There will be no new environments this week, instead I am letting you know I have gone back and added maps to all my posts as well as a big overall art environment map up top (in the pages section). As I have mentioned in my past ramblings one of the main reasons I have started this blog is to promote art environments and other unusual attractions to those seeking cool new places to check out. In order to facilitate people heading off the beaten path I feel it helps to create a beatable path.
The maps at the bottom of each post will highlight all the art environments, museums, restaurants and other attractions I babble on about in that post. To keep things simple the maps will stay regional, for example, the map associated with all Wisconsin environments will be the same. I will keep adding places to the map when I talk about them in the blog posts. That means you have to check back often and tell all your friends about the blog or your life will be meaningless…or more likely you may miss something.
Also, I have added my personal all encompassing Art Environments of the USA to the pages section. This big map will not include restaurants and non-art environment museums. It is a work in progress now with over 175 places.
Some areas are ripe with art environments. I’ve already mentioned in previous posts that Wisconsin, the California desert and Kansas all have a sizable population of known, established art environments. Keep in mind that four or five art environments over a 200 mile range is a veritable bonanza. Many states, including Nebraska, Utah, Idaho and Kentucky have only one or two existing, documented, environments in the whole state. Of course, there may be a few more lurking about, just not well documented. This is why it is so exciting that in just over 100 miles, as the crow flies, in New York State, there are at least six art environments in small communities neighboring the Hudson River. It is really beyond me why there are so many environments in such a small area of the New York countryside.
The Hudson River runs through Eastern New York, roughly from the Adirondack Mountains down to NYC. If you start in the big apple and head north, you hit one small town after another and the area is really breathtakingly beautiful. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by quaintness, fudge shops and trees. This trail would make for a killer one or two day road trip from either NYC or the New England area. If you turn this into a trail and hit all six sites, you will cross the Hudson a few times and the majority of the drive is on curvy country roads, off the interstate, so you really get a great view of the surroundings.
I plan to go into more detail for each environment at some point and pinpointing other cool stops along the way, but for now here is the short of it, starting in the south and heading north.
Easter Island on the Hudson – 14 Riverside Ave, Haverstraw, NY
Located roughly 40 miles north of Manhattan, you find Easter Island on the Hudson. As the name implies this environment butts up right to the Hudson river and like its namesake in the Pacific, it is chock full of giant stone heads. This site was created by Ted Ludwiczak (born in Poland in 1927). His front and back yard are swimming with faces carved into large boulders. This is private property and not a museum or tourist attraction. Be respectful. We knocked and Ludwiczak was super friendly and gave us permission to wander around his yard.
Wing’s Castle – 717 Bangall Rd, Millbrook, NY
65 miles northeast of Haverstraw, crossing the mighty Hudson, you will find Wing’s Castle.
A terrific homemade castle built by Peter Wing and his family. Sadly, Peter Wing passed away in 2014; however, his wife and son are still working on the castle. They offer tours of the place seasonally and also run it as a bed and breakfast.
The next two sites are about 45 minutes away, nearish to the town of Woodstock. A little trivia for ya – the famous Woodstock hippie-sex-fest was not actually located in Woodstock, but was 45 miles away in Bethel, NY. This does not mean that you will not see old people wearing colorful wizard garb wandering the streets of downtown Woodstock – plan accordingly.
Opus 40 – 50 Fite Rd, Saugerties, NY
Opus 40 was built over a 37-year period by artist Harvey Fites starting in 1939. This place is incredible and has quickly found a spot on my top ten art environment list. It falls somewhere between folk art environment and land-art/ earthwork (basically, it is a little “artsier” than the typical environment). It is not made up of a bunch of little sculptures, but is really just one super giant, understated sculpture that you can walk on. This place is not to be missed, it is really like nothing else. Opus 40 operates as a museum, with posted hours, gift shop and admission fees. They do close for the winter, so check their website for the latest times.
