The Wisconsin Concrete Park is one of the nation’s most impressive and imaginative works of folk art, comparable to Watts Towers in Los Angeles and the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas. The artwork covers two acres within a sixteen-acre county park, landscaped with balsam and red pine. The sculptures created from concrete, common objects, ceramics, and glass present whimsical forms and surrealistic tableaus. Fred Smith, a native of Price County and a retired lumberjack, farmer, and tavern owner, was a self-taught artist. He claimed not to know why he created this work and was little affected by formal stylistic traditions. Between 1949 and 1963, when a stroke incapacitated him, Smith created 255 statues and plaques, many of them grouped within fifty-eight thematic arrangements, offering a personal patriotic statement and a mythic vision of his Wisconsin roots. He embedded concrete figures with glittering fragments of glass, mirrors, and entire bottles, along with such found objects as automobile taillights, electrical insulators, harnesses, animal skulls, and antlers. Most of the sculptures are life-size or larger. There are regional folk figures such as a fifteen-foot-tall Paul Bunyan (with hundreds of cone-shaped, automobile taillights adorning his jacket), historical figures including Abraham Lincoln, Sacajawea, and Kit Carson, and archetypes like lumberjacks, Indians, and farmers.
Smith’s earliest sculptures were freestanding bas-reliefs, but the three-dimensional sculptures are the most interesting. Near the entrance to the park is Chiann the Beer Drinker, based on a real cowboy. Woman and Angel is a woman arrayed in a glass-encrusted garment lifting her arms heavenward, her wings ex-tended as if in flight, signifying immortality. The tree of life at her feet represents regeneration. Near this tableau is Muskie Pulled by Horses, inspired by a tall tale of a twenty-foot muskellunge that took a team of horses to pull it out of Soo Lake. Perhaps the most amazing and ambitious sculpture, located at the park’s eastern edge, is Budweiser Clydesdale Team, composed of eight draft horses, pulling a wagon.
Because Smith cast his figures with a mold, all the painted faces are nearly identical, with large, blank eyes, long, straight noses, and small mouths. The bodies are wide, blocky, and rigid, and their arms are stiff and disproportionately thin. Yet they gain vitality from the myriad colorful materials encrusting their bodies, the glint of sunlight on glass and mirrored surfaces, and the eccentric juxtaposition of images. In 1977, the year after Smith died, a major storm damaged the fragile sculptures and flattened much of the surrounding forest, which had been a part of the sculptural environment. The Wisconsin Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Kohler Foundation acquired the property and restored the sculptures in 1978. The Kohler Foundation donated the property to Price County, which maintains it as a park and museum.