For the Glory of…

Just beyond the heavily touristed French town of St Malo (Brittany) lies the less frequented Sculpted Rocks of Rotheneuf . If I were in charge of compiling the Seven Wonders of Europe list, I’d secure a spot for this astonishing site!


I had seen images of “Les Roches Sculptes” (where the heck are the accent marks on American computers?) in a wonderful book on visionary environments which I found decades ago in a second hand book store in San Francisco: Les Batisseurs du Reve.   This book has served as the cornerstone for my now extensive collection of  outsider art books. Turns out it’s a much more notable book than I have realized over all these years. Believe it or not, I just discovered yesterday, when I was taking this photo of the book below, that the lovely hand-written French inscription  inside the front cover is a note to Niki  deSt Phalle (whose work is pictured on the cover) from the book’s photographer. (“Niki, mon coeur est toujours a ta maison. Michael”) Geez–there must be a story of how this special copy of the book ended up in California. Niki, I beseech you, speak to me from the Netherworld–tell me what happened between you and Michael.

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You can imagine how excited I was when I realized my post grad school trip to France would allow me to check off two major sites in this book.  Les Rochers Sculptes on the Brittany coast and Le Palais Ideal in the Drome valley would anchor the northern and southern most points of our loop. Well, to make a long story short, I never made it to Les Rochers Sculptes that summer because, feather brained twenty-something year old that I was, I left my wallet on the bus and didn’t discover this til I was pitching my tent that evening.  Instead of hopping another bus the next morning to Rotheneuf, I spent the day tracking down my wallet. If you are old enough to picture accomplishing this feat in the days before cell phones, you will marvel over my ability to overcome the inscrutability of French payphones to converse with an operator who could find the number of the public bus service, track down the name of the actual bus-driver, call him during his dinner time (a major faux pas!) and arrange a meet up at the bus stop to retrieve my wallet. You will marvel over the miracle that reconnected my wallet to me and commend me for my stoicism about not getting to check off numero uno on my bucket list. But oh! It would be another THIRTY years til I made it back to this part of France!  Reading all this you will understand why my heart was going pitter patter when I finally arrived at the entry gate of  Les Rochers Sculptes, with wallet firmly in pocket and camera ready at hand to shoot my first encounter with one man’s inexplicable, obsessive, magnificent work.




For thirteen years, from 1894 to 1907 (which does not seem like nearly enough time to accomplish this work), Adolphe Julien Fourere (later changed to Foure) chipped away, day after day to tell a tale which made no sense what-so-ever. it made so little sense that I double checked in my French/English dictionary every irksome word in the little explanatory pamphlet I got for 4 Euros at the entry gate.

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This jumble of rogues and monsters


supposedly is an account of the notorious band of pirates and privateers who laid claim to this section of the French coast in the 16th century.  I don’t believe that for a minute, nor do I believe that the sculptor, the Abbot Foure carved this part of coast after  he could no longer carry out the duties of the priesthood due to a crippling stroke.


Really?!? Too weak to give a sermon so what the heck, I’ll just get me a hammer and chisel and start carving granite day and night for 13 years. I don’t think so. In fact further digging on the web turns up  much more believable biographical info on the Abbot Foure than that untrustworthy little tourist pamphlet. Historian Joelle Jouneau has been doing her best to debunk the notion that Foure was a stroke-weakened, pirate-obsessed priest released from his duties by a benevolent church. More likely the pirate figures and monsters are stand-ins for local characters. Maybe these caricatures were Foure’s way to whack at the powers that be who threw him out of his parish for his social activism. Jouneau has been fantasizing creating a Foure museum for which she’s been amassing Foure memorabilia. So maybe we’ll eventually get to the bottom of his story. Meanwhile, enjoy what one determined man with time on his hands can do with a hammer and chisel:

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I cannot find one mention anywhere of the mysterious rectangular foundation-like shape that we see through the clear blue of the ocean:


We stay long enough to see this stone rectangle emerge completely as the tide goes down. What, oh what were you thinking Abbe Foure?


A dieu…









Hubcap Ranch

This post ends with a story of how a good deed turned into an art environment. If you’re impatient to find out how this could be, skip to the end, but you’ll be missing some pretty cool art along the way.

A recent trip to California to visit family and  to tour the fabulous new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art turned into a glorious road-trip. In just three days the Bay area and surrounding countryside offered  up the most glorious array of artistic diversity.


The undulating SFMOMA is now my favorite renovation of the myriad of museum upgrades that have swept the country in the last decade (shout out to Deputy Director Ruth Berson,  for her incredible leadership in this project).


I really loved the little display of idea “sketches” for the museum renovation presented by the architectural firm, Snohetta:

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Across the street from the SFMOMA is the wonderful Yerba Buena Art Center which–jackpot!– was showcasing at the time of my visit one of my very favorite artists, Tom Sachs.


Whacking together unbelievably complex and massive sculptures with little more than packing tape, cardboard and soda bottles, Sachs has constructed his visionary “Europa”, as part of his ongoing fixation with NASA’s space program. He has thought of “everything the astronauts will need to successfully complete their mission to Jupiter’s icy moon” including the all important outhouse which bears an uncanny and satisfying resemblance to a jet plane’s lavatory.

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Ruth Berson also introduced us to her beloved “Creativity Explored”, a studio workshop  and gallery for artists with intellectual disabilities.

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We loved it so much we went back for a second visit on Monday and saw the studio buzzing with productivity.img_4887

I doubt you’ll find another group of artists anywhere more intent on their work than here.

With the couple extra days I had  to tool around in California I headed up to Napa Valley. The drive through Napa Valley vineyards


is a visual feast in and of itself. But we went to drink in a couple other sites. Our first stop: the Di Rosa Museum. A San Francisco friend had brought me there a couple years ago and I wanted to revisit with my son, who has inherited my penchant for all things quirky.

Situated on the shore of Winery Lake, the Di Rosa Museum houses the estate collection of the vineyard owning,  art collecting, bon vivants Veronica and Rene Di Rosa.img_20160923_121014687

One has the feeling as one tours the estate (and one can only see the DiRosa collection as part of a museum tour–don’t just show up there unannounced), that collecting art served as a great excuse to the Di Rosas for non-stop partying. It’s a wild ride following the twists and turns of the DiRosa’s art tastes.