Steve Heller’s Fabulous Furniture – 3930 NY-28, Boiceville, NY
About 20 minutes west of Opus 40, you find Steve Heller’s Fabulous Furniture, a furniture store with a gaggle of whimsical sculptures made out of welded reclaimed materials out front. Heller’s sculptures include robots and giant strange vehicles. The store is open 9-5, but you can easily see all the statues on the front lawn anytime during daylight hours. We happened by early in the morning before they opened. Check out their website.
Taconic Sculpture Park – Stever Hill Rd, Chatham, NY 12037 (some places the address shows up as Spencertown, NY)
About a one hour drive northeast of Opus 40 you cross the Hudson again and make your way to Stever Hill Road in Spencertown. At the end of a dirt road is the residence of artist Roy Kanwit, who has covered the front yard and hilly side of his property with some really terrific and strange sculptures made out of marble and cement. The site is open on weekends seasonally and is located on private property. This place is a little tricky to find so make sure to use the google map at the bottom of this page to help plot out a path.
The Circle Museum – 10985 Route 22, Austerlitz, NY
Only a ten-minute drive from the Taconic Sculpture Park you will find Bijan Mahmoodi’s Circle Museum. Mahmoodi has slowly been filling up his property over 25 years with welded abstract sculptures. Technically open year round, if the gate is open during day light hours you can venture inside. There is a donation box by the gate and if he is around Mahmoodi may invite you into his studio to see his paintings.
All in all, this is a cool art trail through the New York countryside. I have just covered the art environments in the area and have not even begun to detail all the other interesting museums and old, dead rich people mansions/castles, that you can explore in the area.
Go buy a new car, you have a lot of driving to do.
We are back to the land of badgers and dairy cows to tackle another spot on the Wandering Wisconsin art environment trail. This week I present to you – The Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto.
After visiting the Dickeyville Grotto in 1929, and being impressed and inspired by what they saw, Paul and Matilda Wegner, said, “I can do that.” They then went back to their farm in Cataract, WI and started building. At this stage in the game, they were retired and while neither had been artists by trade, they really took to transforming their land into a unique personal monument.
The Wegners lived long enough to see their humble yard turned into a popular tourist attraction. Paul passed away in 1937 and Matilda five years later in 1942. When they were alive, they would not let travelers take photos of their mosaic statues. Instead, they made them buy a real-photo postcard. However, since they passed away over 70 years ago they are no longer able to stop you from clicking away (even if they came back as scary ghosts they will probably not understand digital technology and presumably will not haunt you…in case that is a concern of yours).
They built several nice pieces, including what at the time was dubbed the “glass church.” A mini chapel encrusted with broken glass mosaics. When Paul passed away, they held his service here.
Most of the statues around the yard are concrete with glass and pottery mosaic shards. Besides the glass church, the Wegner’s built a fence, an American Flag, a reproduction of their 50th wedding anniversary cake, a replica of a popular ocean liner named the Bremen and several other pieces.
The Wegner Grotto is perhaps the smallest site on the Wandering Wisconsin trail, but that does not mean it should be skipped, it has some really nice mosaic work and is nicely isolated in the middle of nowhere. And like the Dickeyville Grotto that inspired it, it hearkens back to a time when God (in this case Christianity) and adopted country (the Wegners, like Father Mathius Wernerus who built the Dickeyville Grotto, were German immigrants) were common and important components of everyday life. Many of these older sites are uniquely stuck in the past and make for a fun time traveling trip to a different era.
How to Visit:
The Wegner Grotto is located in Cataract, WI, off Highway 71, about half a mile west of Highway 27. There is no real address to plug into your GPS; however, you can plug in the coordinates 44.061224, -90.867672. It is officially open during daylight hours between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but it can be accessed year round. There are some informative plaques set up around the environment. The site is unmanned, but tours can be set up through the Monroe County Local History Room & Museum, who are the grotto’s caretakers. You can visit the history museum a few minutes away for more information. The history room is located at 200 West Main St. Sparta, WI. Also, contact the museum if you wish to have your wedding at the Wegner Grotto.
