On our way home from the farmhouse, my mom and I drove through Phillips, WI.  For a while now I have been itching to see Fred Smith’s Concrete Park and it was right on our route home.  My mom loves roadside attractions too, so it didn’t even take that much convincing to get her to stop.

Fred Smith was a lumberjack and with two other men started the Rock Garden Taven in 1936 (which is coincidentally where my great-uncle Bill Fenzl used to drink).  Once Fred retired he managed the bar full time and started making sculptures of miners, horses, Indians, cowboys, and soldiers.  He used beer bottles from the tavern to adorn the statues, adding color and sparkle.  Throughout the park there were also placards with text.  The original paper that Smith had written on had deteriorated, but the caretakers of the park reproduced an imaged of the text exactly as it originally appeared but printed on a durable plastic.  On one side was a little paragraph about some of the sculptures and often some area history, and on the other side were images of Mr. Smith and co. taken around the park.  And usually when there was a sculptural placard there was often a nearby statue pointing to it!

I had been eager to visit this park for a really long time and it did not disappoint.  Unfortunately it was really muggy on the day we went, and it was raining a little so there were mosquitoes everywhere.  Other than the bugs, the experience was a total delight.  There’s something about folk/outsider art that is a lot more interesting to me than most stuff in museums.  Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why I love it, and I think it has to do with the truly unique vision artists like Fred Smith have.  They aren’t making art for critics or galleries, they are making art for themselves, their friends, and their community.  Sometimes folk artists are described as simple and uneducated, which might be true for some but I think that totally undervalues the contributions of unconventional artists.  I relate more to the aesthetic sensibilities of outsider art, and I find the pretensions of high art irritating.  Going to places like the Concrete Park is always super fun but I also get so many ideas for my own work (even though I know I’ll never create anything as amazing as a Concrete Park).

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