"CONCRETE PARK" -
THE FOLK ART SCULPTURES
OF FRED SMITH
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.
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.
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.
Development of "Concrete Park" --
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
of Fred Smith - The not-for-profit arts organization formed to preserve the sculptures, house, and landscape of the park, and to develop the interpretive and educational aspects of this cultural treasure for the
An interesting parallel --
T. Wickham Stone Park - E.T. Wickham, a folk artist in Palmyra, Tennessee,
created a landscape full of statutes very similar in many ways to Fred Smith's. This
website, created by Wickham's grandson, has a number of photos.
You can also find more photos of Wickham's sculptures at the Wickham
Project , part of the photography website of Nashville photographer
A plug --
of my photos of Concrete Park were used as the cover art on the CD
"Long Gone", by Clothesline
Revival. It's a unique fusion of old-time and new (or post-new?) musical forms:
Clothesline Revival builds
on field recordings of traditional American music of all varieties, and adds
additional musical and vocal tracks, beats, and electronica.
You can also find more about Clothesline Revival and Long
Gone at the Paleo