This is the Other Place: Gilgal Sculpture Gardens

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Not to beat a dead horse, over and over and over and over again, but I always say that  most art environments are either found in sticks, or if they are in a biggish city they are in skid row. The areas that condo developers and Burger King don’t want. That is why the story and perseverance of Gilgal Gardens is so remarkable, it is a visionary art environment, loaded with religious symbolism, tucked away in a neighborhood only a mile or two from downtown Salt Lake City and a few blocks from highly sought after mix-use space.

Gilgal Gardens, named after a stone garden found in the bible, was created between 1945 and 1963 by Thomas Battersby Child Jr. (1888-1963), in his back yard with some assistance from his son-in-law Bryant Higgs and sculptor Maurice Edmund Brooks. It was called by locals the Secret Garden for many years, and today, while no not secret anymore, is safely tucked away back from the sidewalk, easy to miss.

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Joseph Sphinx

Child was a prominent member of the community, working as a contractor and stonemason and a bishop of the Mormon Church. This is an example of why the blanket term “outsider art environment” often doesn’t cut it. Child while very creative and perhaps a bit obsessive, but he was a total insider and prominent member of his community. This visionary garden was basically his retirement project. One of the things I love in general about art environments is how unique each one is. The overall craftsmanship at different sites ranges significantly. At many environments, while still amazing, the sculptures are pretty rough or rudimentary. That is why many of these sites are lumped under the category of “self taught” or “naive” artists. On the other hand, Child’s work at Gilgal, while unconventional, is very exacting. He used an acetylene torch to achieve these results and was able to create a tranquil garden with surreal and almost otherworldly sculptures.

The sculptures littering the garden stem mainly from Child’s imaginative interpretation of the bible and the Book of Mormon. The most famous piece, which looks like it escaped from the world’s greatest putt-putt course, is the above Joseph Smith face carved onto an Egyptian sphinx. The Sphinx represents mystery and the need for faith. The other pieces have amazing names and include Captain of The Lord’s Host (guy with rock head, as seen below), Daniel II: Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream and Elijah’s Cave. Besides the dozen or so statues are around 70 engraved rocks with inscriptions from various poems, books and other missives.

In the art environment world Gilgal Gardens is one of the greatest examples of a community rallying together to save an environment. After Child passed away in 1963, the site was purchased by a neighbor, Grant Fetzer and was not really touted as either a tourist attraction or public park. For the handful of people who knew this place even existed, called it the Secret Garden. But it was also a late-night teenager hangout who realized its potential as nice place to smoke grass and drink beer – they called it Stoner Park. You really can’t blame ’em, right? During this time It really wasn’t being well kept and over the decades it started becoming overgrown with weeds and suffering from vandalism.

Gilgal6In 1993, the current owner’s eight children took control of the property but did not have much interest in it. By 1997, one of the Fetzer children was attempting to sell the prime real estate to condominium developers. After many passionate ad hoc preservation grassroots campaigns organized and then imploded, the group the Friends of Gilgal Gardens (FOGG) was formed. FOGG consisted of professors, State representatives and others, including former potheads from the Stoner Park days. The Friends went into overdrive realizing that they had to raise money to purchase the property before the developers took control. They were able to collaborate with the Mormon Church, local government and a San Francisco based organization, the Trust for Public Land. FOGG was able to build up Gilgal Garden’s brand and the City of Salt Lake was interested in making it a public park. The process took over three years from plan inception to purchase, but FOGG, in collaboration with the city, the county, the Church and a trust group were finally able to turn the Gilgal Gardens into a public park. Because of their amazing efforts you can (and should) go see one of America’s most unique visionary environments.

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The thing I love about Gilgal Gardens, besides its inherent the fact that the statues are so creative and beautiful, is it was the only place I saw (and I may be way off here) that readily appreciated the more unusual iconography and folklore from the Mormon religion.

Quick and probably spotty history lesson: The genesis of the church and of its founder Joseph Smith originated in the Burned-over District in New York. Central New York in the 1800s was filled with the Holy Ghost and everyone was caught up in ribald religious fervor. Revivals were the rage and people were either converting or starting their own church. 1800s New York was ripe with prophets. This, not Utah, is where Joseph Smith hatched his big Mormon egg in 1830. Other religions, or branches of religions started in the burned over district, including the Spiritualism movement (talking to ghosts, etc. there is still a town full of mediums in Central New York, named Lilly Dale that you can visit and have your fortune read), the Shakers, the 7 day Adventist, Jehovah’s witnesses and the Utopian society the Oneida Community. The Burned Over District is where the old, weird America met that old time religion.

