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Fred Smith, Wisconsin Concrete Park

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  • Location:

    Phillips, Wisconsin, USA (Map)

  • Status:

    Extant

  • Artist:
  • Built:

    1950 to 1964

  • Materials:

    concrete, bottles, glass, mirror, wire

About the Artist/Site

The Wisconsin Concrete Park is an outdoor museum comprised of 237 embellished concrete and mixed media sculptures built between 1948 and 1964 by Fred Smith, a retired lumberjack and self-taught artist. Installed throughout Smith’s northwoods property in Phillips, Wisconsin, the site is a historical panorama of life-size and larger-than-life tableaux depicting people, animals, and events from local, regional and national history, from local lore, and from Smith’s expansive imagination.

Fred Smith was born on September 20, 1886 to first generation German immigrants to Price County, WI. He built his house, barn, and tavern on property he homesteaded in Phillips in 1903. Smith worked in regional lumber camps from his early teens until 1948, when he retired due to severe arthritis. He had no formal schooling, and was illiterate. The scale of work in the lumber camps, struggling with large horses and huge, hand-operated logging tools, and particularly difficult in the northern winters, was popularly portrayed in the folk tales of the giant lumberjack, Paul Bunyan. These tales undoubtedly influenced Smith deeply and endowed him with a larger-than-life approach to his art.

In 1948 Fred Smith retired from the lumber camps, but that did not prevent him from embarking on a sustained and energetic 15-year retirement project. He began building bas relief plaques and sculptures in the vicinity of his tavern. As Smith evolved from building in low-relief to creating three-dimensional sculpture, his focus shifted to recording local history and ways of life that were rapidly changing. In the landscape (field? yard?) north of his home, he built a dense composition of around 25 tableaux containing over 100 human figures, animals, and objects depicting the inhabitants and ways of life in the region. Smith called his sculptural environment the Wisconsin Concrete Park. Smith’s chosen medium was concrete. He ornamented early works with painted scenes and bas-relief glass embellishments, and created high-relief decorated surfaces, using glass (bottles, flat colored pieces, insulators), auto-reflectors, mirrors, and other found objects. He made sculpture within the longstanding, formal tradition of commemorative monuments and memorials, and within a regional tradition of grotto building.

Conceived and created in his senior years, Fred Smith built the Wisconsin Concrete Park as a gift “for all the American people.” Throughout this extensive site Smith depicted history, not as a string of isolated moments, but as an elastic, organic entity in which local and national people, events, and histories were intermingled with animals, all sharing a common landscape.

Smith worked on the Concrete Park from 1948 to 1964. Towards the end, he began to work more quickly. ‘I put in so many hours, daylight to dark… I figured I didn’t have much time to do all that work…Ya gotta get the work done….’ Then in 1964 he suffered a stroke, which left him confined to a nursing home. He died on February 21, 1976.

At the time of Smith’s death, the Wisconsin Concrete Park was beginning to be recognized beyond Phillips, but the Park’s future remained uncertain. In 1976, the preservation of art environments was in its infancy. Fortuitously for the Wisconsin Concrete Park, representatives from Kohler Foundation Inc. (KFI, Kohler, WI), recognized the site’s significance, purchased the Wisconsin Concrete Park from the Smith family in 1976, and funded a restoration project. Artists Don Howlett and Sharron Quasius began restoration work in spring 1977. On July 4 that year, a tremendous wind storm swept through the area causing extensive damage to the site, but Howlett and Quasius fully restored the damaged sculptures and in 1978 the site was deeded to Price County by KFI to become a public park.

In 1995, Friends of Fred Smith, Inc. was formed to oversee the preservation of the sculptures, landscape and the historic Smith Family House, and to develop educational programs in partnership with local arts and community organizations. The site has changed dramatically since Smith’s time, but his artistic legacy is being preserved.

~Lisa Stone



SPACES Archives Holdings

2 folders: clippings, correspondence, maps, pamphlets, images.

 

Bibliography

Beardsley, John. Gardens of Revelation  Environments by Visionary Artists.  New York: Abbeville Press, 1995.

Hemphill, Herbert W. Jr., and Weissman, Julia. Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists. New York : E. P. Dutton, 1974.

Stone, Lisa. “Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park,” Raw Vision #42, Spring 2003.

Stone, Lisa, and Zanzi, Jim.  Sacred Spaces and Other Places A Guide to the Grottos and Sculptural Environments of the Upper Midwest.  Chicago: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago Press, 1993.

Stone, Lisa and Zanzi, Jim.  The Art of Fred Smith.  Phillips, WI: Friends of Fred Smith, Inc. 1992, updated 1997, 2005.

Stone, Lisa and Zanzi, Jim. Marines Raise Old Glory On Iwo Jima.  Phillips, WI: Friends of Fred Smith, Inc., 2009

Umberger, Leslie, sublime spaces & visionary worlds: built environments of vernacular artists. New York: Princeton Architectural Press; [Sheboygan, Wis.]: John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2007

—  Naives and Visionaries.  New York: E.P. Dutton, 1974. Seminal exhibition organized by Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN, featuring photo-documentation of and works from environments by self-taught artists

Related Documents

Handwritten letter to SPACES/Seymour Rosen from Bob Amft, 6/1/1989

Letter to Robert Amft from Addis M. Osborne, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum of our National Heritage, 12/21/1977

Letter to Bob Amft from Art Hackett, The Wisconsin Magazine, 12/19/1984

Pamphlet for WI concrete park

pamphlet for WI concrete park

flyer for Fred Smith’s WI Concrete Park, 2/21/1979

Letter to SPACES/Seymour Rosen from Don and Sharron Howlett, 3/3/1979

Letter to SPACES/Seymour Rosen from Lisa Stone, Friends of Fred Smith, Inc, 10/7/2002

Friends of Fred Smith Advisory Board, 2002

WI Concrete Park Conservation Project Synopsis, 8/2002

WI Concrete Park Preservation and Conservation History, 1977-2002

Membership application

Friends of Fred Smith Organizational History, 1998-2002

Friends of Fred Smith Board of Directors, 7/2002

invitation to Benefit Feast for Statue Preservation, 7/20/2012

Letter to SPACES/Jo Farb Hernandez from Lisa Stone, Friends of Fred Smith, 1/10/2007

info about Ellsworth Rock Garden

letter from Scottish Rite Masonic Museum of our National Heritage, 10/2/1978

postcard for Fred Smith’s Concrete Park

info for Robert Amft exhibition of Fred Smith environment, 6/12/1999

Letter to SPACES/Seymour Rosen from Robert Amft, 5/4/1989

Press Release for Concrete Park Celebration, 6/19/1997

bumper sticker for Fred Smith’s concrete park

postcard for Fred Smith’s Concrete Park

Reservation form for Fred Smith Benefit BBQ, 8/7/1998

flyer for 12th annual WI Concrete Park Celebration, 8/8/1998

Letter from Don and Sharron Howlett to SPACES/Seymour Rosen, 6/1/1979

Letter from Don Howlett, 3/3/1982

brief bio of Fred Smith

info about Concrete Park restoration project

minutes of Friends of Fred Smith, Inc board meeting, 8/22/2003

flyer for 21st annual WI concrete park celebration, 8/8/2009

Fred Smith sticker

brief bio of Fred Smith

Map and site information

458-464 N Lake St
Phillips, Wisconsin, United States
Latitude/Longitude: 45.693455 / -90.402771

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