Art car master, David Best retooled this Cadillac for Veronica Di Rosa.



And Rene jumped into the act of art making with this one creation of his own:


Well, his hanging car may  not be great art, but just about everything else in his collection is top notch–some of my favorite  artists and so many great artists new to me, all hailing from  northern California.:

Viola Frey :

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These next two are Sandow Birk’s. Though created many years ago, they were apt viewing during our miserable campaign and election season.



And this is Chester Arnold. Where have you been all my life, Chester?


And Mildred Howard’s luminescent Bottle House:


OK, finally! The real destination of this trip through Napa Valley (you will now be rewarded for slogging through this post to get to the bait tangled on the hook of the first sentence).  Litto’s Hubcap Ranch!  

img_4774 Located just one hour’s drive north of San Francisco, in Pope Valley, Hubcap Ranch was the retirement home of Emanuele “Litto” Damonte.  Litto,  came to California from Genoa, Italy in the early 1900’s. His father passed on his stone mason trade to him which provided Litto  with lucrative work, including marble carving for the William Randolf Hearst mansion.

A smooth ribbon of a road now passes by the ranch but at the time that Litto settled in Pope Valley the rough and winding dirt road was pitted with potholes which tended to pop the hubcaps off  passing automobiles. Litto thought he’d do a good turn by collecting the hubcaps and affixing them to his property fence.



He assumed that folks who had lost them would pick them up the next time they drove by. Apparently nobody came to reclaim their hubcaps and soon the collection grew to the point where passers by thought Litto just LOVED hubcaps, so they started dropping off contributions for his “collection”. These too, he affixed to the front fence til that was full. He then extended the collection to the barbed wired that looped around the ranch.


Before Litto knew it he had become a hubcap connoisseur. He singled out the most select examples for special placement on his out buildings and his home.



No one’s got an exact count, but it’s said there may be as many as 5,000 hubcaps catching the rays on Hubcap Ranch.

Two years after Litto’s death, Hubcap Ranch received the official designation of  California Historic Landmark.


Hubcap Ranch is currently the residence of Litto’s grandson, Mike Damonte, who does his best to maintain the property


in all its quirky glory.







Newfoundland Outports

The Newfoundland outports I recently visited meet the gold standard of quirky plus beautiful that I’ve set for  this blog. Or as some of my friends now say, they’re ” Quirk worthy.”


The simple definition of an outport is a small coastal community in the  province of Newfoundland and Labrador. They are some of the oldest European settlements in Canada, dating back as early as the 1600’s, and and now they are on the verge of extinction. One by one each of these isolated villages have opted for the government’s resettlement option, even if very reluctantly. Resettlement is not a new phenomenon for Newfoundland. Beginning in 1954, under the leadership of the controversial first prime minister of Newfoundland, Joey Smallwood,

IMG_4677 the  provincial government began offering the residents of the outports resettlement money (currently the offer is up to $270,000 per landowner) if 90% of the  population agreed to shut down the village and move. Poignant photos hanging in several heritage museums show fishermen towing their homes across the water to their new communities after the first resettlement deals were struck. Though most of the resettlements transpired between 1954 and 1975, the provincial government has made  new pushes for resettlement after the cod moratorium in 1992.

