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.
When I think of classic Philadelphia buildings, I always think of red brick structures, such as the Gloria Dei or Old Swede’s Church, depicted here in this silkcreened WPA poster by an unknown artist from somewhere between 1936 and 1941.
The lovely brick of Independence Hall, shown in a lithograph from 1876, is emblematic of Philadelphia, with its stately, solid brick. This image of Independence Hall appears to have been made as a box cover for a commemorative souvenier for the centennial.
The charm of brick is evident in Elfreth’s Alley’s Federal and Georgian townhomes, built between 1720 and 1830, as seen in this photograph from the Highsmith collection.
Of course, brick is used all over the city, for less grand structures such as this abandoned home at 20th and arch streets, photographed in 1938,
Or this privvy, which was once behind the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. Why so much brick? Is it simply that brick endures? Floods and fires would destroy wooden structures, but brick would remain. However, I don’t believe there’s been a conflagration like the Chicago or San Francisco fire to explain the abundance of brick in Philadelphia.
The answer could be just below our feet, but we’ll need to dig for it.
Here we have a general soil map of Pennsylvania. Note the narrow band of yellow at the lower right. According the the map key, the yellow indicates a substrata of marine clay and sand.
This map of Philadelphia from 1797 shows that the English and Swedish occupiers of this area were very familiar with the building material that lay beneath their feet. They recognized the clay and sand as ideal raw materials for making bricks. The curious little pond-shapes with accompanying solid dots show where the brickworks and kilns were located within the city. There are at least a dozen in this image. Bricks, which shaped the look of the city, were shaped by the site of the city itself.
Indeed, brick manufacturing took off in Philadelphia, with 14 brick kilns within the city by 1794. Brickmaking, and building with brick employed enough people that the Bricklayers Company was formed by 1799.
A search of Philadelphia directories from the late 18th and early 19th centuries tells us more about who these brick makers were, and where they lived as well as where the many bricklayers lived.
https://archive.org/stream/philadelphiadire1801phil#page/80/search/brickmaker I found this image from the 1801 Philadelphia Directory in the Internet Archive, contributed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
That bricklayers were an important groups of trades people in the city of Philadelphia is evidenced by this wonderful document, which describes the procession order for a parade in 1788, which honored the establishment of the constitution of the United States. The brickmakers marched just after the cabinet and chair-makers, right before the painters, and the bricklayer marched between the fringe and ribband-weavers and the taylors.
Another interesting piece of evidence about bricks in Philadelphia is John Cromwell’s Brick Layer’s Company membership certificate from 1811, now in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
It is always thrillng to see how dull-sounding historical documents like membership certificates can provide a window into the past: this certificate includes a detailed illustration of early 19th century building practices, tools, worker’s clothing, and of course, the city.
Following my curiosity led me to a variety of primary sources, from soil maps to early city maps and directories, and bits of ephemera, resulting a better understanding of why I see what I do. Now I see Philadelphia's buildings with even more curiosity, wondering what other stories they have to tell.
The University of the Arts offered another week-long Local Collections course last summer. We explored STEM to STEAM: Connecting the Arts to STEM and Local Collections. One of the several local collections we visited was Fonthill Castle. Fonthill is an incredible 44-room house built by Henry Mercer to house his extensive collection of tiles and prints.
Fonthill is fascinating not only as an aethetic experience, and an expression of one man's vision, but as a technological wonder. The house is made from poured-in-place concrete. You may know that concrete has been used as a building material since the Classical era. Romans used it extensively to create structures that were strong and complex. Technological changes, incuding the invention of Portland Cement in 1824, allowed cement to be developed into a building material that was less labor-intensive than the andient Roman methods.
Thomas Edison found that his Edison Ore-Milling company produced large quantities of waste sand. He had been selling this sand to concrete companies, but in 1899 started his own concrete business. He started experimenting with domestic applications for poured concrete, including building a garage and gardener's cottage on the grounds of his mansion in 1908. He had hoped that concrete homes would take off (and that he could supply the concrete!) but sadly, it never really did.
Mercer started building his home the same year Edison had his structures built. However, Mercer did not complete his work until 1912. His home is filled with built-in concrete furniture, and much of his collection of ceramics was enbedded in the concrete.
We chose Fonthill for our STEM to STEAM class as an example of techonogy and artistic vision coming together. I am looking forward to learning more during our visit to this extraordinary site.