All about prairie conservation efforts in Central Illinois

Feb 14, 2009

From the archive: Vernacular art resurgence helps environment

This is one of the many articles contributed by the Prairie Monk for publication in the WEFT Revue.  It appears on this blog as part of an ongoing project to archive Monk's writings and make them more accessible to the community.

Site forlorn

Some years ago, I visited a rural site near Hollandale, Wisconsin, where there was a welter of crumbling sculptural art.  Tears welled in my eyes as I photographed the remnants. I also felt a synergy for the people who were trying to save the site and restore it. Recently I returned to the site and was overjoyed to find it restored through the efforts of many people and agencies, including the Kohler Foundation, which provided a large share of the funding.

There are many sites like this across the country where the art of the "wee folk, little folk" is crumbling. We need to restore these monuments to the spirit and philosophy of the citizens who created them as a shared experience, "the good times with the bad". These sites leave a record and a focus for our contemplation and wonder.

It has been six generations since early settlers came to this country. Those settlers often started out as people with very different experiences from the ones they would later use in their new country. These people had to adapt to their new environment, and they succeeded. Their families are now established and affluent. In the process of growing, however, many relatively recent arrivals left a record of their encounter with the world at large. One of the more popular forms of expression was, and still is, the frontyard or backyard sculptural garden, which was often well laced with a sense of humor,  spirituality and a loyalty to both their past and present countries. Some people just wanted to say "thank you" for the opportunity they have had in this country. The sculptural artifacts they created, unfortunately, are all too often falling into a state of disrepair to the point where they are considered decrepit and removed. 

Public interest

There is a growing awareness about vernacular art amongst current generations that is almost demanding that these sites be saved. This interest is verified by the number of people who are studying their geneology, extended families and community's development history. The search is on, using a variety of aids ranging from traditional newspaper searches and interviews to computer network searches.

The time is ripe to save some our unique sculptural environments. This especially applies to limestone features, such as funereal art (on tombstones) vulnerable to the ravages of acid rain. It is encouraging that many people are thinking more positively about the preservation of  important sites that can easily be lost to development.

Preservation techniques

In order to preserve the vernacular we must first be aware of our local vernacular resources then we have to be prepared to spend time documenting them and increasing public awareness. To achieve these goals we have to attend and call meetings and even create public interest groups. That can be a pain, but the effort can be rewarding. It is important to realize that one public presentation,can engender a changed point of view, especially if the message falls on sympathetic ears. All too often the established tack is the traditional alternative, which is just one form of "progress", but let me assure you:  new thoughts are often more welcome than most citizens believe. 

Movers and shakers also have to develop partnerships that often have to include many agencies and interests. They also have to realize that many vernacular sites require the advice and involvement of experts. This is because most restorations call for a lot of sympathetic imagination in order to draw out the intended spirit of the site. Photographs and interviews will help. "Clean-up" campaigns usually do not, especially if more materials are lost.

The economic importance of small scale tourism

From the point of view of funding, preservationists also need to stress that the preservation and interpretation of cultural artifacts can be a source of local income. One cannot easily estimate the value of a restored pioneer cemetery over a thousand-year period, but when the grave of the donor of the county seat lies crumbling and the truss bridges and historic buildings are gone, the prospective tourist may move on to another town and with that decision goes the money that would have been spent on attendance fees, gas, food, lodgings and other opportunities.  Tourism to local sites is up, and people, including locals, enjoy visiting. Even computer specialists want to come to a region that cares about its history and its culture.

State and federal support

State and federal programs such as "Main Street", "Conservation 2000" and "Build Illinois" are aimed at natural and cultural preservation. We should take advantage of these programs which encourage a broad-based participation and continuing commitment. These programs may not provide a lot of funding, but they often do provide advice, and that is very helpful.

Site restored

The "Grandview" site near Hollandale, Wisconsin that I revisited is a typical vernacular restoration. The restoration is not perfect, and it never can be, but the spirit of the site has been captured.

The vernacular artist

Let me say a few words about vernacular artists in general and something about what we might expect of restorations like the one at the Hollandale.

Vernacular artists are untrained in art but they are often perceptive in the way they interpret the world around them. That world may be expansive, or it can be ever so small.  The dimension can even be confined to a barn where one man, for example, worked for a major part of his life twisting wire and dealing with the concept that wire allows electrical vibes to flow and that his sculpting could play a role in spiritual and bodily well health. Other vernacular artists may create interesting fencelines or roadside grottos. Many make political statements but the manner in which they make their statement, as in upper case lettering run together line after line, defines them as an artist.

Most vernacular artists have a point to make, not the least of which might be to simply to say "thank you" for the privilege of being able to come to this country and succeed. Others may have a liquor prohibition message or a spiritual statement to make. In order to extend their message it is also almost axiomatic that these artists will locate their creations where the public can see them. There is a concrete jungle of animals and people at Phillips, Wisconsin, for example,  where the artist, Fred Smith, built a tavern nearby so that people would have access to his 200 sculptured animals and people. His outdoor gallery is also located on a state highway, so one can predictably observe cars driving by, then coming to a halt and backing up.

Site history

At the "Grandview" Hollandale site, Nick Engelbert created a front-yard sculpture garden that fronts onto a highway. The locals often refer to it as the "funny farm", but that doesn't do justice to the site.  Nick's works ranged from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Paul Bunyan, to a patriotic eagle insignia, to memories of his European past. A Viking steering his vessel,  for example,  relates to the time when Nick worked in Scandinavia. A crenelated castle is representative of his familiarity with the Hapsburg dynasty. A political "team", comprised of a hilarious donkey and an equally ridiculous elephant, are hitched together and driven by Uncle Sam trying to keep the pair together. A label reads "Who would want to work with a team like this?" Nick's wife Katherine planted formal gardens around the statues, but she also sewed her seeds of mission by planting a garden which, when in full bloom, would spell out the word "Peace". The fences are orate, and the house is adorned with decorative stucco. The materials are mostly stone, glass, concrete and found objects.