Today only a small number of  outports remain and I was determined to visit a few before they disappear forever.
We just had a week for Newfoundland this time and so chose two tiny communities in the  central region to serve as our home bases for exploring. I was excited to fly into Gander, the tiny international airport where my mother’s plane touched down to refuel on her first flight to North  America when she emigrated to the US after WWII. She had described her awe at seeing virgin wilderness for the first time. And awesome it was! As the plane crossed over the land mass of Central Newfoundland I did not see one house or road across the great expanse of spongy land.
A three hour drive brought us to to our first destination, the tiny community of Coffee Cove, a half  hour beyond the “big” town of Springdale (population 2,900). The three ring info binder we found in our lodging described Springdale as having  “everything we could possibly need”. We could not tell if that was said in seriousness or jest. Our first test of this statement came as we went hunting for food supplies to bring to our lodging. We had unwittingly arrived on Canada Day and the two grocery stores in Springdale were closed. So we shopped for dinner at the gas station. We had been told we could get home made pizza there, which sounded promising enough. When we discovered the one pizza on offer was bologna pizza we settled instead for the last dozen eggs in the fridge and and a box of crackers. A trip to Newfoundland can serve as a healthy reminder of the difference between “need” and “want”.
Four or five homes grace Coffee Cove. We were super lucky to have secured lodging in the beautifully renovated 150 year old “Baker House“, which we thought was the perfect size for the two of us.
We spent a lot of time pondering the Baker’s sleeping arrangements when we learned they had populated this house (without the back addition) in the 1800’s with 11 of the own children plus another adopted two.
Our next door neighbors, besides Nola and Paul, the lovely , lovely owners of  the Baker House and the Coffee Cove Retreat was a mini sheep and goat farm:
and this house, which I was partial to for its choice of  lamp in the yard, a little nod to Paris:
We arrived the first week of July, the last pretty reliable week for iceberg viewing. The annual parade of ice sculptures makes its way down to Newfoundland from Greenland along what’s called “iceberg alley” the north east coast of the province. We caught a ride in the boat of  King’s Point fire chief and back country outfitter, Barry Strickland, to get a close up look at a couple bergs that had grounded nearby.
Soaring 30 feet into the air:
The bright blue stripes are veins of compacted ice, not cracks:
Barry cut the motor as we got close so we could listen up for the warning crack or boom that signaled a “calving” which meant “SCRAM!” Barry showed Dave how to run the boat in case he was thrown overboard with the ensuing tidal wave. Hmmm. I doubted very much that we’d be the ones left on board.
Finding a small berg that was  safe enough to mosey up to Barry “harvested” a chunk of the 10,000 year old compacted ice.
 You can nurse  a drink an entire evening with one very slow melting chunk.
From the boat Barry pointed out Joshua Tom’s General Store in the settlement of Rattling Brook.  He recommended a visit there to meet Dulcie, who has a gift of the gab.
You have to look carefully to appreciate the dying art form of hand-painted signage that can still been found in Newfoundland:
Dulcie, now in her 90’s, I believe, has been stocking shelves and running Joshua Tom’s (her deceased husband) store for nearly 70 years.
Dulcie is particularly proud of her supply of fabric.IMG_4307
I was most intrigued by the prevalence of Christmas supplies that can be found throughout the store.
I could not decide if this meant that the Christmas paraphernalia was the most or least sought after of her supplies.
If Canada is looking for someone who embodies  optimism, warmth, and open-mindedness, a symbol for Newfoundland’s resilience, I nominate Dulcie!
Dulcie was very excited by the unlimited minutes on her phone plan and offered to call us once we got home to see how the trip went.
The Baie Verte Peninsula is ringed with tiny outport communities. Blustery wet weather only allowed visits to a few, and we started to question the wisdom of even those few as we bumped along long dirt roads crossing paths with no other vehicles. (Our Budget rental car will not break down, right?) Luckily we were told in advance not to even think about taking a vehicle down the treacherous descent into Round Harbor (not to be confused with  Harbor Round on the northwest side of the same peninsula).
The gravel plummets to the cove and then that’s the end of roads for Round Harbor. Homes are accessed either by paths or by water.
We saw one house in Round Harbor which appeared to still be inhabited. Probably one of the Fudges, the last family in Round Harbor.
Signs of a recent fire in Round Harbor were particularly distressing to see as it is obvious that once a fire breaks out in such a forsaken outport, there’s no one who can come to help contain it. IMG_4418
I understand that Mr. Fudge was a crab fisherman. Sadly we saw crab traps in among the fire debris.
If this is possible, an even more desolate spot is to be found a couple dirt roads over: the nearly abandoned settlement of Tilt Cove. Unlike every other settlement we visited whose history was tied to fishing, Tilt Cove was a copper mining town, which in its “boom “days, had a population of 2,000. When Tilt Cove faced its second and final mine closure in 1967, all but 50 residents moved away.
We couldn’t have picked a drearier day to visit. As we traveled the last stretch of the long mud and gravel road into town we had the impression of descending into a crater.
A few barely standing houses stood at the edge of a perfectly circular and very black pond. (We later learned that this little pond used to be a beautiful but deadly brilliant turquoise from the copper slag.)
At first we saw no signs of life. But then half way around the pond we saw a flag hanging limply at one well kept home with a little shed beside it marked, “The Way We Were Museum”. Within seconds of stopping our car Margaret Collins popped out of her home to greet us.
Turns out that Margaret, besides being the town clerk and wife of the town’s mayor, is the great, great, great granddaughter of the founder of Tilt Cove, George Winsor. Most importantly, Margaret Collins is keeper of the flame of Tilt Cove. She has saved and organized every image and scrap of information on Tilt Cove.  For years she and her husband harbored hopes that Tilt Cove would rise from its ashes. She pointed to a photograph of a crowd of RV’s surrounding the town pond for a Tilt Cove Reunion about fifteen years ago. It suggested to her and her husband that folks did really want to come back. But, in truth they never did come back and one by one the town’s population has dwindled to the current population of four.
With Margaret’s wistfulness weighing heavily upon us we drove out of the Tilt Cove crater and down another long, muddy road to the slightly less abandoned settlement of Shoe Cove.
A few of the old houses with boat-only access which typify original outport dwellings still stand in Shoe Cove.
One can still see the community bread oven which sits in a tiny enclosure at the edge of the cove:
From here we clamored up the beautifully maintained and historic trail which leads to dramatic views of the cove:
Our final destination this trip: Little Bay Islands which I had read about a couple years ago in my search for Newfoundland island communities still serviced by government ferries.
 Little Bay Islands, with a year-round population of 47, has been in the midst of a contentious resettlement vote for the past couple years. I came to understand that if I wanted to visit, it had to be NOW as the town’s future is jeopardy. The most recent vote, last November, brought the percentage in favor of resettlement to 89.47%. That’s just one vote short of what’s required–a 90% vote– to approve the shut down of the town. It’s a  contentious and painful situation to be sure. The irony is how much the residents love Little Bay Islands.  And there’s much to love, first and foremost the serenity and natural beauty.
But there’s no denying it–it’s hard to make a go of it in a community that has no commerce of any kind–no stores, no gas stations–just a tiny little self serve laundromat with a jar to tuck your dollars in for the use of the washer and dryer. Oh yeah–you can throw in a couple of Loonies or Toonies for a bag a potato chips and a soda–and wait for it–iceberg chips if someone’s gone harvesting!
The fish processing plant closed a few years ago–a death knell for the island, for sure.
Well actually, there’s still one business on the island: the  incredibly wonderful accommodations where we stayed– Aunt Edna’s Boarding House:
Run by the indomitable, fun and very funny Sharlene Hinz
who turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse  when her full house of guests got stranded on the island. Sharlene dug down deep into her freezer reserves to feed us and broke out the “Screech” to loosen the table talk. To make our meal complete one of the  island’s year-round residents donated the  very last jar of pickles that she had squirreled away in her pantry. That’s the outport way–  share what you have and make do.
What got us stranded? Well first a cable broke on the ferry’s on/off ramp, grounding the ferry for a day. No problem–we had an extra day built into our schedule before our flight home . (You never know, I had said–it’s a island after all…)  Then the next day a Nor’easter whipped up. On the ferry’s first run after the cable had been replaced  she crashed into the dock tearing a hole in her hull despite this generous lineup of tire bumpers.
 Ouch! There went our extra day in our itinerary as each scheduled run of the ferry was cancelled.
As it became apparent to the entire island that the guests at Aunt Edna’s weren’t going anywhere, the island ladies extended an invitation to us to their “Circle of Friends”, the weekly sewing and gab fest. (Sorry, husbands–ladies only). We happily trotted off to the school which gets far more use from the Circle of Friends group than it does from students. (Sadly, there is currently only one student who attends Strong Academy, the Little Bay Islands school. His teacher takes the ferry each day and  arrives at school at 10 AM .)

Gloria’s first hooked rug showing a very accurate image of her Little Bay Islands home and her boat, “Chummy T’ing”. The day before the Nor’easter swept in we hopped on board “Chummy T’ing” to circumnavigate the islands under the helmsmanship of Gloria’s husband, Maurice.

