Herman Rusch purchased the old Prairie Moon Dance Hall in Cochrane, Wisconsin, with the intent to stave away "old-age boredom" by turning it into a museum of oddities he'd collected. But in 1958, something in his interests shifted, and he began to make concrete and glass sculptures which included decorative arches and fences. So many "Outsider" and Naive artists begin late in life - as if they have finally shed the pressure of responsibilities and all this pent up light has to burst forth. When I first went to Prairie Moon, Rusch no longer lived on premises - he was in a nursing home nearby - and the residents refused to let people onto the grounds. If you lingered at the exterior walls too long, they would let the Dobermans out to scare you. But I recall being struck dumb by the golden cones, and the way the light danced off the glass. Prairie Moon is an exquisite example of dementia concretia, this impulse that takes over the elderly with this impulse to build, to make something iconic. And it is always from concrete, old bottles, and household junk. Detrius turned into beauty.
The Dickeyville Grotto
While most of the iconic examples are built by loners (Grandma Prisbey's Bottle Village in Simi Valley; Simon Rodia's Watts Towers), sometimes an entire community will come together. Such is the case with the Dickeyville Grotto. This exquisite Grotto was built by a community of immigrants in order to bring hope, and promise to them. Far from home, feeling uncomfortable and in unfamiliar ground, trying to assimilate, they built this ever expanding and complex religious structure from concrete, glass, and bits of pottery and religious icons they'd brought from home. It grounded them. When I saw this structure in 1983, I was overwhelmed with the intricacies of the mosaics. How could untrained eyes pull something together so beautifully? And in a group, no less. The energy of the place is oddly calming, despite how "busy" all the surfaces are.
The town of Phillips lies in the far northern reaches of Wisconsin. It is the home of Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park, out on Route 13. And this, this place, is without a doubt one of the two most impressive and moving examples of Outsider Art I've ever been to. The other one is Watts Towers.
Fred Smith was a lumberjack, who retired when he was in his 70s. That's when he began to build these statues - using chickenwire as an armature, he was more concerned with quantities than with workmanship. The entire park has been severely damaged twice by microbursts and rebuilt and restored. Fred built about 140 of these sculptures. Some are based on local people and incidents; others, like his version of the Chariot Race from the ORIGINAL, silent movie, Ben Hur, were based on popular culture. He kept building, and building, filling his acreage with objects. I can no longer find the photo I took of one grouping: it was four women, who reminded me so much of my grandmother and her three sisters - some aura about the grouping of Smith's silent women bespoke a strength of character that brooked no nonsense.
Their art matters to us. It matters to us because it is honest, without artifice, without a hidden agenda. It is the impulse that matters, the need to leave a lasting legacy. We recognize the purity of it, and, if we are blessed with eyes to see it, we recognize the beauty and grace of it as well.
I think about this work a lot - I think about it as I sit at my desk, in an office, with the air conditioner blowing and people just yammering away about nothing. I think about it because I ache to be making something myself and have not gotten back into it. The question I have danced around for the last twenty years is this: what has made me so afraid to paint and build objects that I stopped? What shut down? And how will it open up again, because it must open up. Art is in my heart, and I need to get it out into my hands again.