One of the biggest problems with repairing vernacular sculpture, is that the amateur artist does not usually realize the importance of a properly engineered framework, or armature, and one of the first tasks of the restoration specialist is to replace, or even create, such frames.

Engelbert Kolodnick was born in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1881. He was a young man filled with curiosity. He had a wanderlust. He worked his way around Europe, Latin America and the United States. He was an engineer but he worked at many trades. He met his wife, Katherine, in Chicago. They moved to Hollandale where Katherine had relatives. He became a cheese maker and milk vendor. By this time he had changed his name to Nick Engelbert, and four children were on the way. Katherine helped maintain the family by selling farm equipment. She would walk many miles, stay overnight with her clients, and was a citizen of note in her own right. Nick and Katherine bought 20 acres of farmland on the crest of a scenic hill to provide an interesting environment for their growing family. They sported a family band and entertained. The couple did much to encourage their children, and this is born out in the subsequently  successful nature of their children's lives.

Not as a first priority, but as an interest, Nick began to sculpt and embellish the house. Many of his pieces were in a continual state of flux as Nick modified them. That is why his pieces are difficult to restore because someone has to decide which image was the last intended.

Nick and Katherine died in the early nineteen sixties. The “farm” sold, and the sculpture garden fell into disrepair. In his later years, Nick's children encouraged him to paint the story of his life, and the outcome was exciting. The paintings are primitive in style, but they have a poignancy and sense of humor that is perceptive. Some dealt humorously with his conflict with cancer and his visits to the doctor. The paintings have been donated, by the family, to the site and they are on exhibition in the family house, which is now a visitors’ center. 

Site use

I was by myself when I arrived at the restoration late one afternoon, but I was not alone, for there was a mother and a handful of children visiting. They had come from a town some distance away, at the suggestion her son, who had been there on a school visit. He wanted his mother and friends to see the site.  The farmhouse was closed but I was able to provide some details and I am sure the family will be back. One never knows, but such a visit can sometimes leave an indelible impression that turns up at other times in other places. In the Midwest that has happened with grottos, for example:  A major religious grotto, based on Lourdes, France, was built by a Father Dobberstein in West Bend, Iowa, and this grotto has been the inspiration for many other grottos dotted round the Midwest.

Community commitment

For my part I was excited to see that the 20-acre site that looks over rolling dairying country had been acquired and restored. I took 72 pictures of the objects so that I can tell the story I want to tell to you and others. Later I spent a morning reading the displays and was pleased with the efforts of those who have tried to piece together the Engelbert story from limited remnants and family photographs.

Importantly the site has been handed over to the local community which has been involved in the restoration from the start. Now the community, under the guidance of. The Pecatonica Foundation, will take the site into the future. One of their first efforts, I think, should be a book so that people can take away a piece of the Engelbrert experience with them.

Teaching support

Now I want to tell you how I got to visit the site in the first place, because it says something about the support services that are needed to encourage such a restoration. I was helping team teach a School of the Art Institute of Chicago "Artist in the Landscape" summer field course, which grew out of a combined Parkland College "Reading the Landscape" field course I was teaching, a School of the Art Institute "Cultural Architecture" field course Jim Zanzi was teaching,  and a State of Wisconsin Arts Council touring "Folk Art Exhibit," curated and promoted by Lisa Stone. The three of us would bounce off of each other and our students, who brought their own particular forms of energy and creativity. Sometimes we would include visitors and supporters of further outreach and many of whom are involved in the establishment of an "Intuitive" Museum and Association. It was Lisa Stone who took us to the site, and she and Jim Zanzi have a had a lot to do, both directly and indirectly, with the site's restoration.

The intent of the "Artist and the Landscape" course and courses like it is to introduce students to some of the rich natural and cultural heritage which often belies the so-called "flat and uninteresting" rural midwest landscape. What we expected of the student artist in return was that they first understand the situation we were introducing and then interpret that landscape in their own particular way.  Immediate feed-back was not required, although some people came up with excellent projects. We were mainly looking for an experience that would remain viable for many years and be handed down to future generations. To understand the oddfellows, one must pay attention to their history. To interpret them is a different thing. We need more such activities because they are an important venue for the discovery, interpretation and preservation of vernacular sites.

WEFT vernacular

I often wonder if WEFT could not sport its own particular form of a vernacular art program on Market Street. I am indeed thinking that we could have our own walking tour recorded on mini-disc which could be loaned-out to interested people. We could even have a living history event at WEFT-FEST which could include Mr. Eisner emerging from his grocery warehouse across the street to deliver groceries with a donkey and a wagon. At the same time Mr. Sullivan might be encouraged to emerge from his garage opposite Mike and Molly's in an early Chevrolet. Actually I think I just saw Mr. McKinley get off one of his interurban cars at the end of the street. No telling what the Klemic brothers of East Central Illinois Mafioso fame (who occupied the WEFT building) would say about all this! You thought you didn't have any vernacular history? You go by it every day!

The Prairie Monk

Anyway, listen to the Prairie Monk and Bill Saylor from 11 am to noon on Sundays and we will prod your environmental thoughts and actions.

—The WEFT Revue, Vol. 8 Issue 4: June-July 2000, p.1 & 6.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog and I LOVE IT.

I recently moved from Wisconsin. I worked on the Sid Boyum project in Madison. We dug out of the late folk artists backyard, cement sculptures, and the city helped to install them around Sid's east side neighborhood, so all could enjoy.

Are there many folk art vernacular projects in Illinois that need help, $$'s, and restoration?

kind regards,