Arguably, the most renowned of all Wisconsin outsider art built environments is Fred Smith’s Concrete Park. I first learned about this site when I was in grad school at Cranbrook Academy of Art where I studied under the early champion of outsider art, Michael Hall. When I saw the images of the Concrete park I knew right away I need to make a pilgrimage and so Wisconsin went on my bucket list. And there it stayed for about 15 years until I was lucky enough to be granted a sabbatical with travel funds by my employer, Concord Academy. Armed with the invaluable resource of Lisa Stone and Jim Zani’s book, “Sacred Spaces and Other Places” I mapped out a route that criss-crossed Wisconsin. I was determined to visit every outsider art environment in the state. I assumed that October would be a lovely time to visit Wisconsin. After all, that’s the best time to visit New England and Wisconsin is at about the same latitude, right? Well, it turned out to be a miserable time, at least that year, weather-wise, to visit Wisconsin. It was cold, dark, and drizzly just about every day. It was so dark I had to stop at a drugstore to restock my film supply (yup–this was a pre-digital trip. You will excuse the images that you’ll see in this post which are scanned from slides and so not as sharp as the originals) to buy low light ektachrome. Nothing could dampen my spirits, though, as I drove up to Phillips in the north woods of the state to finally get to see the Concrete Park in person.
Fred Smith, born in 1886 of German immigrant parents began his working life as a teen lumberjack. Later,to supplement his lumberjack income, Smith grew ginseng (surprising thing for the early 1900’s, no?) and Christmas trees for sale. He also built and operated a popular roadside watering hole, The Rock Garden Tavern. The Tavern provided the first real outlet for Smith’s creative impulses. Providing the nightly entertainment at the tavern, Smith fiddled on his homemade fiddle, sang, and danced with sleigh bells strapped onto his legs.
In 1949, at the age of 62 Smith quit lumberjacking, ostensibly due to arthritis. Arthritis or not, he threw himself into the making of his Wisconsin Concrete Park (his title). Though disdainful of the modern era of car travel (too much rushing around, thought Smith) , Smith realized the benefit of siting his roadside attraction alongside the highway. Smith clearly loved the attention that his ambitious creation brought to him.
Portrait of Fred Smith. Photo credit: Robert Amft. (Amft was an early admirer of Fred Smith’s work. He visited Smith often in the 1950’s and 60’s and photographed the artist and the site extensively. He even introduced Smith to the work of other self-taught artists.)
Smith worked obsessively on his sculptures, ultimately jeopardizing his marriage and sacrificing his family life. He filled his 120 acre property with an astonishing number of figures–over 200 pieces, which he embellished with colored bottles embedded into the wet concrete. Smith liked using the bottles both for their reflective quality and like the other recycled material he incorporated, the fact that he “could get them for nothing”.
When Fred Smith first started his work on the Concrete park, he thought of his sculptures as commemorative pieces. He set to work sculpting historical and mythical figures he admired including Sacajawea (just one of several Native American figures he sculpted), the Chinese statesman, Sun Yat-sen (a little random, eh?) , Abraham Lincoln, Kit Carson, and a Paul Bunyan who bears a great resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt.
Besides these commemorative works Smith paid homage to his fellow lumberjacks, farmers, and plain old common folk.
For good measure Fred Smith scattered several deer and moose, native to the Wisconsin north woods, throughout the property.
Sadly, after Fred Smith finished sculpting the last of his Clydesdale horses for his ambitious Budweiser beer tableau he suffered a stroke which ended his creative output.
Fred Smith described his Concrete Park, “a gift for all American people everywhere. They need something like this. ” Couldn’t agree more!