This year the Independence Day holiday makes me think of Nick Engelbert, the farmer and self-taught artist who in the 1930s through 50s created the Grandview art environment in southwest Wisconsin. Nick was an immigrant from Austria, who married Katherine Thoni, who emigrated from Switzerland.
After schooling and Army service Nick bicycled throughout Europe, then embarked on world travel, working on ships as a nautical engineer and visiting Jamaica, Puerto Rico, South America and the West Indies. He landed in Baltimore, Maryland in about 1908, and over the next few years traveled the U.S. extensively, harvesting wheat in Kansas, picking grapes in California, and prospecting for gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The guy got around.
Nick came to love the United States deeply and he chose to settle in this country near the village of Hollandale in Iowa County, where he created Grandview. He practiced democracy with fervor. His daughter Alyce remembers, “Father was basically a man of few words except when it came to politics and the relating of his past experiences and travels. On the former he expounded at length and there was many a heated discussion of political issues among friends and relatives at our home. It was the era of the LaFollettes in Wisconsin and our parents were their ardent supporters…”
Nick the artist reflected his patriotism in his sculpture. In the 1940s he told a reporter, “You can’t really appreciate the United States until you’ve actually lived in other countries. It is because of my deep appreciation for what the United States has given me that I am continually working on this historical farmyard.”
His humor and acute understanding of American democracy is particularly evident in one tableaux, in which Uncle Sam attempts to drive a
team comprised of a Republican elephant and counterpart donkey. A sign nearby read, “Can anybody do a days work with a team like that?”
Immigrant Nick summarized his appreciation for his new place best when saying,“Old Glory represents liberty, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. It is sure none of the three can be found under any other banner. I know, because I have looked for them all over the world, and I have never found anything worth having anywhere else. If a man can’t be happy on a little farm in Wisconsin he hasn’t the makings of happiness in his soul.”
A lot of school kids visit Grandview, and we like to remind them that the likes of Nick and Katherine immigrating here a hundred years ago is much the same as folks today coming from Mexico, Somalia or Laos. The students can see how a self-taught immigrant artist of yesteryear still enriches our lives today, and understand how today’s immigrants will do the same. Like our forebears, they seek the makings of happiness.
The influence of immigrants from many nations is reflected in art all around Wisconsin. What’s your favorite?