The impulse to create arises in many people who never receive formal artistic training. The work they produce is sometimes called "folk" art, or "primitive", or "visionary", or "naïve", or "outsider" art -- but there is no doubt that it is art. A notable example of this kind of art can be found on a roadside in Wisconsin, where Fred Smith created the sculptures that make up his Concrete Park.
Fred Smith was born on September 20,1886, in Ogema, in northern Wisconsin, the son of German immigrants. He became a lumberjack in his early teens, and worked as a logger and pulp cutter in local lumber camps for the next half a century. He and his wife, Alta, raised 5 children during these years.
In 1936, he and two other men, John and Albert Raskie, built the Rock Garden Tavern on Route 13 just outside of Phillips, Wisconsin, 20 miles north of Ogema. It was during the construction of that building that Smith began to become interested in sculpting.
Around 1949, Smith retired from the lumber trade and took over the operation of the Rock Garden Tavern. Over the next 15 years, Smith created over 200 sculptures which range over a 3 1/2 acre site next door to the tavern. Smith's sculptures portray characters from his everyday life and from the life of his imagination -- lumberjacks and farmers and cowboys; animals, humans and angels. There are also characters and scenes from fiction and history, the odd mélange including Paul Bunyan, Abe Lincoln, John Wayne, Sacajawea, the Statue of Liberty, Sun Yat Sen, the chariot race scene from Ben Hur, a depiction of the flag raising at Iwo Jimo, and much more.
Smith built his figures on wooden frames which he wrapped with mink wire and then covered with hand mixed cement. Many have painted details, but their notable feature is the surface decoration. The figures are studded with small items that Smith set in the concrete when it was still wet, mainly broken pieces of colored glass from bottles and automobile lights, as well as mirrors, machine parts, and other odd bits. Smith said about the decorations with which he covered his sculptures, "I just liked it, and I could get them for nothing. I liked it together. Otherwise your work is too dead."
In "The Art of Fred Smith", a profile of Smith and his work in "Sacred Spaces and Other Places" by Lisa Stone and Jim Zanzi (School of Art Institute of Chicago Press), Smith is quoted as saying, "Nobody knows why I made them, not even me. This work just comes to me naturally."
In 1964, Smith suffered a stroke and was unable to continue work on his Concrete Park. He died on February 21,1976.
Smith's statutes stand where he built them -- outside, exposed to whatever the weather brings. Ironically, after surviving through many harsh northern Wisconsin winters, it was a summer windstorm, in the 1970's not long after Smith's death, which did the most damage. The storm brought down branches and even entire trees on the wooded site, and it knocked down or otherwise damaged most of the sculptures.
The site was subsequently acquired by the Kohler Foundation of Wisconsin, which undertook a restoration project. When it was completed, the site was donated to Price County, and is now a county park. Admission is free; donations are accepted to help defray the expenses of maintaining the site and the sculptures.
Links to other websites about Fred Smith's Concrete Park--
An interesting parallel --
You can also find more photos of Wickham's sculptures at the Wickham Project , part of the photography website of Nashville photographer Clark Thomas
A plug --