The Grotto is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It is about two hours northwest of Madison, WI and two and a half hours southeast of Minneapolis.
In the Area:
There are a few really interesting travel opportunities nearby.
Only about a fifteen-mile drive away in Sparta WI, there is the Fast Corporation Fiberglass Mold Graveyard. Fast is a company that makes large fiberglass statues that are used all across the country, often for advertising. In the large yard around their factory, they scatter their molds and other assorted half-finished projects, so they can be used again later on. There is row after row of giant cool animal and character molds. People are free to wander around the yard. It is a ton of fun to peruse (and it’s free). It is located at 14177 Co Hwy Q, Sparta, WI 54656.
If you like space memorabilia and bike riding you could not be in better luck. Because upstairs from the Monroe County Local History Room, and I did not make this up, is the Deke Slayton Space & Bicycle Museum. Two totally random museums in one. Old bikes on the right hand wall, space stuff on the left. Deke Slayton was a member of the Mercury 7, the first American astronauts to fly into space. The museum is located at 200 West Main St. Sparta, WI.
I can’t vouch for the next stop on the itinerary because they were closed the day I was in the area, but about 20 minutes north of the Wegner Grotto is the Jackson County Historical Society Museum in Black River Falls, WI. Now most county history museums are sort of big snooze fests, but this one looks really interesting. They have a permanent exhibit that I think could be very cool to fans of the old, weird America. I am really bummed I missed out. In 1973, Michael Lesy wrote a cult favorite book named Wisconsin Death Trip. The book has excerpts from violent and strange news stories found in late 1800s rural Wisconsin newspapers. Stories include suicides, disease, murder, arson and as crazy as it is to see in a local newspaper – ghost sightings. These stories are co-mingled with photos by Charles Van Schaick, a rural Wisconsin photographer of that time. The odd assortment of news clippings mixed with the old photos makes for a haunting, strange and slightly surreal book. Well, the Jackson County Museum has local boy Van Schaick’s photos on exhibit. The museum is located at 321 Main St, Black River Falls, WI. Check their website or Facebook page for hours.
The other day I was conversing with a friend who is a big fan of street art. Street art is honestly something I know very little about, but it is definitely something I can appreciate and respect. We were talking about the similarities between his thing – street art and my thing – art environments, and noticed a lot of differences, but also a few similarities. Por ejemplo, art environments are more often rural, whereas street art is typically urban. Art environment builders are often older, whereas I would guess, without doing any research into the topic beyond watching 1980s break-dancing movies and the Banksy documentary Exit Through the Giftshop, that the street artists are typically younger. You could go deeper into the surface differences – art environments are built on the owner’s property, street art’s canvas is either public property or places actually owned by someone else who may not want art on it. Art environments take years to build, street art minutes or hours. Both are ephemeral, and their lifespan is left at the mercy of those with giant cans of white paint, or keys to the county bulldozer.
While there are many differences in the form, there are certainly similarities in their spirit. My friend argues that both mediums evade the cookie-cutter normalcy and are not establishment approved. Both have a rebellious spirit to them. I sort of hate using terms like “authentic”, or “genuine” when describing any art as I don’t want to come off as a reverse snobbery-snob, or create an us vs. them mentality against other artists. Both art forms are really generated by individuals that have a need to express themselves, often without monetary compensation, often knowing there will be a fight on their hands.
A few weeks ago, famous street artist Banksy unveiled his latest project to the general public, Dismaland – a bemusement park located in England. Along with several other modern artists and street artists, he has whipped up a large scale parody of amusement parks, namely parodying Anaheim Disneyland (as far as I can tell it is not meant as a parody to its lesser-known brethren, Hamtramck Disneyland).