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Captain of the Lord’s Host

Off the top of my head, maybe outside of Puritan New England, I can’t  think of an American town of this size, whose roots are so squarely tied into a particular religion. I personally was really hoping that Salt Lake City had more of an arcane or magical vibe, filled with religious symbols. But it doesn’t, on the surface, SLC is totally squaresville. It is a clean, austere and very, very conventional. Expect to see a lot of smiling well groomed white people. Yet LDS doctrine is full of some, how do I say this without being a dick – unconventional folklore and rituals…. (OK, sidebar – I really don’t want to be disrespectful to anyone’s beliefs. All religions are full of supernatural stories. Think about the burning bush, people turning into salt, talking snakes, etc. These stories don’t seem crazy because they have the benefit of being thousands of years old and we are simply used to them. With that being said, the LDS church is less than 200 years old and their dogma is pretty far out when seen by us outsiders). You get the feeling that the mainstream Mormon elders really do not want to flaunt the more unusual parts of the Church. Even Temple Square, the big tourist attraction is very nice, but not at all mystical. In fairness, non Mormons, or “gentiles”, in the local vernacular, are not allowed inside the main temple, which may very well be a sorcerer’s lair, covered floor to ceiling  in hermetic images, forgotten alphabets and the petrified remains of Cthulhu. Well, actually the part about the forgotten alphabets is true. That makes Gilgal Gardens so spectacular, it is filled with large, wonderfully constructed, visionary statues. It is exactly what I wanted to see in Utah, all nicely preserved in a fantastic art environment.

 

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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Utah filmmaker Trent Harris, who has made such offbeat cult classics like the Beaver Trilogy and the road-trip movie Rubin & Ed, both starring genius/ madman Crispin Glover, includes Gilgal Gardens in a few scenes in his movie Plan 10 From Outer Space. Plan 10 is a super low budget sci-fi, conspiracy movie where the hero is trying to discover the “secret of the bees.” The movie is filled with Mormon folklore and symbolism, as well as panty sniffing, aliens, secret clubs where everyone dresses up like martians and weird dance moves. Harris has a keen eye for all the oddness trapped under the thin veneer of Utah’s ultra-normalcy. He also wrote a quirky slim travel guide to his home state, called Mondo Utah. All his books and movies can be purchased at his website.

If you want to learn more about the LDS religion, I highly recommended two books. The newer of the two, Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, is a fantastic read that covers many topics. Included in the book you will read about a murder, the formation and history of the LDS church (who no longer support polygamy), a deep dive into the folklore of the religion. A large focus of the story is on the offshoot polygamist cults like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), who are no longer located in Salt Lake City. I can’t speak on whether the Mormon Church is happy with this book or not, it does appear to air the LDS’ dirty long-underwear in public. I loved this book, it is fascinating.

The other book, more gentle in tone, a bit older, but still interesting is Wallace Stegner’s  Mormon Country. Here Stegner has different essays about Mormon history and culture and explains things like the deseret alphabet and why the streets in SLC are so wide.

For a funny intro to the LDS church I recommend the hilarious and profane yet informative episode of South Park, entitled All About Mormons (season 7, episode 12). You can watch it on Hulu, or buy the DVDs or however, you watch old TV episodes.

Gilgal7How to Visit:

Gilgal Gardens is located at 749 E 500 S, Salt Lake City, UT. it is open to the public as a park daily, April – September 8 AM to 8 PM and October – March 9 AM to 5 PM (closed Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving). Check out their website for more info. There is no admission charge; it is operated as a public park, so come wander about.

In the Area:

The Mormons notoriously don’t drink alcohol or coffee, nor smoke cigarettes, so instead they eat a fuck-ton of sweets. Which means there are some killer bakeries in the area.

I have two recommendations that you cannot ignore if you are in Salt Lake. First off, there is a cafe name Les Madeleines that makes a fancy European croissant type pastry called a Kouing Aman (pronounced queen a-mahn). Only a few of bakeries in the States even try to make these things purportedly they are a complete chore. Since having one in SLC I have tried a few here in the San Francisco Bay area and they pale in comparison. Whatever nonsense that goes into these things is well worth it, they are delicious.

Another place for sweets is Bruges Waffles and Frites, with two locations. They make killer Belgian waffles (with big bites full of special  Belgian sugar) and french fries. I thought their fries were fine, but their waffles are the best I have ever had.

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Church History Museum

If you are in the area you might as well visit Temple Square, where you will find the world famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Mormon Temple.  Across the street from Temple Square is the Church History Museum, and regardless of your feelings about the church it is pretty interesting, with some cool objects.

To me there were two prevalent themes for the state of Utah, themes that dictated why the state is so unique – the first being religion, which I have already touched on and the other theme being geography. There is quite a bit to say on the subject of the Utah’s physical and salty makeup. I am going to break this blog post up into a two-parter.

