A preliminary report on conservation research into the rural art parks of Wisconsin

Anton Rajer, Dr. Harry Alden and Dr. John Hackney


Conservation of early 20th century outdoor mixed-media sculpture has been a challenge in the upper Midwest of the United States for the past 15 years. Many of the sculptures are located at sites known as Art Parks. Five of these major Art Parks are located in the state of Wisconsin. Created by self-taught artists, commonly referred to as “Outsiders” or “Primitives”, the Art Parks evolved over a 50 year period, between 1920-1970. Through spontaneous construction each artist began decorating the yards surrounding their rural homes. Fred Smith’s art environment called the “Wisconsin Concrete Park” grew into a rambling rural garden with over 200 life-sized sculptures. The preferred materials of these rural visionaries was wood, concrete, glass, metal, plastics, and stone. The artists worked in apparent isolation, relying upon an inner vision to guide them in their creative endeavors with themes that included religious, civil, and historical events.

Conservation efforts have been hampered by a harsh climate of cold snowy winters and hot humid summers. Biological growth, including lichen and moss plague many of the sculptures. In addition the remote rural location of the Art Parks and unusual construction materials has made site work difficult, requiring new treatment protocol procedures. Fortunately many of the sites have passed from private to public ownership facilitating preservation. Local cultural foundations and the Wisconsin Arts Board have been actively involved in funding campaigns.

Recent conservation projects have been concentrated on documenting the Art Parks, emergency repair work, preventive conservation, analysis of the sculpture and research into appropriate repair materials and methods. Some of the solutions have included removal of sculpture from the harsh environment, replacement of wooden armatures for steel, and creative landscaping to prevent wind and tree damage.

Conserving these unique, eccentric sculptures has been perplexing and continues to be a challenge. Due to their location and the unusual materials employed the conservation of these sculptures is not easy. Continued research is needed to preserve the rural Art Parks of Wisconsin.

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1995 | St. Paul | Volume 3