 As the Circle of friends was wrapping up, Doris (in lavender, above, who, BTW, was  the donor of the  precious dinner pickles) asked if  the “foreigners” had signed the Circle log book. I didn’t blink an eye at this, but Eileen who hailed from Vancouver, whispered to me, “Well, that’s the first time I’ve been called a foreigner in my own country!” But truly, in the outport of Little Bay Islands we were all what’s know in Newfoundland as “come from aways”, which is really the same as foreigners. And having just bathed in the warmth of this wonderful Circle of Friends, we knew this was Newfoundland humor rather than a barb.
We arrived back at Aunt Edna’s  to learn that the ferry hull had been repaired but that she (yes, all boats are female in Newfoundland) couldn’t take any passengers until the inspector could get there the next morning  to witness a “dry” (??) run. Oy!
Sharlene served us the biggest breakfast in the history of B and B’s the next morning. No doubt she had a theory that calories would quell our nerves. Our window of time to get to the Gander airport was narrowing.  If they could just complete that damn dry run before 10 AM we could conceivably get to Gander for our afternoon flight. And as long as there was even a remote possibility of this, by golly, Sharlene was going to exert all her powers to make it happen. She  turned her kitchen into ground control. She got on the phone and quickly made her way  up the chain of command with the ferry authorities. I was half expecting her to dial Prime Minister Trudeau and tell him to get on down to the dock and inspect the vessel himself.
 Meanwhile the other guests, who could see the writing on the wall as clearly as we could, that we were going to miss our flights, whipped out their laptops and tablets and started putting together intricate new travel itineraries for us.IMG_4718
Our return home was complicated by the fact that Dave had intended to fly the next day to a conference in Colorado.   (Eileen, if you’re reading this: we used the itinerary you put together for us and Dave made it to the conference in Colorado with an hour to spare–Bravo!)
By the time we boarded the ferry around noon, Dave and I were resigned not only to having missed our flights but to incurring an additional cost of $1200 to book our new flights. We arrived at the Gander airport an hour after our original flight departed–no surprise there. BUT, you can imagine our delight when the nice, nice  Air Canada representative at the ticket counter said, “no charge” as he re-booked our flights to depart the next morning. When I told him I’d been quoted $1200 by the Air Canada agent on the phone he furrowed his brow and then broke into a smile, replying, “Well, that’s not the Newfoundland way!” The hole in the ferry hull wasn’t your fault, why would you have to pay for that, he asked.
In case you need any more enticements for flying in and out of the Gander airport, besides their awesome ticket counter guy, how ’bout this rush hour image of the Gander security line.
Made me understand why both the hotel clerk and the cab driver looked quizzically at us when we said we needed to arrive at the airport two hours before our international flight. “One hour in advance should be more than enough”, they counseled. Ah…ya!  I’d say that 15 minutes would be perfectly safe.
PS If  need of a little something uplifting and inspiring in your week of dreadful news stories (and who doesn’t?), click onto this link for the wonderful story of how the entire town on Gander came to the rescue stranded air travelers on 9/11/2001.

Dr. Guislain Museum

A museum whose mission is “to  question the distinction between normal and abnormal”?  You know I’ve got to write a post about that! Just the name itself, the Dr. Guislain Museum, intrigues. Never mind the fact that the guidebooks don’t mention this museum as one of the reasons one might consider visiting picturesque Ghent, Belgium. It is this unique museum that put Belgium on my itinerary a couple years ago.

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I had noticed that several of the European outsider artists I follow had work in the collection of the Dr. Guislain Museum, and curious about the museum’s name in relationship to its collection I looked it up. Turns out, not only was Dr. Guislain a real doctor, he was an early proponent of humane care for psychiatric patients. He headed up the first insane asylum in Belgium which became known later, as the Dr. Guislain Hospital.

1-28-2013 565 Following in the enlightened footsteps of the hospital’s founder, the modern day (and current) director, Dr. Rene Stockman, pursued the provocative idea of converting a large part of the hospital into a museum. At the heart of this vision was the belief that light needed to be shed onto the dark history of psychiatry in order to normalize society’s relationship to the mentally ill. Rather than hiding away the array of objects and photographs that the hospital had in its possession, the director put them on display.

 So that’s one part of the museum: the history of psychiatry. There are two other components to the museum: temporary exhibits (mainly contemporary art) that relate in some way to the theme of mental health (There was a great show up when I visited entitled “Nervous Women”, which examined  illnesses historically and culturally  linked to women, such as hysteria and anorexia). The third section of the museum–the section that drew me to Ghent in the first place– is their major collection of art made by artists with mental illness or intellectual disability.
The Dr. Guislain Museum has the largest holdings of Netherlands’s most celebrated outsider artist (one of my all time favorites): Willem Van Genk.
Van Genk, who died fairly recently, (2005) drew, painted and sculpted the subject matter he was obsessed with: urban landscapes with a particular emphasis on transportation systems, and most with references to his other obsession–Russian communism.
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At the end of his life, Van Genk turned almost exclusively to sculpture. The Dr. Guislain Museum has  installed his work as it had been set up in Van Genk’s own home:
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The raincoats, by the way, were a major part of Van Genk’s oeuvre, as is the library of books upon which his massive train station sits.
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Another extraordinary room-sized installation of the little known outsider, Hans Langner, is testament in and of itself what an unusual institution the Dr. Guislain Museum is.
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Can you think of any other venue that has given such a difficult, idiosyncratic work this amount of space and this level of respect?
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A similarly sprawling cityscape (I neglected to take a note of the artist’s name) occupies another room. Ah! a little edit here: Dutch outsider art logger extraordinaire, Henk Van Es just emailed me to identify this artist–fellow Dutchman, Bertus Jonkers. Read Henk’s very interesting post here.
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And then there’s many, many stellar works by both well known and obscure outsider artists.
Oh, I wish I had taken note of this artist’s name. If by chance you know, tell me and I’ll  gratefully add in the info.
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 Henk Van Es to the rescue again! He helped me identify the maker of this submarine: another Dutchman, Gerard van Lankveld
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 The incredibly knitted work of: Marie-Rose Lortet:
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The dense collaged figures of Simone le Carre:
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Austrian artist, August Walla:
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This gem by Adolf Wolfli:
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Well, I could go on–I probably photographed the whole collection. Hopefully I’ve enticed you enough that should you find yourself in Brussels, you’ll hop on the train for the hour-long ride to Ghent. And drink in this treasure for yourself!
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Hat’s off (er, I mean–on!) to my fabulous travel partner, and coincidentally my husband, who was thoughtful enough to wear clothing that matched this very photogenic facade.
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Should none of this interest you, I am certain, that at the very least you will find solace in Ghent chocolate (It is Belgium, after all!) served to you by this chocolatier:
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I get the sense he was put off by the leopard skin coat of this customer. I know you will not wear a similar coat–so do not worry–he will be more friendly to you.
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Not Garbage!