Stay tuned, travel nerds. Coming soon, I am going to talk about a large outdoor sculpture that isn’t an art environment, but rather its fancy snootier cousin – land art.

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Next time – see you in nine miles
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Clearing the Way So Men Can Ride Around on Goats Without Being Hassled by their Wives: The Painted Forest

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Inside the Painted Forest

In the small rural community of Valton, WI (roughly 40 people) you will find one of the most fascinating and obscure relics of the old, weird America – The Painted Forest.

Overly long note on the term, “the old weird, America”, because I tend to throw it around a lot. Author and critic Greil Marcus coined the term in his book Invisible Republic, which was eventually rechristened the Old, Weird America in later printings. The book is about how Bob Dylan channeled the spirit of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, while recording what would become the Basement Tape sessions. Smith’s vinyl anthology is a collection of old country, bluegrass, blues and other music for uplifting gormandizers. It includes folk music from Smith’s collection that captures life in the early 1900s America. This was the era of barnstorming baseball teams, freak shows, dime museums, the dust-bowl, rail riding hobos, the three card monte, tent revivals and medicine shows. And for the sake of this blog post, it was the heyday of the fraternal organization (aka secret societies). And not to be too gleeful and nostalgic, the old weird America was also a time overwhelming racism, sexism, xenophobia, poverty, disease and ignorance (but let’s just think of the good stranger parts).

Anyways, I am a sucker for almost any book, movie or CD that carries the term, “old, weird America” in the tagline, advertising or reviews. I love Old, I love weird and I love Americana. How can you go wrong? But I will admit, the term is pretty unfair to the time period, it wasn’t old or weird at the time, it was just America. It is only old and weird in retrospect, because it is obscure now. Most the topics the balladeers in Harry Smith’s anthology squawked about have completely faded in memory, other things still exist, but in a mutated form, i.e. the three card monte becomes internet scams against the elderly, and the freak show becomes reality TV. it is a loaded term, probably overused and not fair to history, but I love it nonetheless and will continue to use it and will happily buy any media you create if you put it in the title (just send me an email and I will give you my money). Digression over.

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This inconspicuous building in the middle of nowhere houses one of America’s strangest and most esoteric murals

Back to the subjects at hand, the Painted Forest, the artist Ernest Hupeden and the secret society/ fraternal organization the Modern Woodmen of America.

Ernest Hupeden (1858-1911) was a German immigrant who moved to America in 1878. He was a transient and it is unclear why or how he ended up in a small rural village in central Wisconsin. He would travel around and paint paintings for people in exchange for money or alcohol. He painted small portraits on glass bottle, pie tins, and other odds and ends, but his grandest creation was undoubtedly the panoramic mural he painted between 1898 and 1901, that has since been dubbed The Painted Forest. This was commissioned by the Valton chapter of the Modern Woodmen of America (MWA), and over a century later still covers the walls of their long abandoned meeting hall.

Nowadays, the MWA are a life insurance company, but they began their life as a fraternal organization. The name Modern Woodman did not derive from the originators being woodmen, but it is more symbolic meaning they are clearing the forest for society members to build homes, communities and achieve security (through insurance). Like other secret societies of the day, it was a place for men to get together, probably drink, smoke, talk about boobs, plan charitable events, make business contacts and due to the collective power of their members, secure life insurance for all the members. Membership in fraternal orders has dwindled considerably since the late 1800s/ early 1900s, when roughly 20-40 percent of American males were members of some or multiple orders. Other popular societies with great names include the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Odd Fellows, the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine -aka the Shriners, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Pilgrim Knights of Oriental Splendor. Heck, even Fred Flinstone was a member of a secret society – the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.

Valton’s MWA camp commissioned Hupeden first to do a battle scene above their stage, reportedly paying him in room and board. They then had him paint a giant floor to ceiling panoramic story that covers the whole of the interior, which he finished in 1901. What Hupeden painted is a remarkable and slightly eerie tale starting with a man riding a goat (which represents an initiation ritual), injured and alone in the forest, who survives through thick and thin with the help of the Modern Woodmen (to simplify the story). Parts of the painting are strange, including a future look at what they assumed might become of Valton, including a bustling downtown. There absolutely is no bustling part of Valton, population of less than 50 people with at best a bustling growing Amish population. There are other scenes, some strange and esoteric and others grisly, including a scene of MWA members being burned at the stake. Hupeden passed away in 1911, found frozen in the snow, ten years after finishing his masterpiece.

This building and the reason we get to enjoy its mysteries today is due to the preservation efforts of the Kohler Foundation. Decades passed between the time it was a MWA lodge and it was saved by the Kohler Foundation in the early 1980s. During the time in between it was used as a community center yet all that time the Valtonians never thought to have the walls painted over.

