• Katsushika, Hokusai, 1760-1849, artist, [between 1804 and 1818] 1 print : woodcut, color ; 23.2 x 17.2 cm.


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  • Katsushika, Hokusai, 1760-1849, artist, [between 1804 and 1818] 1 print : woodcut, color ; 23.2 x 17.2 cm.
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Finding Art Environments

Author: Cate Cooney


It’s summer, time for roadtrips! When I was in graduate school, my now husband and I would spend summer weekends driving around the Wisconsin landscape, seeking out folk art environments, outsider art installations, and general weirdness. We particularly enjoyed large art environments, made by self-taught artists, such as Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips.

(Photo from the Carol Highsmith Collection, https://www.loc.gov/item/2011632363/) Fred Smith was a child of German immigrants, born in Northern Wisconsin in 1886. He never learned to read or write, but he farmed, and later built and operated a tavern. Maybe it was his building experience, or the work he did on his ornamental rock garden, or maybe it was all the beer bottles from his tavern, but something prompted Smith to begin building large-scale sculptures from wire and hand-mixed cement, decorated with shards of glass and other objects. By 1950, he was building an art environment he called the Wisconsin Concrete Park, which eventually encompassed three and a half acres. The Wisconsin Concrete Park was preserved by the Kohler Foundation and gifted to Price County, WI.

Wisconsin seems to be rich in this form of folk art. I first visited Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron on one of our rambles, though I had passed it several times a year, as I drove past the Badger Munitions plant, on my way to visit family friends in Baraboo, WI.

Just a few months ago, I visited Prairie Moon, near Cochrane, WI. It’s a lovely location, not far from the Mississippi River. The only company we had on our visit was a pair of bald eagles. A video about the site is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XncMap5EJuU From that video, I learned that Rusch had visited Dickeyville Grotto, an art environment I have on my to-visit list. 

These sites raise so many questions for me. What causes someone to spend so much time and energy creating them? Why do they choose the materials that they do? Is concrete frequently used because it is relatively inexpensive and easy to work with, or is it because the artist has experience using that material for more practical purposes? What about metal or other found objects? Are there common themes in these installations? Were they meant for personal enjoyment, or was the artist hoping for a larger audience? Did the artists think of themselves as artists? Are these kinds of installations more common in rural areas or in cities? Why? What keeps people from doing this more often? What would happen if I decided to start making my yard into an art installation?

There are examples of vernacular art installations in the Library of Congress collections, but they can be hard to track down. It’s a challenge to catalog something like this, I suppose. The subject heading “naïve art” which the Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus (http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/aat/) uses for this kind of sculpture didn’t yield anything (though I think that’s a good thing, because of the pejorative connotations of “naïve”) Library of Congress subject authorities https://authorities.loc.gov/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?DB=local&PAGE=First gave me the terms “outsider art” and “primitivism in art.” A search of outsider art resulted in an image of a Dubuffet sculpture, which is not what I am going for. I tried folk art, which got me closer, and led to Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle House.

The subject heading “vernacular architecture” led me to images of Watts Towers, but only those images in the Carol Highsmith collection. The Highsmith Archive is a good place for locating images of these kinds of artistic expression, such as this wonderful image of Highsmith’s own cousin amid his artwork.

Like so many things in life, it’s easier to find images of art environments by self-taught artists in the library collection if you know what you are looking for. Two sites that are useful for finding outsider art along your roadtrip route are Roadside America https://www.roadsideamerica.com/ and the Atlas Obscura https://www.atlasobscura.com/

Maybe you’ll find the inspiration to start your own art environment.

    • Highsmith
    • Grandma Prisbreys Bottle House
    • Dickeyville Grotto
    • Forevertron
    • Concrete Park
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