at it.

Bye for now



Dmytro Szylak’s Magic Kingdom: Hamtramck Disneyland


I am writing this blog post in August 2015, just over three months since Dmytro Szylak, the mastermind behind Hamtramck Disneyland, passed away at the age of 01392. Right now, the place is doing fine, but it’s future is unclear. According to a July news article, the property is tied up in probate court, but the mayor of Hamtramck, with the aid of local arts organizations are fighting for its future.

Art environments often do not survive after the creator passes away or moves on. This is because they are often built on personal property. Once the property is sold, the environment is often demolished. Sometimes the property remains in the family, which can extend its life; however, family members may not have the same obsessive nature, time or know how to keep a site ticking.062

Hamtramck, MI is a small working class city that is almost completely engulfed on all sides by Detroit. For many years it was known for its large Polish population. Szylak, an immigrant from the Ukraine started building this unusual monument in his backyard in the 1990s, after retiring from General Motors – boredom acting as a powerful muse.

It is one of the most colorful and quirky environments I have ever visited. It is an absolute joy to walk around. The site is primarily in his back yard and grows up and over two small garages. It was made using 108reclaimed materials, including assorted toys, posters, lawn ornaments and pieces he constructed and painted. There are kinetic whirligigs that rotate in the wind, as well as a large replica helicopter, a jet and lots and lots of horses – things that move ya place to place. Although not a big environment, it is a tiny yard; it is hard to focus at times because there is a lot jammed in there.

I can only hope that the family, the city or some arts organization swoops in and saves this place. Preservation will be an ongoing project because it is mostly painted plastic and wood. Michigan’s brutal winters can be harsh art critics. Szylak liked having visitors as he would give tours and gleefully spin his whirligigs and point out the different pieces. So time is tight. I hope Hamtramck Disneyland keeps going and going and I will be keeping my eye on the news. But just to be safe I suggest that you drop whatever you are doing and fly to Detroit. If you are wealthy I highly recommend that you purchase Szylak’s house and spend a lot of money preserving his creation and keeping it available for the community.

How to Visit:

Hamtramck Disneyland, unlike its unrelated namesake in Anaheim, is completely free to visit (although both are deluged with giant colorful animals). It is located in the backyard of 12087 Klinger St, Hamtramck, MI 48212. The best way to view it is by driving down the alley behind the house. The view from there is great. Szylak used to give tours and for a donation let visitors tool around his backyard; however, I cannot suggest that you enter the back gate and walk around the backyard. I’m not sure if the neighbors or the family would appreciate it (as it is private property).  I was lucky enough to visit around three years ago when it was OK. I am trying to find out the official rules on this and I will update this blog when I find out.

The Area:

This is the Detroit area and there is a ton to see and do. In the immediate area there are a couple great old school Polish restaurants, Polish Village and Polonia, both worth checking out. This city was 90% Polish in the 1970s, that has dropped to less than 15%. There used to be a lot of polish restaurants in the area, now just two. Old-school Polish restaurants may also be on the endangered species list so go fill your face with dill soup and pierogis before it is too late.

If you are looking for more art environments in the area, you are in luck. I am aware of at least three nearby.

The Heidelberg Project, about four miles away, covers several city blocks and is brainchild of Tyree Guyton who uses a whole neighborhood as his canvas. Open 365 during daylight hours, the Heidelberg Project is a great example of an environment that has survived many battles (city bulldozers and asshole arsonists) to become the cornerstone of community arts activity in the area.

Mbad’s African Bead Museum, about eight miles away has an interesting art environment attached to the side.

A little farther away, about 15 miles, in the Detroit suburb of Redford Township, you will find Silvio’s Italian American Historical Artistic Museum. In his defunct pizzeria, Silvio Luigi Barile has covered the inside of the store, as well as his neighboring backyard, with statues that tell the story of Italy, it’s people and their contributions to society. This is a little gem of a place and my short description does not do it’s strangeness justice.

Go get ’em tiger

Look I added a map of Detroit area art environments and other cool stuff talked about in this here blog