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A hoodwink

But wait, there’s more, and things get even stranger. They also exhibit some amazing objects from the MWA and secret society antiques and costumes, including some offbeat “side-degree” initiation apparatuses. Besides the things I talked about that these secret societies like to do, like providing insurance and drinking beer, they liked to pull pranks on initiates. They had formal and proper rituals, so the initiate could reach a new degree (think Grand Poobah), but for fun they also performed pseudo initiation rituals, for what were called “side-degrees” – not official degree rankings. One of the most famous side-degree initiation rituals was goat riding. See the picture up above of the goat on three wheels, well the initiate would hop up on the goat blindfolded (wearing what was called a “hoodwink”, which is why now to be “hoodwinked”, means to be tricked). The other members would tool him about the lodge till he fell off and presumably everyone would laugh at him. Other side degree initiation rituals include a breath test, where the initiate/ sucker would blow into an apparatus to test the strength of their lungs, which would then shoot flour into the blower’s face.

The Painted Forest is a remarkable piece of vernacular art from the turn of the 20th century. The Kohler Foundation ultimately gifted the site to Edgewood College, who look after it to this day. I absolutely loved visiting the Painted Forest; it is a preserved peek into a very mysterious part of America’s past. Hupeden’s artwork and the subject matter are so fascinating. There really is nothing else like it anymore. Although, it has limited hours (see below), it really is worth going out of your way to check out.

Start riding!

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Going down the Rabbit Hole:

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Cabinet of fraternal curiosities

There are a couple of books I recommend if you desire to take a deeper dive into the strange world of old, weird, fraternal organizations. First off, there is a beautiful new (late 2015) coffee table book concerned with the art and relics of secret societies from the early parts of the 20th century, called As Above, So Below. It is filled with great photos and a great history lesson.

The other two books are about the ridiculous hazing apparatuses, like the ride-able goat, many of which were created by an Illinois based company – DeMoulin Bros. The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions and Catalog 439: Burlesque Paraphernalia and Side Degree Specialties and Costumes. They are both fun, strange reads. Catalog 439 actually reprints a full DeMoulin Brother’s catalog from 1930, that is just chock full of crazy side degree pranks and games, including lots of things that either explode or send an electric shock to the newbie.

If you want to see DeMoulin Bros Side degree objects in person you either have to either befriend David Copperfield, who apparently has a sizable collection of their goods hidden from the public in his magic fortress, or visit the DeMoulin Museum, in southern Illinois. The museum is about an hour drive from St. Louis, MO. DeMoulin Bros are no longer in the secret society business, they now make marching band costumes. If you are in Texas, check out the Webb Gallery, in Waxahachie, a little over 30 minutes south of Dallas. The book I mentioned previously, As Above, So Below, is based around Bruce and Julie Webbs, the gallery owner’s fascinating collection.

How to Visit:

The Painted Forest is located Valton, WI at the intersection of 6th St and Painted Forest Dr. It is a tiny community and you will have no problem locating the MWA building once in Valton. It is about a 45-minute drive west of the Wisconsin Dells and 1.5 hour drive northwest from Madison, WI. Unlike the other members of the Wandering Wisconsin art environment trail, which are open daily, visiting times are limited. It is open on Saturdays between Labor Day and Memorial Day, between 1:00-4:00. Outside of these limited hours, Edgewood College, the site’s caretakers, can at times open up the Painted Forest by appointment. Check out their website for contact information.

In the Area:

This is rural farm country, but there are some amazing places within an hour or so drive.

First off, the Wisconsin Dells, 45 minutes due east, is an old school tourist mecca, replete with natural wonders and several water parks. In the general Dells area there are two prime examples of a Wisconsin dining tradition – the Supper Club. Supper Clubs are slightly upscale restaurants and bars that are as the name implies only open for dinner. They are known for their steaks, seafood and an only in Wisconsin drink, the brandy old fashioned. Like fraternal organizations I think the brandy old fashioned is mostly enjoyed these days by old timers but they are actually pretty decent. Ishnala, is a supper club located in a state park on the edge of a lake. It has amazing scenery. Del-Bar, the more urban of the two, located on a busy stretch of road in the Dells, was designed in the early 1940s by a protege of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and is built in the prairie style. Both have good food and a great atmosphere.

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The Forevertron

Just south of the Wisconsin Dells is where you will find the Forevertron, one of my very favorite art environments. I realize that I overuse terms like “amazing” and “inspirational”, but the Forevertron, built from the scraps of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi wasteland, is one of the most amazing, inspirational art environments in this whole dumb world. Simply, it makes me happy to be alive.

Power on!