Banksy has created a fantasy world – an immersive large-scale canvas, brimming with creativity. People all over social media are freaking out about the coolness of Dismaland and yapping about wanting to queue up to fly over to dumb England to check it out. And I don’t blame them, it looks great and strange and perhaps there is a wee bit of, “OK we get it, corporate culture has won our little brains,” but not enough to dissuade me from being a fan. It looks like a really fun, weird experience. But it is already sold out and soon it will go bye bye. So guess what friends, you more than likely will not get to check out Banksy’s statement.
But honestly, this is nothing new, Banksy is not the first person to create a larger than life experiential world. In fact, this very blog is dedicated to the hundreds of unique fantasy worlds that already exist here in the good ole USA. No, most art environments do not have the size, scope or financial investment of Dismaland. However, I would argue that several art environments give it a run for its money. And guess what, they are free, or cheap and have better visiting hours.
So, I was trying to think of comparable art environments and I thought of the Heidelberg Project, located in Detroit, MI. Like the street art ethos that Banksy comes from, it is urban, located in the heart of the big city, and at least initially, it covered other people’s property and took up residence in the no-man’s land of public property. It is large, covering a few full city blocks. It is part guerrilla art and living theater. It is totally rebellious – the city and other naysayers have tried to dismantle it numerous times. However, it is tough and it perseveres. It changes constantly and has points to make and stories to tell – its main tools are creativity and community (and lots of polka dots). And unlike Dismaland, it is completely free to visit and is open 365 days a year. You can go there whenever you want!
Starting in 1986 artist Tyree Guyton transformed a few city blocks in a rough shod neighborhood in Detroit into a piece of art. Guyton had lived through the Detroit riots of the 1960s and had seen his city and his neighborhood slide into bedlam. Poverty, racism, violence and crack rock had moved in. He had a vision that he could do something and make a difference. Driving around with family members, Guyton started collecting his art supplies – the discarded detritus of a decaying metropolis. Slowly the neighborhood along Heidelberg Street turned to polka dots. Doll parts, old vacuum cleaners, and hundreds of shoes covered the ground, porches, roofs, walls and trees.
The vision encroaches all over the area. It is found or assemblage art, using bits and pieces of left over stuff – including paint, used cars, toys, junk, stuffed animals, records, whatever fit Guyton’s fancy. It has gone through many changes and it freely moves with the wind. Some of the changes are due to the artist adding, deleting and adapting the space. These changes come from a positive direction. Other changes though, come from those who don’t get it, and have the weaponry to fuck it up for everyone else.
Not everyone likes it, and it has drawn its fair share of criticism. Some people in the community at first saw it as just a big junk heap, an eyesore. Neighbors felt that it was just drawing whites from the suburb to come look at garbage, and that is was not a good representation. But over the years the Project has started to change people’s minds. Some neighborhoods finally started to see the brilliance of the whole ordeal and started Heidelberging up their own house. After three decades, the community is starting to get that it was built for them. It is open to all and in an impoverished neighborhood where the residents don’t always make it to the expensive and imposing beaux arts – think big marble columns – Detroit museums, it has taken on the nickname of the “ghetto Guggenheim.”
It is a true survivor and has withstood outside aggression. The first large scale attack came from the city of Detroit who drove down Heidelberg Street with demolition equipment and knocked down a few of the abandoned, but artistically embellished houses in 1991. The city bulldozers came back in 1999 and obliterated several more houses. Guyton did not ask for permission and he paid the price for his independence.
