No, the Wisconsin Concrete Park is not a park with a large empty pavement. It’s name is derived from the more than 200 concrete artworks that one can find there. The concrete sculptures were built from 1948 to 1964 by lumberjack turned artist Fred Smith. The property is owned by Smith and is located at Philips, Wisconsin. There’s no central theme uniting the artworks. It is a mixed bag of sculptures portraying people and animals as well as events from local, regional, and national history and local legends. Some sculptures have no basis in any known sources except for Smith’s wild imagination.
Born on September 20, 1886, Smith is a son of first generation German immigrants. He didn’t receive any formal schooling and is in fact illiterate. He homesteaded the Philips property in 1903 and then built a house, barn, and tavern on the land. He started working as a lumberjack during his teenage years and worked until his retirement in 1948 due to severe arthritis. What started as a simple hobby turned into a retirement project that lasted for 15 years. He started with low-relief and then graduated to creating three dimensional objects. The shift allowed him to focus on depicting the people and the ways of life in the region. Smith’s art was heavily influenced by the story of the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan. The influence also explains Smith’s larger-than-life approach to art.
Smith was the one who names the place Wisconsin Concrete Park. Obviously, Smith is comfortable with using concrete as his medium. Some of his early works are mixed media creations that consists of concrete embellished with found objects such as glass, mirrors, auto reflectors, etc. His sculptures where in the style of old monuments that depict heroes and their heroic deeds. According to Smith, the park was his gift to the American people. What’s amazing about Smith’s creation is that though they don’t have a central theme, they mix with each other very well. Hence you see historical figures mingling with animals and characters from fictional work yet for some reason they feel like they belong to the same universe. Not a single artwork in the whole area looks out-of-place.
Based on accounts, the park is unfinished. Even though Smith tried to work faster in his latter years he was still unable to complete his masterpiece and life’s work. He suffered a stroke in 1964 which left him unable to continue working. He moved to a nursing home and stayed there until his death on February 21, 1976. After Smith died, the Wisconsin Concrete Park started to get attention even from people who lived outside of Philips. Kohler Foundation inc. bought the park from the Smith family on the same year that Fred Smith died. The company restored the park with artists Don Howlett and Sharron Quasius heading the project. The park was heavily damaged on July 4, 1977. Howlett and Quasius, however, was able to fully restore all of the artworks. In 1978, the park ownership was transferred to the local government so it can become a public park.