From jewels to a necklace

Wisconsin has a large number of art environments and other roadside attractions. For years our family plotted many of these on our vacation itineraries, being especially enamored of the little out-of-the-way spots borne of common – albeit highly creative – Wisconsinites. That was part of the appeal for us.

The beautiful fence at Prairie Moon

The beautiful fence at Prairie Moon

In a 2008 article travel writer Mary Bergin stated that,Wisconsin is a global leader in the identification and preservation of such projects, also known as outsider art.”

I never thought much about the unique propensity of Wisconsin folks to create stuff in yards and on houses or darn near anywhere until I chanced upon a web site that all but proclaimed our state to be roadside art royalty:  “Wisconsin: The roadside genius state.”  Wow.  Is there something in our water?

The Interestingideas web site says, “Per square mile, the quality and number of (Wisconsin’s) art environments are unmatched. The grottos, sculpture gardens and personal statements run the length of the state and the gamut, from the grand religious messages of Holy Ghost Park in southwestern Dickeyville to Fred Smith’s patriotic masterwork in north-central Phillips.”

If you’re a Cheesehead, you’ve got to love it.

The John Michael Kohler Art Center of Sheboygan is home to the works of scores of self-taught artists, and host to some of the best information on art environments.  They describe these unique places as large-scale works that are among the grandest, most astonishing, and original visions in American art. Artist-environment builders have transformed homes, yards, meeting halls, churchyards, or other spaces into otherworldly realms. In the hands of these artists, patches of wilderness have become transcendent kingdoms; intimate interiors are forays into fantasy; structures and yards are simultaneously museum and masterpiece.

All of the sites are unique, and I’ve blogged before about Nick Engelbert’s Grandview where I volunteer.  But in addition to our individuality

Fred Smith's work at the Wisconsin Concrete Park in Price County

Fred Smith's work at the Wisconsin Concrete Park in Price County

we have much in common and plenty of reason to collaborate.  The folks who operate nine of these little gems wondered what we could do together. So, with some reinforcement, we formed the Wisconsin Art Environment Consortium.

I suppose we look like an odd bunch to many in the tourism business – some might wonder where the water slides are.  Not to be daunted, though, we tried a small project in 2008 called American Masterpieces.  The marriage was a success.

So recently our group of artist environments became midwife to a larger effort – nurturing the birth of a major project: Wandering Wisconsin.  It is a unique collaboration indeed.  We hope to communicate more effectively to the general public about these environments and the people who built them.  We hope to help folks understand what was in the hearts and minds of these artists, not just how skilled or what creative thinkers they were.  And we really want people to visit.

Each of these roadside attractions tells a unique American story in art, tracing the maker’s cultural heritage and rich traditions. You can spend a day, a weekend, or an extended vacation exploring the art, architecture, and gardens of one indoor site and eight outdoor sites:

  • Carl Peterson Garden (Sheboygan)
  • Dickeyville Grotto (southwest Wisconsin)
  • Ernest Hüpeden’s Painted Forest (Sauk County)
  • Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park (Price County)
  • Herman Rusch’s Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden and Museum (Buffalo County)
  • James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden (near Sheboygan)
  • Nick Engelbert’s Grandview (Iowa County)
  • Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto (Monroe County)
  • Rudolph Grotto Gardens and Wonder Cave (near Stevens Point)
The work of James Tellen

The work of James Tellen

Wandering Wisconsin includes five sample itineraries. Take these preplanned journeys or make one of your own.  Each itinerary provides suggested stops along the way so you can dine, find lodging or spend some time exploring the other local treasures and unique attractions of the area.

Bill at the Interstingideas web site said, “It’s to Wisconsin’s credit that many of these places are actually being treated as a heritage to be preserved, with the Kohler Foundation working to conserve several of them.”

This is way true.  And I could not write about Wandering Wisconsin without mentioning the John Michael Kohler Arts Center with Ruth DeYoung Kohler and her amazing staff, and Terri Yoho and the board and staff of the Kohler Foundation.  They are the glue that holds us together, and they provide strength when we need it and the faith that we can actually do stuff like this.

The Dickeyville Grotto

The Dickeyville Grotto

You see, the people who operate the sites that comprise Wandering Wisconsin are not professional administrators or tourism gurus. We’re common, mostly rural folk. Maybe somewhat like the artists themselves.  We love these places – we’re friends and neighbors – and are dedicated to spend our free time working to preserve them and make them available to be enjoyed by others.

You can get a taste of what Wandering Wisconsin has to offer by visiting our website, where you can also get an information packet with maps, discounts and more. You may also contact the John Michael Kohler Arts Center at 920-458-6144 or e-mail

So perhaps a number of individual jewels have now become a necklace.  A true Wisconsin-made necklace of originality.

Come visit. And if you can, take an extended tour. Then share your unique and fun experiences on Facebook–just search for Wandering Wisconsin.

Ricky Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)

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