Several years ago I traveled with two friends to a Madison retreat for the Jewish Artists Lab. We had such a good time on our drive there, that a road trip became an annual tradition. Our next one took us to see the Jeffers petroglyphs and then on to Pipestone, Mn where we learned of the significance of pipestone in Indian history and visited the Pipestone National Monument where it was mined. That was a hard one to top, but each has its own flavor and has been satisfying in content as well as company. This year's took us into Wisconsin to look at outsider road art in route to Baraboo. The backdrop of this year's trip was the upcoming theme for the artist's lab: Outside, Inside: Exploring Boundaries and Otherness. Outsider art seemed to fall nicely within this topic and we contemplated it as we drove through rolling hills of greenery interspersed with sculptural rock cliffs.
We stopped for lunch near Fountain City in what once was the Fountain hotel and chuckled at the photos of the past where the "working girls" perched in the windows, hands jauntily placed on hips, while locals gathered on the balcony and in front of the building. It too seemed to speak to that outside, inside theme, both literally and figuratively.
Our first outsider art visit was at Prairie Moon, an area with over forty sculptures created by Herman Rusch. When Herman retired he purchased a dance hall and turned it into a museum. The barren land surrounding it called out for something and he began his concrete structures in 1958. He believed that " beauty creates a will to live" and that certainly proved true for him as he made it to age 100. I stood back to get many of the sculptures in my camera lens when I suddenly looked around, feeling that I was being observed. I was startled when I saw a gentleman behind me on the right and laughed when I realized it was a sculpture standing behind a podium. I later learned that it was Rusch himself who decided he wanted to continue to survey his creations far into the future. He made use of concrete with a reddish tone accented by seashells and studded with stones. An elegant arched fence surrounded the property. Within it was a small church structure, tall spires, bird houses and dinosaurs.
One of the art sites we sought was built by German immigrants after they retired and created a new chapter in their lives. They drew from their life as they created their artwork. Paul and Matilda Wegner created Wegner Grotto composed of concrete sculptures and a small church building, all studded with shattered china, glass and seashells as well as a few unexpected surprises such as gunpowder casings and arrowheads.
Like Rusch, neither Paul nor Matilda Wegner received any formal training in art. They were inspired by the Dickeyville Grotto and in 1929 began their creation. Within the Wegner grotto is a 12 foot re-creation of the Bremen ship on which they emigrated in 1885. Their fiftieth anniversary cake is permanently frozen in stone and glass over 80 years later. A small church studded in glass has a Star of David over the door and structures of different churches embedded into the walls representing their rather ecumenical view of religion.
We settled in at a roadside motel which seemed to sync with our road trip theme. In the morning I went to the central building for breakfast and was charmed to discover Diane, my fellow traveler and a poet, reading one of her poems to Renee and Ethel, a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law librarian duo who were also on a road trip. I learned that Renee has written in a journal every day since her son was born, now in his forties. Ethel talked of how she tried to do something new every year since she retired. They spoke of how each time they came to a crossroads in their drive they decided which road to take. "Definitely kindred spirits", I thought. Ethel put her arm around Renee and said, "I couldn't do it without her."
Our last stop on this leg of our trip was Baraboo, home to the International Crane Foundation and the circus museum, but first we had a stop to make outside of town at Dr Evermor's Forevertron to see the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world. Much to our dismay, we had learned it was closed on that day but we were hopeful we might be able to see it from the road. We scouted the area only to be confronted with a fence with an ominous no trespassing sign beyond which we could see a number of sculptures rising into the sky. The fiction surrounding this unusual site is that Dr Evermor was a Victorian inventor who designed the Forevertron to launch himself into the heavens. The park is the creation of Tom Every from Brooklyn, Wi and includes Thomas Edison dynamos from the 1880s and power plant parts from the 1920s. Foiled in our search for outsider art, we stood glumly outside the fence looking longingly at those enticing sculptures inside.
Back in Baraboo we found our way to the International Crane Foundation where 15 species of these elegant creatures live. In the 1940s there were only 15 whooping cranes remaining. Through efforts of places like the Foundation they now number over 300. Much as it takes a passion and commitment to create outsider art, it takes a similar drive to create an organization focused on cranes. Two ornithology students undertook that mission in 1973. In this world the people are the outsiders and staff dress up in crane costumes to interact with the young birds so they won't imprint on people rather than their own species.
Lastly we headed on to the Circus World museum as we considered the fact that circus people are the ultimate outsiders, bringing glamour and excitement to towns and then moving on, always in transit or encamped on the outside of towns. The idea of running off with the circus
was an enticing idea to young people living in small towns, an escape fantasy that has become part of our folklore.
Before we returned to the Twin Cities we did one last stop in Menomonie where we wandered the stunning Mabel Tainter theater and explored antique and thrift shops. Diane was inspired to perform on the theater stage.
When we arrived home Diane gave us each a memento of a tole painted bowl from her thrift shop explorations and Susan shared some of the bounty from her garden. I, in turn, provide this meager offering as my thanks for my wonderful travel companions on our road trip journey.
Roadside America (sites by state)
Dementia Concretia - don't care for the name, but the article is interesting as it seems to reflect a common theme