It’s safe to say that Forevertron (last post) will be around for a long, long while with its 300 tons of iron and steel–who on earth would want to dismantle that? Likewise Fred Smith’s Concrete Park, the Dickeyville Grotto and the Wegner Grotto are not only built in concrete they all both protected sites (more on that later), now iconic parts of the Wisconsin landscape.

But as is the case with many outsider art sites, two I visited were less securely bound to this earth and sadly no longer exist.

One of these was Tony’s Fan Fair,


tucked quietly away in Anton Flatoff‘s  yard in the town of Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. Tony started this project in the 70’s with one fan he rescued from the trash heap from the hotel where he worked. Gradually, over the next decade or two he added more and more discarded fans, around 80 in all. When we arrived at his home we were greeted by his lovely wife, Elaine, and middle-aged daughter, who informed us that Tony was home, but very ill, and we would sadly not be able to meet him. They encouraged us to poke around the yard, assuring us that Tony loved admirers.


Flying about  the fantastic Fan Fair, were several of Tony’s airplanes:IMG_3603


“When you’re done with the Fan Fair, do come in”, Elaine urged us, and so we did. After showing off Tony’s indoor work (a flotilla of beer can ships and more planes), Elaine asked us shyly if we had any interest in HER hobby.


YES! OF COURSE!, so she led us to the back of the house and flung open the door to a room jam-packed with dolls.



Elaine explained that they were her “children”. By calling them her children, Elaine was clearly signifying that they were more than just a collection. Elaine had been one of 15 (!) children herself, and growing up she had always dreamed of having a doll. Her family was too poor to buy one for her. One day shortly after she and Tony were married  elaine spotted a naked , dirty doll on the roadside which had been put out for the trash. She took it home, cleaned it up and sewed it an outfit. The next doll she bought at a yard sale with a spare quarter. And on it went. She showed us how she lovingly cared for them, , sewing clothing for each.  And then, impishly, Elaine asked if we wanted to see her most special dolls, her “mixed up” dolls, she called them. You know we said yes! And up came the skirts of a few of the gals to reveal little male genitalia. “They came like that from the factory”, she marveled. Well, it made our day. I wonder, wonder, wonder what happened to all of Elaine’s dolls, and Tony’s oeuvre–all I see on the web when I look up Tony’s Fan Fair is “non-extant”.  Sad!

The raucous yard art which both delighted and disgruntled Paul Hefti‘s neighbors in La Crosse has also disappeared. His property, once a beautiful example of the  very human impulse to create has been restored to a state of ordinariness. Sigh. So I will treasure these images I have  and share with you what got us to slam on our breaks as we were moseying through La Crosse on our way to visit Dobberstein Grotto (earlier post) in neighboring St Joseph.


Strewn across an expansive yard long was Mr. Hefti’s impressive collection of reclaimed and  reformatted detritus from our plastic, disposable world.

Here’s a couple screech-on-the-brakes pictures:




Paul, who lived to be a hundred, worked for 45 years at the La Cross Paper and Box Company. According to his obituary he was a “gifted musician who played piano, accordion, drums, the zither and the mouth organ, [and ]  was a leader of a one liter pop bottle band.” He rode a bicycle his whole life , which, like his yard,  he decorated. He enjoyed the attention that his decorations brought him. I could easily feel his friendliness and warmth sprinkled throughout the site:





I doubt there was any non-perishable trash that Mr. Hefti couldn’t have found a use for.


Adieu, Paul Hefti, you funny, nice man!




Back to Wisconsin! I took a little interlude from the series of postings I’m doing documenting a road trip I took several years ago to see Wisconsin’s many built environments, to write a post about my much more recent trip to Newfoundland. So if you’re coming in cold to the Wisconsin postings, you may want to read the introduction to this series here.

If the Dickeyville Grotto is the grand daddy of Wisconsin’s built environments, and Fred Smith’s Concrete park is the most famous of the Wisconsin outsider sites, then, Dr. Evermor’s Fovertron wins the contest as the most ambitious.  According to Wikipedia,  Forevertron is ” the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world, standing 50 ft. (15,2 m.) high and 120 ft. (36,5 m.) wide, and weighing 300 tons.”


All I knew before my visit to Forevertron was that its maker, the engineer, self-taught artist and back-to-the-future historian, Dr. Evermor, was building a launchpad and spaceship to launch himself into outer space. And I knew it was in North Freedom, Wisconsin, a speck on the map and in the middle of nowhere. It seemed an unlikely spot for such a creation, but by the time I arrived in North Freedom I’d gotten used to the idea that whackiness is spread pretty evenly across this agrarian state.  To find Forevertron, which has no address, we had been told to cross the street from the (defunct) Badger Ammunition plant and look for Delaney’s Surplus. Delaney’s was easy enough to find, but it was so nondescript I wondered if we had misunderstood the directions.   My traveling companion and I poked around the back of the long, dreary sheet metal building of Delaney’s and stepped lightly across what looked initially like an abandoned dump. There was no one around which always sets me to worrying about junkyard dogs. Then suddenly-POW! Fovertron loomed up in front of us with its soaring towers replete with rococo ornamentation, throbbing with complexity.



No longer thinking about dogs, now I started worrying about the enigmatic Dr. Evermor. Would he be a raving lunatic? Were we trespassing?  So when I spotted a little trailer at one end of the site, I screwed up my courage to knock on the door, hoping to procure permission to roam about. “Yes?” I heard from behind the door. “Come in.” And here was Dr. Evermor himself–I needn’t have worried. “Welcome to Forevertron!”