The city stopped knocking stuff down after that. But now there is a new enemy, a firebug has been let loose. In 2013 and 2014, arsonists (one or many, no one has been caught), had destroyed about a dozen of the houses. Nevertheless, the Heidelberg Project perseveres and rebuilds. Guyton has turned his little piece of the world into a chaotic, colorful and amazing fantasy world. No, it is not the mid size-budget spectacle of Banksy’s Dismaland (which is not the mega budget spectacle of Disneyland). It is messy, but beautiful. Most every time I visit family in the area, I check it out and it always is a bit different. This is a piece of Americana that truly needs to be celebrated. There is so much to see and take in and you could easily spend hours wandering about. For a fun little exercise, check it out on Google Maps Street View. You can virtually drive down the street and see how it looked in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015.
How to visit:
The Heidelberg Project is located on Heidelberg Street in Detroit. If you are using a GPS or internet map just plug in the address 3600 Heidelberg St., Detroit, MI. The environment is open 24/7 and everyone is welcome. It is completely free to visit, but I away recommend if you have a few spare schekels loading you down, get rid of them here. Guyton is still alive and you may get to meet him or a visiting artist at work. What started as one-man covering the street in crooked smiley faces has become a well oiled non-profit community education machine. They provide scheduled tours and art classes. There is a gift shop on the premises (but no indoor toilet, just a honey bucket). There is plenty of street parking.
In the Area:
There is so much cool stuff to see and do in Detroit.
I would highly recommend visiting Hamtramck Disneyland (not to be confused with the non-existent Hamtramck Dismaland) which is only 4 miles away. Go there while the getting is good (as of this writing its future is unknown).
Soon I will write about MBAD’S African Bead Museum, which is about six miles away. This is another cool assemblage art site located in Detroit.
While I would not consider The Henry Ford Museum/ Greenfield Village, or the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) as lost wonders, they are still must sees.
In the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, about 25 miles north of the Heidelberg Project, you will find Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum. This place is greeeeaaaat! It is an arcade of vintage coin operated machines. This includes some very rare oddities, including P.T. Barnum’s Cardiff Giant. To make a long story so short that is probably hard to follow, in the 1800s a farmer in New York buried and then “discovered” the body of a petrified giant. Which was really a just a big sculpture he made. However, the farmer and his giant became a huge sensation and made a ton of money fooling people into thinking a race of giants had previously walked the earth. P.T. Barnum, probably pissed that he didn’t think of it first, built his own version to con the masses. The Farmer’s Museum in New York has the real fake, Marvin’s has Barnum’s fake fake. It is a great relic of the old, weird America. Marvin’s museum/ arcade is filled with amazing things and is a ton of fun to visit.
A quick note on Detroit regional delicacies- The Detroit area is most famous for the coney Island hot dog, basically a chili dog with Greek spices. There are figuratively hundreds of coney joints in the area. The two that get the most buzz are the oldest coneys in the city and they are literally right next door to each other, Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island. Both are good, but Lafayette never did any fancy remodels, so it wins.
Detroit also has their own form of deep-dish pizza. The pizza is square and the cheese is melted/burnt/ delicious all along the edges. My two favorite spots as a kid were Shield’s and Buddy’s. Suck it, Chicago!
However, my absolute favorite Detroit regional delicacy is a dish found at most, if not all, Chinese restaurants in the metropolitan area – Almond Boneless Chicken. It is a holdover dish from when Chinese restaurants became Chop Suey houses trying to appease white America’s palate. It is a deep fried breaded chicken breast covered in gooey brown gravy, with maybe like three or four almond slices thrown on top. I know that sounds gross, I am not a food writer, but it is so good. Go shove some in your pie hole.
Connecting the Dots: Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project. (2007). Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
On a quiet country road, a few miles outside of Sheboygan WI, James Tellen turned the property surrounding his summer cottage into a mystical fantasy world that integrates beautifully with the setting. Unlike some other sites like last week’s Glenn Stark Yard, which has a claustrophobic cluttered feel, Tellen’s 30 odd pieces are spread out over a larger area, creating a very peaceful serene feeling.
