Magnificent obsessions

In the Wisconsin countryside, self-taught visionaries left caches of remarkable art.

A bust of Herman Rusch surveys his Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden along the Mississippi.

In Wisconsin, nonconformity is cast in concrete.

In the middle of the last century, a motley collection of ordinary folk — a dairy farmer, a car dealer, a tavern owner, a factory worker — took a sharp turn away from the ordinary. Out of the blue, they began to fashion fairy-tale characters, castles, temples and historical figures out of concrete, adorning them with bits of glass, crockery, porcelain and seashells and toiling until their yards overflowed with figures.

Why? Because they felt like it. Long before the New Age dawned, they had learned to follow their bliss.

The fruits of their labor can be found from the shores of Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, along highways, in the wooded yard of a summer cottage and at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan.

Today, thousands of people come from all over the world to marvel at the artists' originality. They weren't prodigies or geniuses, but what these self-taught artists lacked in polish, they made up for in sheer exuberance.

"I just love the passion," says Terri Yoho, executive director of the Kohler Foundation, which restored the sites. "When someone does something just because they want to, and they don't care about anybody else, or money, it's so real and pure."

For many, creating art was an antidote to tedium.

Herman Rusch, a retired farmer who created Prairie Moon along the Mississippi, called it "a good way to kill old-age boredom."

Dairy farmer Nick Engelbert, who created Grandview in the hills of southwest Wisconsin, and furniture painter James Tellen, who filled the yard of his cottage near Lake Michigan, both started creating figures after they had been waylaid by illness.

And it was a way to pay tribute to people and things close to their hearts.

In the countryside near Sparta, Wis., car dealer Paul Wegner had retired and didn't want to hunt or fish. So, inspired by a visit to the Dickeyville Grotto in the state's southwest tip, he and wife Matilda came home and built a glass church.

Then, they fashioned an American flag, a replica of their 50th-anniversary cake, a big white heart, a star and the Bremen ocean liner, which reminded them of the one on which they had emigrated from Germany. After Paul died in 1937, Matilda kept working.

In the north woods, former lumberjack and tavern owner Fred Smith started building figures of people he liked or admired — he filled the yard of his tavern with 203 figures, which he called the Wisconsin Concrete Park.

His neighbors in Phillips, Wis., thought he was a crackpot, but the flamboyant Smith didn't care: "I've been having a good time all my life!" he said, even after a 1964 stroke forced him into a rest home.

The work was good for their souls — and today, it's good for ours.

True originals

In a mass-produced world, their idiosyncratic visions are like a breath of fresh air. I visit them whenever I can.

Driving along the Mississippi on Wisconsin 35, I always stop at Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden and Museum, where Rusch installed a Hindu temple, a crenellated stone watchtower and three dozen other concrete sculptures, including a colorful arched fence with conical tips painted gold.

Driving between my favorite towns in southwest Wisconsin, Mineral Point and New Glarus, I stop at Grandview, where whimsical figures populate the rolling yard of Nick Engelbert. There's an organ grinder, a Viking in a boat, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a Hapsburg castle, King Neptune and the Family Tree that depicts his own four children as monkeys.

One of the newest sites preserved by the Kohler Foundation is the James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden, in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Sheboygan.

Tellen worked in a furniture factory, painting decorative details. In 1942, in a hospital recovering from an illness, he was inspired by the concrete sculptures he could see in the churchyard across the street.

For the remaining 15 years of his life, he created concrete figures for the yard of his log summer cottage, often displaying the sly humor seen at Grandview.

In the hollow of a tree, below elves snickering in the branches, visitors look past a sign that reads, "If you look into this tree, the one you love best you will see," and into a mirror. A piece inscribed "We whistle while we work" shows the Seven Dwarves in party mode, playing musical instruments and making wine. A tavern scene shows a woman scolding a man who has toppled onto his hands and knees, while four proper townsfolk look on.

Like Smith, he liked to create pioneer scenes, including a young Abraham Lincoln splitting a log. His first work, the 65-foot-long "Fallen Log," is a free-form fence that features a bear, cubs and an Indian man, woman and child. But Tellen also was deeply religious, and a boardwalk leads through the wooded back yard to a miniature basilica, a bust of Christ and a statue of the Virgin of Fatima.

Unlike Smith, Tellen had the encouragement of his friends and family, and his 1957 obituary in the Sheboygan Press called his sculpture environment "one of the finest exhibits of outdoor art in the state."

"He stands away from the others," Yoho says. "He was a businessman, more mainstream than some of the other artists. And he was very well read, with a lot of respect for history and his religion."

Rescue missions

For three decades, the Kohler Foundation in nearby Kohler has painstakingly preserved such works; since the artists created them for themselves, not posterity, most had fallen into nearly irreparable states of decay.

