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