When Dr. Evermor learned we had come all the way from Boston he insisted on giving us a  personal tour. He gleefully pointed out the “Overlord Master Control Tower” (the similarity to the Houston control towers was duly noted) and the “Celestial Listening Ear” (for picking up sounds and signs of life in outer space) and the Graviton (for removing water from the time/space traveler’s body prior to launch–all essential components of the Forevertron that would eventually blast Dr. Evermor himself into outer space. He would be seated inside the glass orb surrounded by copper that sits at the pinnacle of the Forevertron.  Dr. Evermor, who plans to power his flight with electromagnetic energy, has garnered huge inspiration from his hero, Nikola  Tesla.


Everything on site is made from a most astounding array of salvaged material plucked from decaying industrial sites by Dr Evermor himself, from the period of his life when he was known by his given name, Tom Every. Tom Every began his very ambitious and specialized demolition and salvage career when he was a boy.  His junk pile  had already achieved the level of a “public nuisance” by the time he was 17. When Tom Every was reincarnated into Dr. Evermor in 1983 he sold his half of the salvage business to his partner, Delaney, and negotiated the use of the adjoining property for his new passion. Embedded within the structures of Forevertron, are such artifacts as the decontamination chamber from Apollo 11 (I saw it with my own eyes), lightning rods, transformers, and bipolar dynamos made by–hold it, hold it! Thomas Edison himself! (You better click on that link to see what a bipolar dynamo is). This is true, by the way, these dynamos were deaccessioned by the Henry Ford Museum, and Tom Every, ever on the look out for beautiful obsolescence, scooped them up for re-use.

You’d think fabricating Forevertron would be a full time pursuit, but apparently, Dr. Evermor, has ever more time and energy on his hands which he has used to fill the surrounding acreage with a veritable garden of Eden of scrap metal animals, made primarily with tools and musical instruments.

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Note the chair in the photo below to give you a feeling for the size of this insect.


It seemed our tour was winding down, but clearly Dr. Evermor was not ready to let us go.  “Come with me for dinner”, he  insisted,  and he hopped in our car and directed us to pick up his wife,  the most agreeable Lady Eleanor, to accompany us at the pub.  Over bratwurst (favorite Wisconsin dish, I think)  Dr. Evermor regaled us with his hopes and aspirations which included the take-over of the neighboring Badger ammunition plant to become a vast park and museum. He and  Lady Eleanor agreed the government should give it to him, especially as he would do all the demolition for free. (I see on Wikipedia that has not come to pass, alas). But of course the greatest aspiration was boarding his “soul transformation device” for the ultimate of journeys, at which point everyone will agree that the town of North Freedom was aptly named.



Isolation breeds, well, QUIRKINESS

Just got back from my second visit to Newfoundland, affectionately known as “The Rock”. Get out your maps. This glacially scoured island lies halfway between Boston and Greenland. It’s got a tough-luck history that would leave most people bitter or at least depressed. But Newfoundlanders are survivors. (Just a quick note to say I’m using the word Newfoundlanders in this post, because there’s chatter online that the term “Newfies“, which the people of Newfoundland call themselves is thought of by some to be a derogatory term if used by outsiders. Outsiders, by the way, are called “CFA’s” or “Come from Away” ) There’s an amazing can-do, pull yourselves up by the boot straps mentality here that’s inspiring.

The reputation that Newfoundlanders have as the friendliest people in Canada (and that’s saying something, as I think Canadians in general are pretty darn friendly) and the funniest, is well deserved. There’s beauty abounding in the great expanses of space in Newfoundland which I’ll leave to the travel writers. Instead, I’ll focus on, what else,  the quirkiness, of which there is plenty.


It’s a hard scrabble place that makes up in makes up in humor and friendliness what it has lacked in luck. And the humor shows up in all kinds of places, starting literally with geographical names.

There’s at least 5 different terms for coves and harbors, and they’re tacked onto place names in a way that make reading a map of the province sound like snippets of song lyrics: Witless Bay, Trinity Bight, Chance Cove, Conception Harbor, Random Sound. And that’s just a smidgen of the long list of curious and evocative place names. You just want to visit towns named Paradise, Blow Me Down, Joe Batt’s Arm, Spread Eagle, Come-By-Chance, Happy Adventure, and Little Heart’s Ease.

I doubt that any tourist has driven the Baccalieu Trail in eastern Newfoundland without stopping to taking their picture in front of the sign for the town of Dildo or their informative museum,the Dildo Interpretation Center.


There are deniers among the town folk that the name has any sexual connotations, but really…

Dildo is just south of the towns of Heart’s Desire, Heart’s Content, and Heart’s Delight. It’s a happy peninsula.

This lovely gal is just up the road from the Interpretation Center, and I would say she does look content:

IMG_9055    with her guy:IMG_9054 

Up the coast a stretch, on over to Fogo Island I encountered this more anxious looking duo:



And there’s plenty to be anxious about in Newfoundland. First and foremost the disastrous collapse of the Cod fisheries in the 1990’s devastated the province’s economy and threatened the heart and soul of the Newfoundland culture.  The material signs of the collapse are everywhere–a terrible, poignant beauty:


The Church above and collapsed fisherman’s shed below are side by side in the speck of a town of Clarke’s Head.     IMG_20140818_105311537_HDR

Looks like the prevailing wind blows the opposite direction in the town of Cupids:


Abandoned boarding houses in the once thriving town of Port Union, the only union -built town in North America, birthplace of the  Fisherman’s Protective Union, the first labor organization for fisherman.          IMG_20140812_092742693

There was a Pompeii feeling to this deserted home in the village of Baraneed. Wide open at every orifice:IMG_3174   The collapsed roof filling the space of the stairwell,

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The tableware staying obediently on a shelf that is one rotten floorboard away from landing in the basement:                 



Skeletons of beautifully handcrafted punts like beached whale remains:



And fishing vessels dotting the landscape yearning to be ocean-bound:


Yet amongst the collapse are beautiful signs of re-building:



This may be a small thing, but I really love all  the hand painted signs one sees along the road.

You’ve got a board, you’ve got some left over house paint, you’ve got a brush, go for it:



Elliston’s claim to fame, by the way, is as the “Root Cellar Capital of the World“. Do not even try to dispute this.