James Tellen crafted his site, dubbed the Woodland Sculpture Garden, between 1942 and 1957. He got the idea at the age of 62 to start building while sick in the hospital. He was inspired while looking out his hospital room window at the statues at the Catholic grotto across the street. Over the next 15 years, he built the statues on the grounds around the summer home and along the windy path through the woods behind the house.
There is not a cohesive theme to the concrete sculptures. Some are painted, some left raw. Around the house on the large front lawn there are fantastical creatures like tree elves and musical dwarfs in mid-silent concert, as well as less fantastical creatures like Abraham Lincoln. There is also a tableau of miniature people at a tavern, various full size people not at a tavern and along the front of the street, there is a group of three Native Americans straddling a log fence. Many of the pieces blend in seamlessly with the wooded area. The long concrete fence looks just like a mangled fallen tree.
Behind the house the statues get more religious. On a meandering trail through the woods, you will find characters out of the bible including Jesus, the Virgin of Fatima and St. Peter.
The Woodland Sculpture Garden is one of the stops on the Wandering Wisconsin trail. I talk all about the trail in a previous post. This art environment is a real gem and while not as heavily populated with sculptures as some other sites this is actually a benefit as it gives the place a calm, mystical serenity, almost like something out of a fairy tale.
How to visit:
James Tellen’s Woodland Sculpture Garden is located at 5634 Evergreen Drive
Town of Wilson, WI, on the outskirts of Sheboygan. If you are using Google Maps type in Sheboygan instead of Town of Wilson. Sheboygan is about one hour drive north of Milwaukee. The environment is open to the public during day light hours year round and is totally free. There is a parking lot next to the house. Tellen has a couple of cabins on the property that are only open during special events. This site is very popular with mosquitoes who appreciate the realism and level of detail Tellen has instilled in his sculptures, and/ or just being in the woods. Come prepared.
There is no gift shop and no bathrooms (depending on how comfortable you are peeing in the woods). But I highly recommend you hold it in till you get to your next stop, the John Michael Kohler Art Center….
In the Area:
Tellen’s site is less than five miles away from another spot on the Wandering Wisconsin route, the John Michael Kohler Art Center, who incidentally are the caretakers of the Woodland Sculpture Garden.
The museum has an amazing collection of outsider/self taught/folk/ vernacular art including pieces from various art environments across the country. If you are a fan of environments then you have to go to the museum. In front of the building are the relocated statues from the Carl Peterson Rock Garden. Peterson was a Swedish immigrant who had built several miniature buildings in front of his house in Minnesota. While Kohler was unable to save the site in situ – on the premises -they were at least able to save some of his statues.
My only gripe with the art center is that I wish it were bigger because they do not have their permanent collection on exhibit. They have really interesting and offbeat temporary exhibits, but I kept reading about all these great things that the center is supposed to have and when I got there none of it was on display, it was all in dumb storage (booo).
Hopefully, they have a cool exhibit when you are there. Also, they have great bathrooms. Remember, this is the same Kohler family that made your kitchen sink, so it is only pipe fitting that the museum has artsy toilets. Every bathroom in the place is cool.
I suggest that you go to the museum with a member of the opposite sex. That way you can have have your fellow traveler check their corresponding restroom out and give you the all clear when it’s empty, and then you can see how the other half lives. I am a brilliant strategist.
The museum is free. For the most up to date info for hours and upcoming exhibits at the John Michael Kohler Art Center click here.
I am also a sucker for regional classic food. If a town is known for their special variety of barbecue, pizza, burgers or hot dogs you will find me eating there. When in Sheboygan you have to eat a Sheboygan bratwurst. It is a delicious, greasy German sausage served with pickles, onions and mustard on a heavily buttered roll. Two places in town known for their brats include The Charcoal Inn, which has two locations and Gosses. I had the double brat at the south side Charcoal Inn. The sandwich was dripping in butter and was delicious in a horrifying, embarrassing way. Make sure to get a few cheap Wisconsin beers and one or two of their famous tortes for desert and then go spend the rest of the night sitting quietly in your hotel room while holding your belly and rocking back and forth.
