Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Field trip: Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park

The drive from our cabin in northern Wisconsin to Minneapolis on Saturday was five hours, and I withstood a great deal of temptation along the way. I'm not talking about the temptation to scarf entire bags of Combos chased with big bottles of Diet Coke (which I don't even drink in real life!) at every gas station rest stop I rolled into. I'm talking about the temptation to hit the brakes for every yard sale, flea market, junk shoppe and consignment store scattered along our incredibly scenic route. The only thing Wisconsin seems to have more of than dairy farms, cornfields and taverns is thrifting opportunities. God bless America and all of her glorious bounty!

Sadly it was not for me. I wasn't traveling alone and not one of my travel companions shared my junking obsession, especially those companions under the age of 10. They were definitely not interested in stopping anywhere unless it involved copious amounts of ice cream and even that was no guarantee. I had to be satisfied with the memory of the one flea market I managed to hit in Wisconsin (held every Tuesday at the Lions Club in Boulder Junction, should you ever find yourself in that beauteous corner of the Cheese Curd State—it's totally worth it!).

But the disappointment in not being able to spend money on random old stuff that probably wouldn't have fit in my suitcase was forgotten when I found out we'd be able to stop at Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park.

I've known about Fred's garden of whimsical-sublime statuary since my days of buying Ripley's Believe it or Nots (and Ripley rip-offs) from the Scholastic Bookmobile. His life follows the classic outsider-artist trajectory: Born in 1886, he worked in the Wisconsin woods as a lumberjack, never learning to read or write. At the age of 63, pretty much out of nowhere, he started making art. Don't you love those late-bloomer stories? It gives me hope that one day I'll be overcome by some vision that will inspire me to assemble all my estate-sale finds into art, tapping creative gifts I never knew were at my disposal. Smith's folksy, unhelpful explanation for his sudden and uncanny ability: "It's gotta be in ya to do it!"

I've always been into outsider art and certainly the artist's personal narrative is a big part of the appeal. I've seen exhibits of some of the great—Henry Darger, A.G. Rizzoli—at museums and it's definitely a very different deal to see the art in its native environment; in Smith's case, in the green piney lakey fishy flat north woods of Wisconsin. The garden is located right next to the highway in what used to be the yard surrounding his home and his Rock Garden Tavern, which he built with the help of local stonemasons, in 1936. Sadly the tavern no longer stands on the property but based on the description and photos in the monograph we bought at the gift shop, The Art of Fred Smith by Lisa Stone and Jim Zanzi, it was likely the Greatest Bar of All Time.

The Wisconsin Concrete Park feels like a lot of things, none of which are a museum. Maybe it was just the mossy green carpet, the shade trees, the breezy blue-sky day but it felt like a cemetery. The beautiful kind of cemetery, like I've seen in Helsinki and Rome. The statues, many of them clad in identical hats, staring sentry-like, reminded me of that terracotta army in China, not that I've seen them in person, only in Ripley's (are they in a museum?). It's also like one of those roadside outdoor furniture/garden statuary emporiums (Fountains of Wayne?). Mostly, it's like, wow.

I wish I'd had all day to study the garden, to unravel all the allusions. Seriously, if this place were a poem, it would have more footnotes than "The Wasteland." To commune with Smith's sculptures of Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln, the Budweiser Clydesdales, the Lone Ranger's horse Silver, the Statue of Liberty, Iwo Jima, Paul Bunyan and all the anonymous deer, moose, not mention the mythic muskie dragged by a team of horses. To ponder the cryptic stories he'd dictated to a typist, which you can now read on aluminum plaques alongside some of the sculptures (I've included one below).

But the kids, you know—the kids. They were into it but they have limits. After storming the gift shop and availing themselves of the restrooms, they were ready to motor. I was pleased that my older daughter read the monograph for the next half hour of the journey, before getting sucked back into the Sound of Music DVD playing on the laptop. I think it's time I dust off my collection of Ripley Believe It or Nots—someone is definitely ready.

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