Now, it's begun to rescue sites outside Wisconsin, such as one in Chauvin, La., where an enigmatic man named Kenny Hill left more than 100 concrete sculptures along a bayou.

"That was magical, and nobody knew about it, not even in the town where he did it," says Ruth DeYoung Kohler, president of the Kohler Foundation and director of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, which occupies her grandfather's former home in Sheboygan.

"They needed someone to say, 'This is important.' Fred Smith was the first, and when we first went up to talk to him, his family was talking about razing the place."

Smith's will specified if the figures weren't moved, they belonged to the tavern, which had been sold. When they went to Phillips to move the heavy figures, Kohler said, the tavern owner put up mounds of dirt to block the DNR front-end loader and gave away free beer so customers' cars would clog the parking lot.

But Kohler and her crew succeeded in moving the figures across the lot line, where they were restored and remain today.

"Even that first day, people began to think about them differently," she said. "Some even stayed to help us. There was a change in the mind set."

Today, Fred Smith's sculptures draw 10,000 visitors a year, and every August the town holds a Wisconsin Concrete Park Celebration.

The Kohler Foundation continues to go to great lengths to preserve great examples of outsider art, which is what curators call it.

One recent project had to be retrieved from a Minnesota antiques dealer and the various people to whom he had sold or consigned the life work of Carl Peterson, a self-taught artist who had created an Environmental Sculpture Garden of Nature in St. James, Minn., between the turn of the century and 1937.

"We got a call from a friend at the Art Institute in Chicago, who said, 'There's some really cool stuff going up for auction in Maine Tuesday, I think you'd like it,'" Yoho said. "So, we bought all the pieces available, and then we tracked down the consigner, and he had some of the rest, including a 45-foot flagpole, a birdbath and eight or 10 miniature concrete castles.

"Then, we sent an intern to St. James to look around, and we paid some people to let us excavate, and we found some old rubble and pieces. We started putting things together, and suddenly the castles are fitting together like a village. So what had been the size of a doghouse suddenly became much bigger, with unbelievably constructed pieces. It was done with such incredible care; it's mesmerizing."

Conservators spent years restoring the collection, she said, and the larger pieces have been installed on the grounds of the Sheboygan arts center.

"We feel bad we had to take them out of state; we feel really bad," Yoho said. "But we feel really good we're able to preserve them. Everyone here has become very attached to them."

The more fragile and portable pieces will remain in the collection of the center and can be seen by appointment.

Creative bursts

For anyone who appreciates outsider art, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center is a must-see site.

When I was there, it was showing two outrageously clever pieces by Daniel Rozin — "Wooden Mirror," in which 830 pieces of wood, moved by 830 tiny motors, flip to reflect the pixilated visage of anyone standing in front of it, and "Self-Centered Mirror," a horizontal arc of 34 panes of mirror that reflect only the viewer, even if another person is only an inch away. "This piece lifts the last obstacle in the quest for total narcissism," the artist wrote.

Another room displayed a ball gown made of grapefruit-crate mesh and Target bags and a men's suit made entirely of craft-shop google eyes. An exhibit called "I'm Still Here" showed the work of people with Alzheimer's, and "Double Take" showed dozens of inner/outer self-portraits by artists as well as ordinary adults and children.

The outpouring of creativity in each room was nearly overwhelming. But the piece that drew people like a magnet was the "Beautiful Holy Jewel Home of the Original Rhinestone Cowboy," a classic example of outsider art. It's a real house, and every inch of it is covered by glitter, tinfoil, Christmas ornaments, rhinestones and collages cut from magazines.

Until 1995, it was in McComb, Miss., the home of Loy Bowlin. Bowlin was a lonely old man who had just prayed, "Lord, give me something to make me happy" when he heard Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" in the late 1970s.

He took on a new persona, sewing rhinestones onto his clothes and dressing up to drive into town in his '67 Cadillac, to which he'd affixed a rack of glittering longhorns. He would play harmonica, dance, tell jokes and autograph pictures of himself, and eventually he became famous. He was never lonely again.

When he died, a Houston artist tried to preserve the house he had adorned in his image. But it needed a savior with more resources, and the house and Bowlin's elaborate outfits ended up inside the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.

Are they art? Unlike other pieces seen in museums, they're not clever. They're not perceptive or instructive. But dang, do they show passion.

Dorothy Sherman of Greendale, Wis., had come to see it with her friend Pat Ulman.

"This was a guy who was a nobody, and now he's in an art museum," she said. "See — follow your passion, Pat."

The exhibit fascinated her, Sherman said, because the artist had dared to think outside the box.