I am going to take a little break from Wisconsin this week because I just found out the fate of a small, relatively unknown environment in Kansas that wifey and I visited in May 2014.
Some art environments are better known than others. There are easily less than 50 places that I would call “major” environments. Sites like the Watts Tower, the Heidelberg Project, Salvation Mountain, the Grotto of the Redemption, the Forevertron, the Dickeyville Grotto, S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden, the Orange Show, the Coral Castle and Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens, are mentioned regularly in books, magazines, indie documentaries, news articles and on the web. If you haven’t heard of any of the places I just mentioned that just goes further to show how obscure a topic this is, as those are seriously probably ten of the most well known established American sites. Most of these environments have endured for decades as tourist attractions and are supported with money and some sort of management infrastructure. Plus, they all have really intriguing cool names either given to them by the creator, or visitors. You have strange mountains, towers, castles and esoteric gardens; places where people traditionally go to defeat an evil wizard or fight off the impending goblin horde (thanks Obama!), not look at art. Places with names that make you want to visit them.
For every well known art environment, there are tens, if not hundreds of obscure ones. These are the sites typically located on personal property that may be too new or geographically isolated, thus remaining obscure. They may be ignored or misunderstood by the local community, or may be not aesthetically pleasing enough to receive as much buzz from writers. It is hard to find the history, or latest information, on them. Often, there is not a website and if there is any visitor info, it is certainly not current. I once tried calling the phone number of an obscure Wisconsin art environment that I found in an old travel book. I wanted to see if I could come take photos of the place. A woman answered the phone and not knowing exactly how to phrase my question, I asked her if she had a museum in her front yard. Without hesitation, she said no, there was no museum in her front yard. She did not take the time to double check. She probably thought it was a set up for a prank call. Is your refrigerator running (better go catch it)? Do you have Prince Albert in Can (better let him out)? Do you have a museum in your front yard (better develop a collections management policy and clear it with the board of directors)?
Besides two well-known environments (“well-known” is a relative term), the Sign Field and the Garden of Eden, Kansas seems to be rock chalk full of obscure environments. In the future, I will write a post or two about art environment mecca Lucas, KS, as well as the Sign Field and the great works of the now defunct Grassroots Art Association. But for now. suffice it to say, like California and Wisconsin, Kansans have a yen to use their lawn as a giant canvas. Today we are dealing with Glenn Stark’s Yard and what becomes of these little-known out of the way places.
Glenn Stark’s house is located in Kingman, KS, a small town of around 3,000 people. In May 2014, my old lady and I were on a Kansas art environment excursion. I had seen photos of Stark’s house on a few websites and it looked interesting, but there was very little information to go on. I had an address plugged into the GPS but it was a bit out of our way and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the risk. A few times I had planned to visit a site and once I got there the owners were not around, or a fence was up and “NO TRESPASSING” signs were placed around the perimeter. The only official website for Stark’s art was built by his stepson years ago and hadn’t been updated since 2006. There were no mentions on Yelp or TripAdvisor. Makes sense this wasn’t a tourist attraction, just some guy’s house. I had tried calling a phone number I found on a Kansas travel site but it was disconnected. All I knew was that Stark was supposedly very friendly and that he was in his late 90s. Was Glenn still alive, were the statues still there, would he mind visitors? If they were still there would I be allowed on the property? (I do realize that the fact that photos from my visit are littering this post kills any suspense for the reader).
We arrived at his house on a rainy afternoon. The house and concrete statues that Stark built were still there crowding his front yard. We hesitantly knocked and Glenn’s wife Mary Stark came to the door. I asked if we could take photos of the yard. She was so gracious and nice, she revealed that Glenn was actually in the house, but he was in hospice care. This ended up turning into one of those really unique and special experiences.
