Wisconsin Part 3: A walk in the woods

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.

Miniature tavern scene

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.

The path behind the house

There is not a cohesive theme to the concrete sculptures. Some are painted, some tellen 5left 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.

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Log fence along the street front

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. tellen 6

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.

tellen 3

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:

Carl Peterson
A piece from Carl Peterson’s no longer existing art environment

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).

Kohler toilet2Hopefully, 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.

Keep wandering

 

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