"I'm the kind of person who always takes a class so I do it right," she said. "But these people don't care about that. They don't care what people think about them. They just do it."

To most people, that's just an ad slogan. But for Wisconsin's visionaries, it was a way of life.

Trip Tips: Wisconsin's outsider art sites

All the sites below are open year-round. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. For details, check

James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden: It's just south of Sheboygan. From Wisconsin 28, turn east on County Road EE, then go south on Evergreen Drive about 1 mile, just past Indian Mound Road.

Wisconsin Concrete Park: It's just south of Phillips on Wisconsin 13, just north of U.S. 8. The adjoining gift shop and artists' cooperative, Countryside Artists, is open daily from Memorial Day to just before Christmas. The annual Wisconsin Concrete Park Celebration is in August, with music, food and children's entertainment. 800-269-4505,

Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden and Museum: It's 11 miles south of Alma and three miles south of Cochrane. Look for Prairie Moon Road from Wisconsin 35. On weekend afternoons in summer, guides are there to open the pavilion, where the Herman Room still contains many of Rusch's curios, which he used to show before he began creating concrete figures. In the off-season, groups can call Ken Haeuser for an appointment, 608-687-9874.

Grandview: It's just west of Hollandale, 15 miles east of Mineral Point on Wisconsin 39. Nick Engelbert's jeweled house, now a museum, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day and weekends in May and October. For a special appointment, call Ricky Rolfsmeyer, 608-967-2151,

Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto: It's nine miles north of Sparta off Wisconsin 7½7. The Monroe County Local History Room, on Main Street in Sparta, has an exhibit on the site, 608-269-8680.

Carl Peterson collection: Pieces from the former Environmental Sculpture Garden of Nature in St. James can be seen with an appointment, and larger pieces can be seen on the grounds of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan.

John Michael Kohler Arts Center: It's at 608 New York Ave. in Sheboygan. It's open daily, and admission is free. Lectures, workshops and performances are held throughout the year. Exhibits change, but the "Rhinestone Cowboy" exhibit is ongoing. 920-458-6144,

Milwaukee Art Museum: The museum on the lakefront downtown has a small but excellent section on outsider art. 414-224-3200,

Dickeyville Grotto: This series of grottos and shrines of concrete, embellished with stones, glass, tile, crockery and shells, largely inspired the tradition of sculptural expression in Wisconsin and around the region. It was created between 1925 and 1930 by a German-born priest named Mathias Wernerus and his parishioners at Holy Ghost Church in Dickeyville, in the extreme southwest corner of the state. The gift shop is open daily from May through October, 608-568-7519,

Dr. Evermor's Art Park: Along U.S. 12, seven miles south of Baraboo next to Delaney Surplus, wrecker and salvager Tom Every turned scrap parts into outlandish creatures, symbols and machines, including the "Forevertron," a time and intergalactic travel contraption that apparently is the world's largest scrap-metal sculpture. Nothing is labeled, but visitors are free to wander and look.

Other sites: In the Door County village of Baileys Harbor, Albert Zahn’s Birds Park and house, which he filled with hand-carved cedar birds, angels, woodsmen, sailors, ships, and woodland creatures, is privately owned and not open to the public. In July 2008, however, the Kohler Arts Center auctioned off private tours.

In Valton, northwest of Baraboo, Ernest Hüpeden's Painted Forest can be seen inside the Modern Woodmen of America lodge.

In the posh Milwaukee suburb of Fox Point, on Lake Michigan, the sculpture-filled Mary Nohl site is owned by the Kohler Foundation, but neighbors have contested its use as a public attraction, and it cannot be seen. It's on the National Register of Historic Places and in 2005 was listed by the Wisconsin Preservation Trust as one of the 10 most endangered properties in the state.

Other roadside attractions: The Web site shows Prairie Moon, the Wisconsin Concrete Park and dozens of other nifty attractions around Wisconsin (add /map/wi.html to the address) and the nation.

Similar Stories

  1. Wright in Racine
    In southeast Wisconsin, a wax magnate's decision to hire 'the greatest architect in the world' had stunning results.
  2. Madison for foodies
    From street carts to fine-dining shrines, Wisconsin's capital city worships food.
  3. Menomonie's golden oldies
    In a Wisconsin college town, antiques shops and an ornate theater stand fast amid pizza shops.
  4. Tales of the dead
    At Chicago's famous Graceland Cemetery, the graves have a lot to say.
  5. Door County 101
    Want to check out this popular peninsula? Here's everything you need to plan a visit.
  6. Fish Creek in Door County
    In this historic resort town, crowds come for the shops and the scenery.
  7. Sister Bay in Door County
    Near the top of the peninsula, this town snares tourists with its beautiful beach and marina.