Mary came out to give us a tour. The love and admiration for her husband were readily apparent. She showed us around the yard telling us the story behind several pieces and even insisted we climb on some of the statues for photo ops. Glenn, a retired Baptist preacher, had been crafting his statues for decades for himself and his friends and neighbors. Several of the pieces he made for others ended up back in his yard. Stark had a keen sense of humor and his concrete statues included various people from real life and folklore, totem poles and native and non-native Kansas critters – including giraffes, a big foot, Hagar the Horrible, a bear chasing a guy up a tree and a dinosaur in the midst of eating a human. Everything was a cartoon character come full size.
One of the true joys of visiting different sites have been the time I’ve met the artist. Mary was such a great woman, a true inspiration, she had so much spirit and verve and was so delighted to share her husband’s work with total strangers. While I never got to meet Glenn, as he was too sick, meeting Mary was a pure joy. At the time, she did not know what was going to happen to her husband’s works when he passed.
And this is definitely an issue for these less treaded sites. There are only so many art and community organizations able or willing to shell out the money to protect them. Is an art museum going to purchase a house in the middle of nowhere Kansas so the small community and small handful of art environment pilgrims make it out to see them? Sometimes. This is not one of the more prestigious or well-known art environments. To be an obscure version of an obscure artistic medium does not help with conversation issues. Hell, no one ever even took the time to give Stark’s yard a catchy name.
Every month or so after visiting the Stark’s yard I would check online to see if there was any news. Sadly, Glenn did finally pass away in September 2014 at 97 years of age. I still kept checking to see the fate of his statues. I feared for the worse.
Finally, last week I found the answer.
So, the best case scenario is that the yard would be protected and conserved in perpetuity (forever and ever), worst case scenario is that the sculptures were mowed down. What we got was good, not perfect, but good. The majority of sculptures were removed by the city of Kingman and relocated to a park in town. Here visitors can still appreciate them and the statues don’t have to leave the community or get lost in a museum’s storage space.
Here is how they look now in their new home in downtown Kingman.
Their new placement seems to be a bit haphazard and lacks the charm of the original, but at least they are still around for the community and travelers to appreciate.
How to visit:
Glenn Stark’s statues have been moved to a park at the corner of Main Street and Sherman Street in Kingman, KS at the tail end of the downtown area. It is free and open 24/7. Kingman is not really near any major cities. The closest is Wichita, KS, which is about 45 minutes away. It is over three hours from either Tulsa, Oklahoma City or Kansas City.
Also, about a mile east of town on US-400, look out your car window for Stark placed a couple of bison statues on the hillside there.
Things to do in the area:
Although, it is not near any major cities there are still some pretty cool travel opportunities.
M.T. Liggett’s Sign Field
It is only 45 minutes southwest from Hutchinson, KS, where you will find the Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center. The Cosmosphere is considered one of the very best space museums in the country and has to win some award, maybe runner up to Crystal Bridges, for most important cultural collection located in the middle of nowhere – suck it D.C. They have a great collection of artifacts detailing the Space Race between us and those dirty Ruskies. They actually have the authentic Apollo 13 command module, the one that Tom Hanks used to fly around in (poorly).
Stark’s statues are a little over one hour drive due east on US 400 from a truly terrific grassroots art environment, M.T. Liggett’s Sign Field. Liggett’s welded signs line the fence outside his home/ studio. They are great, funny and often hostile. Whereas Stark’s concrete statues are silly, light and cartoonish, Liggett’s signs skewer everyone from politicians – federal, state and local – as well as neighbors, friends and people who have done him wrong. One of the reasons I love art environments so much is the because of their variety and you don’t get a much better dichotomy then these two sites.
Start your engines
I want to thank Keith Stokes for giving me permission me to use his photo of the relocated statues. His site, Kansas Travel, was a great resource that I used for planning my 2014 Kansas road-trip.
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, WI. 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, crushed 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 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.
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.
The Mining Museum
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.
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.