When a visionary director takes inspiration from a visionary artist

Heritage Days offers the “chance to overcome generations of mistrust and create passionate young historians who will keep history alive and relevant to our lives.”  

Driving north on highway 13, just before you get to the town of Phillips in northern Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Concrete Park is hard to miss.  More than 200 sculptures, made of concrete and studded with colored glass, depict giants, winged angels, figures of history and legend, menageries of wild and domestic animals, and various scenes of ordinary men and women in daily life. 

All of it sprang from the mind of a local lumberjack and self-taught artist, Fred Smith, who began the work soon after he retired in 1948. For people in the area, Fred’s over-sized creations might be experienced primarily as something glimpsed through the windows of a car.  That has been changing, and more children and families are visiting the park today thanks to the Friends of Fred Smith, a local nonprofit that has been finding creative ways to use Fred’s art to deepen knowledge of local history and life in the early 20th century.

Sharyn Friedell, as director of Friends of Fred Smith, wanted to turn the site into an educational and cultural facility for this region of the state where there are few such opportunities, so she looked to Fred’s work for inspiration. Born in 1886, Fred spent much of his life as a lumberjack and farmer. At the Concrete Park, his loggers fell trees with giant two-man hand saws and haul timber with horses.  His Mabel the Milker milks a cow with one hand and holds up a can of evaporated milk with the other.  What better way to engage schoolchildren and families, Friedell thought, than to connect that past with the present by exploring Fred’s vision of bygone ways of life?

As Friedell thought about how to excite school children, she sought out local historians.  The first Heritage Days event for students and the public was born of their efforts in 2012, with financial and scholarly support from the WHC.  This year the annual event again received a grant from the WHC. It is two days of craft demonstrations, folk music performances, and hands-on learning about local history, traditional folk arts and lifeways of the people who made the region home. 

For the 6th Heritage Days, thanks to a new relationship with Lac du Flambeau Elementary School and teachers Wayne Valliere and Brian Jackson, the event included demonstrations of traditional Ojibwe trapping, wild ricing, games, and music.  Friedell says

“these northcentral history networks and cultural bridges have a real chance to overcome generations of mistrust and create passionate young historians who will keep history alive and relevant to our lives.” 

As she retires this summer, Friedell says funding is a big concern.  There is much-needed restoration of the sculptures to be done – crumbling visions in concrete that we can value as works of homegrown creativity or, as Friedell knows, a terrific way to get kids to think about what is important to them about the place they live.

Untitled-2This article was first published in On Pride. Read the full issue here.

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