Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Dementia Concretia

Prairie Moon

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.


Randal Graves said...

The Dickeyville Grotto reminds me a bit of the paintings Monet did of the cathedral at Rouen, the textures.

Creating is the essence of being human, whether 8 or 80. Well, there's all the bodily functions and sleep shtick, but that's nowhere near as romantic.

I could never imagine not creating. C'est-à-dire, get crackin'.

Pagan Sphinx said...

There is something really meaning in art that is non-negotiable monetarily.

I haven't gathered my thoughts on it but while I was reading your post and viewing the accompanying photos, I kept thinking of the Monet that sold recently for 40.9 million pounds, in contrast to the outside art you present in your post. If I ever look at that Monet again (if the filthy rich individual who bought allows it to be included in an exhibit one day), It will have lost all its specialness to me. All I will be able to do is think of how much it is worth.

Thanks for a thought-provoking art post. I loved it.


okjimm said...

Whatta Great Post! I have seen Smith's work in Phillips, and there is another related site not far from where I grew up, the Wegner Grotto.

Now, it may seem some, but it these examples of Art that make me proud, pleased to be an American.
Not going to the moon, not McDonalds, Walmart,Michael Jackson,InterState Highways,
Starbucks, Disco....none of that crap....

Thanks. You made my morning&stuff.

Kvatch said...

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?

Losing sight of the fact that, "'s the journey, not the destination, that's important"?

Happens to all of us unfortunately.

DivaJood said...

Randal, that's interesting - Monet's paintings of Rouen are indeed his most sculptural. And, you're right. I need to get crackin. Except, I do little things, all private drawings. I suppose that counts.

Pagan, years ago, in the early 1970s, the artist Sol Lewitt started making art that was financially accessible to everyone - he put instructions for wall drawings into booklets, sold them for $10 or less, and people could make their own Sol Lewitt. I love the concept.

Okjimm - I forgot the name of the Wegner Grotto - thank you! I love that place. I love the animals in the wooded area; the ocean liner is the one they travelled on to America. I love their grotto - a personal history of their lives.

Kvatch, partly true - the destination sometimes becomes more than the journey. I became paralyzed with fear when I got divorced. I painted for another two years, and then, just succumbed to crushing financial fear. Sucks, brother.

FranIAm said...

This is fascinating - what a great and unique post!

susan said...

I remember seeing the Mona Lisa hanging on a wall in the Louvre with about 500 other smallish paintings and no ropes, guards or bullet proof glass. I liked some of the other paintings better. The journey goes from heart to hand to eye to heart.. very nice post.

DivaJood said...

FranIAm, Outsider Art is art in its purest form. I love it. I think I might go to Grandma Prisbee's this weekend for a fix.

Susan, the first time I saw The Mona Lisa, I was absolutely disappointed: it was small, covered by bullet proof glass, surrounded by hordes of people - this is not the way art should be experienced.

susan said...

You're right. Once art has been consecrated by the purveyors of commerce it's essentially dead.

Steve Bates said...

Jood, take a look at The Orange Show, Houston's contribution to that sort of art, built gradually on a residential lot by retired postal worker Jeff McKissack (regrettably deceased decades ago). Once, also decades ago, our very own Houston Baroque Ensemble performed on its stage; it was quite an experience.

Border Explorer said...

How surprising to find the Dickeyville Grotto on this list. It's located very close to where I've spend the bulk of my life. While it has its moments earlier in the construction, I thought it degenerated to a lower common denominator later on(as I recall it)...incorporating broken coffee cup handles and generally kinda junky. Maybe I need to visit it again from my more mature perspective in life. Funny how stuff that looks dorky when you're young can seem more worthwhile with some experience under the belt. Thanks for the incentive to revisit the Grotto.

D.K. Raed said...

This was wonderful & unique! I like the sound of getting back into constructing things as you age. I don't like that it was labeled DEMENTIA, as if that urge is abnormal in some way.

The only one of the places you mention that I've seen is the Watts Towers. They looked smaller in person than I'd expected, but it was only a quick drive by, so maybe if I'd gotten out & walked around, they'd have felt larger.

Now as to your wondering why you stopped painting etc ... well I sense you have been storing up energy and that you are about to burst forth again. There'll be no stopping you!

DivaJood said...

Susan, it was in the 1980s when artists leapt into the realm of being "rock stars" - Julien Schnabel comes to mind immediately. Strange days.

Steve, thanks for the link to the Orange Show. Interesting site. I should go visit, really!

B.E., they did use a lot of junk - but that is part of what makes this sort of work so interesting. Nothing is without value, because it will have a personal history attached to it. Still, Wegner Grotto (thank you, okjimm) is a much more peaceful place. The biggest issue I have with Dickeyville is that it has such commercial aspects with gift shop, etc.

DK, in this sense, "dementia" refers to a compulsion rather than a loss of memory. Some of my favorite outsider artists, people like Henry Darger, worked in such secret that nobody knew until after death. Darger painted over 15000 images, creating a world where children ruled and fought against evil. Eerie, beautiful world and work.

Stella said...

What a wonderful post! When I grew up, I often visited the Watts Towers with my parents. When I was a small child, they seemed like a magical Seventh Wonder of the World.

You took me back with this one.

DivaJood said...

Stella, you should see Watts Towers now that it has been reopened and restored. Great museum next to it, incredible place to visit. I will eventually do a post about it.

disa said...

I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.