Wisconsin’s folk art shines, from rhinestone cottages to rusty spaceships

Once dismissed as kitschy, visionary and self-taught art is booming in the Great Lakes. Here’s why.

The “Beautiful Holy Jewel Home” is aptly named. Walls, ceilings, and furniture in this one-story structure sparkle with thousands of rhinestones, magazine scraps, and glitter—enough to make it seem as if you’ve wandered into a magical realm.

To see this lavishly embellished cottage—the vision and craft of Loy Bowlin, a self-proclaimed “original rhinestone cowboy”—don’t drive to McComb, Mississippi, where it was created. Instead, head to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and visit the Art Preserve, a massive new museum devoted to large-scale, immersive works by self-taught artists.

The dazzling dwelling is among dozens of “art environments”—a weaver’s rustic studio, a garden shed-turned-shrine—collected from around the United States and reassembled in the three-level showplace, which opened June 26 as an annex to the nearby John Michael Kohler Arts Center, a museum devoted to visionary art.

“You can create art out of almost anything,” says Sam Gappmayer, director of the Kohler Arts Center, which is located three miles away. Visionary artists are masters of remixing, often repurposing discarded materials—scrap metal, plywood, cement, or trash—into unconventional new works, including murals to the Virgin Mary cloistered in cabins or phantasmagorical gardens filled with whirligigs

To Gappmayer, visionary art is “basic human expression,” but with groundbreaking potential and thrilling capacity. Why these fantastical dreamscapes, life-sized sculptures, and unorthodox religious grottos have flourished in Wisconsin is a story as compelling as the works themselves.

Artists outside the mainstream

Folk art. Art Brut. Outsider art. Works by creatives who never went to art school go by many names, but the most accepted term today is visionary art.

“Folk art is rooted in tradition,” says Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Driven by their own reasons and world views, visionary artists follow an inner North star to re-envision and reshape a small piece of the planet.”

Visionaries, like other artists, are motivated by many things: faith, loss, their own idiosyncratic beliefs. “You have the necessity to build something for yourself, to protect yourself from the outside,” says Valérie Rousseau, a curator at New York City’s American Folk Art Museum. “It’s saying to the world, ‘Hey, I’m not like everybody.’”

There’s nothing like encountering such visionary works in the spots where they were created. In the U.S., such unschooled art has often flourished in rural, agrarian places. “Art environments in the Midwest took inspiration from Northern European immigrant culture and the visual style of religious grottos,” says Umberger. “These makers often had ample land, personal agency, and bountiful lives that allowed for pursuits beyond the workday.”

(See how this Danish artist turns trash in trolls.)

The growing popularity of the automobile in the 1920s and 1930s bolstered the concept of roadside attractions. This helped inspire ordinary people to assemble extraordinary things in the hope someone might pay a few dollars to enter or just stop in to buy a postcard.

From shrines to scrap metal spaceships

Some Wisconsin creators were moved by religion, like the Catholic priest Matthias Wernerus, who embellished a chapel and series of shrines at the Dickeyville Grotto in the early 20th century. Rocks, colored glass, seashells, and bits of costume jewelry cover the buildings and fences; images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Abraham Lincoln channel Wernerus’ dual passions for religion and patriotism. 

In the central part of the state, the Rudolph Grotto Gardens, erected by another early 20th-century priest, fills five acres with rustic, rock-framed statues of saints and angels, as well as a manmade Wonder Cave modeled on Rome’s catacombs.

Other visionaries wrote their own narratives. At Dr. Evermor’s Sculpture Park, near Baraboo, Wisconsin, scrap metal birds and robot-esque beings surround the 50-foot-tall “Forevertron,” a spaceship-like mashup of NASA decontamination tanks, lightning rods, and old generators. The park’s creator, retired salvage business owner Tom Every, claimed the Forevertron would blast him into the heavens for an encounter with God.

In the piney, northern woods of the state, dozens of larger-than-life cement statues of farmers, Indigenous Americans, horses, and wild animals peacefully cohabitate in the sylvan Fred Smith Wisconsin Concrete Park. They’re the creations of the late Fred Smith, a retired lumberjack, who built them in the mid 20th century, bedecking the figures with discarded automobile reflectors, glass bottles, and river stones. He explained his diverse ornamentation: “I just like it and could get it for nothing. I liked it together. You find things and find a use for them.”

Preserving rustic traditions

Visionary art, while once dismissed as kitschy or naive, has gained in popularity and recognition since the 1980s. Such works are now the primary focus of Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum and Chicago’s Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

The Art Preserve is the world’s first museum designed to display and conserve the visionaries’ larger built environments. That means whole houses, work studios, and sculpture gardens have been transported here and carefully reassembled. 

The $40 million facility was the brainchild of the Kohler Center’s longtime director, Ruth DeYoung Kohler II. She steered the organization toward visionary art after meeting Fred Smith and wandering among his concrete figures in the late 1960s. Kohler died in 2020, shortly before the new museum was complete.

(Learn how these industrial sites are finding new life in the Midwest.)

“A painter like Rembrandt was making individual canvases and didn’t necessarily see them as a whole,” she told the New York Times in 2009. “These artists really do. Their vision is bigger than a single piece.”

Works by a diverse cadre of artists find new homes here. They include 20th-century Nebraska sculptor Emery Blagdon’s “The Healing Machine,” a room-sized tableau of sparkling wire mobiles and wooden boxes he believed could stimulate electricity. And works by Wisconsin’s Levi Fisher Ames, who was sidelined as a carpenter by a Civil War battle injury but went on to craft a series of stacking, hand-carved wooden shadow boxes holding animals both real (giraffes, elephants) and imagined (a toothy Ring-Tailed Doodle).

These wild and wondrous works evoke a sense of amazement and offer a chance to imagine what it might be like to ride a pile of rusty metal to the heavens or to dwell in a rhinestone-walled house.

“Artists create large-scale environments intending them to be a whole experience, not one-off pieces,” says Gappmayer. “Seeing them can expand your own capacities to be creative.” 

Kristine Hansen is a Wisconsin-based writer who specializes in art and food. Follow her on Instagram.

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