Arts & Culture » Summer Guide

A tour of bizarre outdoor art exhibits in the midwest

Check out strange open-air art along highways and byways in Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin.



If the world makes any sense, Garrison Keillor has made this joke already. The one about what happens when you leave a man too long in the midwestern outdoors, armed with nothing but a heap of refuse and a barn full of tools. What he does is, he makes a sort of monument to . . . it's not clear what, exactly. But the fruits of whatever passion inspires him grow in the region's out-of-the-way passages, appearing roadside in Wisconsin and Michigan and elsewhere. It's bold, eye-catching art—open-air, weather-ready, and not unimpressive in size—but it's probably too whimsical to be the product of pure male ego. Not for the midwest man some bland phallic stand-in.

He would rather build an "Intergalactic Space Ship," or at least that's the description attached to Dr. Evermor's Forevertron: a towering pile of old carburetors and sundry mechanical parts fashioned by a man called Tom Every, who once ran a demolition business, into something truly beautiful, spinning toward the Wisconsin sky since 1983. It's surrounded by a sprawling yard of lesser, but no less striking, creations, all fused from scrap metal: steampunk machines and giant nameless creatures, an entire "Bird Band" plucking stringed instruments. Out front of the park, a family of rusted, multicolored bug-eyed insects greets visitors driving in off U.S. Highway 12. The top of the Forevertron looks like an onion dome. It's the capsule we'll rocket away in when it's time to leave this earthly shithole behind.

But perhaps a Forevertron is beyond your needs, and you would prefer Jurustic Park, just two hours away in Marshfield, where the self-described "amateur paleontologist" Clyde Wynia claims the welded creatures on display—250-plus hulking metal dragons, bespectacled owls, gigantic tortoises, pigs with wings—were excavated from nearby McMillan Marsh, whence they disappeared during the Iron Age. ("The creatures were often harvested for their parts that were then used in farm and industrial machinery," the website explains. "Over-harvesting eventually led to extinction of many species.") Wynia's wife, Nancy, exhibits her own work—glass and fiber art—on-site, in a building called the Hobbit House.

Summer Guide 2015

In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Tom Lakenen's art park came about when the middle-aged ironworker decided to seek a hobby more personally fulfilling than beer drinking. He created the 37-acre Lakenenland, where an evergreen forest hosts Lakenen's brightly colored metal creations (a billboard-size orange-and-yellow sculpture announces them: junkyard art), which range from the fantastical—mermaids sunning themselves, bears playing hockey—to the quirkily political: an animal identified as a "Genuine North American Corporate Greed Pig" is depicted crapping on the "average American worker." There's free hot chocolate, a pavilion with a massive, ornate fireplace, and a sculpture of a bearded god warning the earth, "One more fight over there and I'm drop'in ya's." The park is located along two important North Woods byways: a state road and a snowmobile trail.

Below the Mackinac Bridge—way below—Detroit's Heidelberg Project is an art space turned civic institution, founded in 1986 by Tyree Guyton, who looked around his east-side neighborhood and saw disinvestment, blight, and the detritus of the 1967 riots. Guyton went to work with buckets of paint and found scrap, over the years remaking two blocks of Heidelberg Street into a continuous, walkable art gallery, its yards dotted with his flamboyant creations, its houses painted in flashy colors and patterns—Guyton's first act here was to polka-dot his grandfather's house. Since then the Heidelberg Project has grown into a neighborhood engine, with an aim to remake the impoverished area through a combination of arts and education, tourism, and community development initiatives.

This is all well and good if you're plotting a circle tour around Lake Michigan. But what if you're en route to, say, Nebraska? Then you make a couple-hour detour off I-80 for a stop at the bejeweled Grotto of the Redemption. It's an outlier on this list in several ways: it's in Iowa, it's not made out of actual garbage, and it's dedicated to holier pursuits than aliens and dragons. The Grotto is the creation of Father Paul Dobberstein, who took ill as a seminarian around the turn of the 20th century. Dobberstein prayed to the Virgin Mary with the promise of a shrine made of precious stone if he lived; the Virgin obligingly interceded; thus did Dobberstein find himself on the hook, spiritually speaking, for what would become this Iowa landmark, which he worked on until his death in 1954. Spanning a city block, the finished product comprises nine separate grottos, each depicting a scene in the life of Christ, and is said to contain the largest aggregation of precious gems (and minerals and shells and so on) in the world. Both tourists and pilgrims welcome.  v

Foretron Sculpture
  • Joseph Kranak / Flickr
  • Foretron

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