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This lovely sign for Mr. Bully’s Meat Room in Petty Harbor:


topped off with this window above: (Could this be Mr. Bully?”)


The next level up in signage: carve something that’s going to outlast anyone’s memory of what was not to be denied on “No Denial Path”:


Or give the most talented guy in town a chance to flex his or her creative muscle:



And hey, you don’t always need words to get your point across:


Here and there I encountered folks making their mark on the landscape. Az in Hibbs Cove (shown here with his wife Lorraine) who made excellent use of the tree that died in their yard:

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And up the same peninsula, in Port-de-Grave we stopped to chat with Matt who was adding a fresh coat of paint to his impressive built environment.




I did not sense one whiff of irony in this man so I don’t believe there’s a hidden message in the positioning of his cannon in relationship to the sign he made for his hometown:IMG_3302

An incredibly handy man, Matt fabricated all his own crab traps, which stacked up and stored away for the winter were a beautiful site to see:

(seen here with my artist colleague and collaborator, Antoinette Winters.IMG_3330   IMG_3329

We were so pleased when Matt invited us to tour his fishing vessel: IMG_3313         IMG_3314

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Matt hired a Twillingate artist (sorry not to have caught his name) to paint this beautiful portrait of his father and himself on the bow of his vessel:


Port-de-Grave was one of the only fully active fishing towns we saw–and it’s crabbing that’s keeping these fishermen in business.


Speaking of crab, when Antoinette and I went to the Independent Fish Harvesters to buy crab for dinner, we discovered that the minimum order was 20 lbs, a bit much for two for dinner! When we expressed disappointment, Graham said, “Wait a minute ladies” ducked into the freezer and emerged with one of the twenty pound boxes which he promptly sliced open. Turns out he was breaking into his own box that he had set aside for his family for Christmas. Our protests fell on deaf ears.

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When we took out our wallets, Graham said “You don’t owe me anything”. “What do you mean?” we asked. His reply, “This is Newfoundland. All you want is some fish for dinner. Anyone in Newfoundland would give you that. You’re not asking for twenty pounds–just a little fish for dinner, You don’t have to pay for that.”

Ok, so, didn’t I tell you at the beginning of this post, Newfoundlanders have got to be the nicest, friendliest people on earth?


And even their digitally printed signs are pretty great:


Grandview and Prairie Moon

Just a few years after the Wegner couple  (last post) began their mosaic-ed home environment, Nick Englebert began to transform his farmhouse and property in Hollandale, Wisconsin into a roadside environment. Like the Wegners he had made the trip to visit the nearby Dickeyville Grotto and it clearly lit the fire in his belly. He went home, stirred up some concrete and began coating his clapboard house.  Into this soupy surface he pushed bits of glass, shells and stones. The effect is surprisingly light and lacy.

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For anyone else this would have been a life-long project, but not for Nick Engelbert, a man of many talents and boundless energy. Prior to teaching himself to sculpt, Engelbert had been a machinist, a sailor, and engineer, a prospector and like any good Wisconsinite of the day, a farmer and cheese-maker . His house transformation was just the beginning of an astoundingly ambitious environment including figurative sculptures which cavort about his extensive property which Engelbert proudly called “Grandview“.

Unlike the Wegners, Mr. Englebert did not adopt any of the religious bent of Father Wernerus’s Grotto. Instead, he paid homage to his European immigrant neighbors, which surely must have endeared his neighbors to him.

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And for his own “portrait” he sculpted first an Austro-Hungarian eagle and then an American eagle.


Sprinkled about the environment are tell tale signs of Englebert’s love for his adopted homeland.wisconsin112

The oddly random subject matter of his sculptures and evident sense of humor made me wish that Nick Engelbert were still puttering about his yard when I made my visit. Sadly, Engelbert completed his last sculpture in 1950.


Born just five years after Nick Engelbert in 1885, Herman Rusch, too, was inspired by his visit to Father Wernerus’s Dickeyville grotto. (I assure you, if you make the trek to Dickeyville, on your plane flight home you will start formulating a plan for a yard art project of your own.) Besides the Dickeyville Grotto, Rusch had also visited  and loved the roadside attraction in neighboring Iowa known as “Little Bit of Heaven” created by B.J. Palmer which is sadly no longer in existence. Both Palmer’s and Wernerus’s environments provided  technical and aesthetic models for the do-it-yourself-er obsessive builder.     Like most good Wisconsinites at the turn of the century, Herman Rusch had been a farmer, and though he worked diligently at that endeavor for 40 years, farming just did not satisfy his hungry soul. By the time he retired from farming in the 1950’s he was hankering for something new to sink his teeth into. He found the perfect project already waiting in the wings. His whole adult life, Rusch had been quietly and obsessively amassing a huge collection of Americana–tools, antiques, and oddities from the natural world. He was determined to create a museum of curios and found a dance hall near Cochrane, Wisconsin (I notice the village of Cochrane’s website does not make even one mention of Prairie Moon–hmmm) to transform into an exhibition space.


For three years he worked on his museum which he dubbed “Prairie Moon”. When the museum (the blue building above) was complete Rusch set to work building structures to grace the grounds of the museum which he hoped would tempt passersby to stop in. Today, all that remains of Prairie Moon are these outside attractions as the museum has long since closed. Most iconic and attractive of Rusch’s structures is the gracefully arcing, mosaic-ed fence that serves as a border to his property:




In all, Rusch made 45 sculptures to surround his museum, an odd assortment including a miniature Hindu temple:  wisconsin054

an obelisk:  wisconsin051     and a dinosaur (why not?).

One cannot help but be charmed by Rusch’s sculpted self portrait onto which he wrote the following rather awkward inscription on the back: “Born in a log cabin in 1885…A lover and student of nature. Farms 40 years then sells farm to son. Always helping him in busy times and at the same time started this venture when 71 years old. And did all the work himself…A good way to kill old age boredom.”


When is a Grotto Not a Grotto?

As promised in my last post I am going to show you a few of the many wonderfully odd and audacious built environments in Wisconsin. Last post introduced Grotto builders Fathers Dobberstein and Wernerus who I think can be credited with launching Wisconsin’s curious proliferation of yard art.  There are at least five religious grottos in Wisconsin and many more in neighboring Iowa. Nearly all were masterminded and built (with lots of parishioner help) by Father Dobberstein, but it’s safe to say that Father Wernerus’s grandiose shrine in Dickeyville served as a huge inspiration for many of the subsequent Wisconsin environment builders. One of the first of the non-religious environments was built by the lovely Wegner couple. Like many other Wisconsinites (Wisconsonians?) the Wegners made a pilgrimage in the late 1920’s to the grotto shrine in Dickeyville.  By the time they left Dickeyville they were on fire with inspiration and set to work when they got home building a concrete and mosaic wall around their farm property:



By the 1940’s they had built up such an impressive environment that their property too became a tourist destination. As if proof that their yard art was germinated from their visit to Dickeyville it is called the “The Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto” even though there is no grotto anywhere in site. The closest the Wegners came to anything remotely grotto-esque would be their little chapel building so at least you know there’s a healthy dose of religiosity mixed into their artistry.



And it seems you couldn’t built a yard art environment in this era without including the requisite stars and stripes.


One of my favorite sculptures in the Wegner’s yard is their rendition of the Steamship Bremen that brought the Wegners to America in the late 1800’s. Paul Wegner apparently rigged up a little performance for the tourists, creating the illusion that the ship was sailing using mirrors (but no smoke) held and moved just so by his granddaughter.


But surely the piece de resistance at the Wegner Grotto is their final collaborative work:  a huge mosaic-ed wedding cake celebrating their 50st anniversary. Paul and Matilda Wegner lived to celebrate two more anniversaries.wisconsin025

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Why, Oh, Why Wisconsin?

For years I’ve been keeping files, clipping articles, surfing the net and tramping around the world to visit quirky environments. The appendixes of all my outsider art books have circled addresses. My global maps have post-its stuck here and there. I see patterns and odd concentrations of sites. I think I’m right about this: the highest concentration of outsider art environments in the world are to be found in France and–wait for it–Wisconsin! France and Wisconsin?? Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I ponder this and come up with theories.  It just so happens that my mother was French and I feel very connected to France. I’ve traveled many times to France and visited many fantastic oddities there. It has not helped me figure out the French penchant (or maybe it’s tolerance?) for the house project gotten out of hand. But the Wisconsin question–this really had me stumped, so several years ago I used my sabbatical to crisscross the Wisconsin map to visit almost every known odd property in this lovely, bucolic state.


Coming from New England, where there’s an unspoken but expected level of acceptable comportment and yards must be just so, I was stunned to see so much quirky creativity sprouting up here and there in a region that otherwise looks so traditional.


It was a revelation, and I do have a wee theory on the question, why Wisconsin?  Here’s what I learned: It all started with Catholic priest, Father Dobberstein who emigrated to Wisconsin from Germany in the late 1800’s. He was one wicked smart (poor choice of qualifiers for someone in the priesthood–sorry–I’m from Massachusetts, I have to use the word “wicked” whenever possible). He was fluent in six languages and was a passionate rock-hound. Now, how to pursue mineralogy and  answer the higher calling all in one fell swoop? God does work in mysterious ways; he smote Dobberstein with pneumonia which nearly killed him. Dobberstein vowed that should he recover he would build a shrine to the Virgin Mary in gratitude. He had seen grotto shrines in his homeland  and took it from there. Dobberstein threw himself into a decades long building project on the grounds of his newly assigned parish in West Bend,  Iowa. Now I have not yet seen the glorious and gigantic Grotto of Redemption in Iowa (yes, on my bucket list) , but I got a taste for Dobberstein’s obsessive workmanship and idiosyncratic aesthetic in one of his subsequent creations, the Grotto of the Holy Family in St Joseph (just outside of LaCrosse), Wisconsin where one can clearly see his geologist’s juices freely mixing with his religious (and patriotic) zeal.

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The interior of the grotto is a mosaic wonder of golden sheets of mica, pink quartz and stalactites Dobberstein whacked from the ceiling of the Carlsbad Cavern for the glory of God.


Meanwhile, in the midst of Dobberstein’s building frenzy, another priest with a remarkably similar background, German born Mathias Wernerus (who trained for the priesthood in the same seminary as Dobberstein) was assigned a parish in Dickeyville, where he too saw fit to build a grotto (gotta love the impulse to build a grotto on the open rolling land of Wisconsin) which was eventually to become Wisconsin’s most popular tourist attraction in the 1930’s.



Like Dobberstein, Wernerus had a penchant for precious minerals; the trunk above is made with petrified wood. Add to this Wernerus’s brilliant idea of incorporating Native American artifacts…oh boy…

And forget about the separation of church and state. Praise the Lord and praise America! Here’s Christopher Columbus happily residing amid the Holy Family:


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The Columbus theme carries over nicely to the anchor-adorned garden wall:

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Parishioners were asked (and apparently agreed) to contribute their labor (Wernerus used to round up the kids as Sunday school was winding down) as well as their material goods to the effort. One can spot personal items such as brooches, teacups and pots and sundry bric a brac integrated into the mosaic-ed surface.



In the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s as many as 10,000 visitors flooded the tiny town (population 250 at the time of the grotto building.) of Dickeyville on any given Sunday to ooh and ah over this marvel.  It is thus not surprising that shortly after the completion of the Dickeyville Grotto various mosaic creations began to spring up in yards across Wisconsin.

I will take you to see some of the other Wisconsin creations in subsequent posts.


I cannot end this post without mentioning the royal treatment we received everywhere as tourists to Wisconsin. This state truly lives up to its Midwest NICE reputation. The lady who ran the gift shop at the Dickeyville Grotto was so bowled over that we were visiting from Massachusetts ( I believe she said, “My Lord! MASSACHUSETTS?!?”) that she insisted that we pick out souvenirs and not pay for them! She would not take no for an answer so I came home with Dickeyville Grotto playing cards,


a Grotto refrigerator magnet and a wee little teaspoon with a microscopic grotto engraved in the bowl end. Would anyone be that nice in a New England tourist gift shop? I don’t think so. If anyone is reading this who runs a tourist gift shop here on the chilly East Coast–I’m telling you, it’s worth it–a free refrigerator magnet does wonders for a state’s reputation.