Walking With Regina #2

The Historical Importance of the Present

Minnesota Vernacular Visual Expressions 1988-1994: Storefronts, Signage, Yard Art

I transplanted from Madison, Wisconsin to Saint Paul, Minnesota in the middle of a frigid February in 1988. I loaded my brand-new Honda Civic hatchback to the roof and drove 250 miles northwest on Interstate 90-94, landing at a three-story apartment building on Summit Avenue with tall white pillars next to a brownstone where F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived. I had been hired away from the Wisconsin Arts Board by the Minnesota State Arts Board to run their Art in Public Places program. The office was just down the street in the old Burbank-Livingston-Griggs home, a grand but tired Italianate mansion in the care of the Historical Society.

I worked there with the finest group of people of my career. Committed to art and artists, ethically aware, intellectually curious and striving, they were also fun to be around. Office rituals included celebrating everyone’s birthday, and with a staff of 17, that meant several celebrations each month.

The most rewarding part of my tenure was traveling around the state to wherever the state was constructing a building with one-percent for public art - state offices for departments of transportation or natural resources, state parks, universities and technical colleges (before and after the systems merged), military installations and even correctional facilities as well as major projects like the Minnesota History Center and Judicial Center in Saint Paul. I got to know communities and their residents in Greater Minnesota from Lake Bronson (population 202 in the far northwest corner of the state where our evening meetings were usually pot-lucks offering opportunities for both business and socializing) to Winona; Ely and Duluth to Worthington; and places in between.

In ten years, I learned more about the state’s people, towns and varied landscapes than many who have grown up here. I saw places with fresh eyes and frequently carried my Hasselblad camera, drawn to photograph the vernacular visual expressions that made places unique and memorable – idiosyncratic individual visions like yard art or holiday displays, visually arresting local business signage and storefronts, some in still-lively downtowns and others, far out in the countryside. (Local artists usually alerted me to the more remote examples, annotating my dog-eared copy of the Minnesota DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer.)

Aubin’s Photo, Hibbing, Minnesota, 1990. A good way to get to know a community was to check out the window display of the town’s photography studio. After 102 years in business, Aubin’s closed in 2009.

For several years in the early 1990s, I photographed the Wadena County Fair in a rural agricultural area that reminded me of where I grew up in Wisconsin. While working on the public art project for Wadena’s technical college in this town of 4,000 in Central Minnesota, I noticed the community’s beautifully kept fairgrounds shaded by mature trees. I returned on my own that summer and several after to stay at the Brookside Motel, hang out, and explore the 4-H, floral and creative craft displays. I was interested in things made by hand and learned the area was known for the quality of its canning, especially pickles.

I exhibited photographs from the fair and other locations in a pair of solo shows about vernacular visual expressions: “You Can Always See the Obvious” (1995) at Mankato State University’s Conkling Gallery and “Let Us Show You the Unusual” (1996) at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, just up Highway 10 from Wadena. The statement I wrote to accompany the show recognizes the tradition of documentary photography, particularly the work of Walker Evans whose images of American life in the 1930s-40s made me aware of the historical importance of the present and what might be passing into history before our eyes.

Scandinavian Mannequin, Jefferson Street, Wadena, Minnesota. May 1990. After the work day, especially in summer when it was light outdoors until around 9 pm, I would walk around town and photograph during this quiet part of the day. I parked my prominently marked state-owned vehicle at a distance otherwise my photographic activity had a tendency to arouse suspicion. I was once mistaken for a state inspector; we had a laugh when I said that I was an arts administrator.

Take A Ride on Sandy, Woolworth’s Store Window, Wadena, Minnesota. May 1990.

In September 1998, I left my post at the Arts Board, returning to graduate school to study landscape architecture, advancing one of my strategies for moving here in the first place – to attend the University of Minnesota, which has landscape architecture, architecture and urban design, and planning programs on the Twin Cities campuses. I subsequently became a licensed landscape architect, and photography continues to be my artistic medium.

In June 2010, an EF4 tornado ripped through Wadena leveling the fairground and its majestic trees, destroying the high school, and damaging a good portion of the new technical college building. Many of the locations shown in my photographs no longer exist; they have passed into history. Buildings have been destroyed or torn down and replaced, businesses closed, and events like the annual Emma Krumbee’s Scarecrow Festival continue but in successive years, the results became too predictable for me to find visually interesting.

My photographs depict a snapshot in time – 1988-1994 – before the existence of Facebook and Instagram and the awareness that almost everything is photographable and shareable. Now different conventions prevail and the kind of originality and idiosyncrasy in these vernacular visual expressions are increasingly rare.

Chun Moo Quan, University Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota, March 1989. Martial arts practitioner executes a high-kick over the reflection of the Wards store tower across the street (torn down and replaced by shopping mall including a Herbergers store, recently closed, T.J. Maxx and Cub Foods).

Automotive Repair Service, Downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. July 1988. Hand-lettered signage on one-block-square garage that was torn down and replaced by the Saint Thomas University campus.

Automotive Repair Service, Downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. July 1988. IDS building and the Norwest Tower (now the Wells Fargo Center) reflected in the window.

Fort Road Clark Station, Saint Paul, Minnesota. June 1998. Fort Road is now known as W. 7th Street and this Clark station doesn’t exist.

Fort Road Clark Station, Saint Paul, Minnesota. June 1998

Willy Street Appliance, Madison, Wisconsin. June 1988. This one is in Wisconsin, but it’s too good to leave out.

Miesville Mudhens Field, Minnesota. March 1989. Rural ballpark at the edge of a cornfield known as “Minnesota’s Field of Dreams” before being spruced up for the season. Several years later, my husband Dan and I celebrated our wedding anniversary with a Sunday prime rib dinner at Weiderholt’s Supper Club which has been family-owed for 87 years. I mentioned the special occasion to the wait staff and they surprised us with the gift of a decorated round 9-inch chocolate cake. A WHOLE CHOCOLATE CAKE!

Kowalski’s Red Owl, Grand Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota. March 1989. Last great neon Red Owl sign just before it was de-commissioned. Kowalski’s is in the same location, extensively remodeled.

Cozy Theater, Wadena, Minnesota. May 1990. Art Deco theater in a town of 4,000. Built in 1914 with the neon marquee added in 1938; in continuous operation since.

True Value Hardware, University Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota. February 1989. Faded, painterly signage near hardware store at southwest corner of University and Lexington Avenue, now razed and replaced by the Wilder Foundation complex, Aldi supermarket and White Castle.

True Value Hardware, University Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota. February 1989. Hand-painted billboard.

Paul Bunyan Land, Brainerd, Minnesota. August 1989. Amusement park next to the Paul Bunyan Motel that also included a colossal Paul Bunyan automaton that frightened children by recognizing them by name in a booming voice as they approached. This chicken is eyeing a food trough in line of sight with the coin drop; when I put in a quarter, the chicken pulls a lever that simultaneously releases food... and a postcard.

Emma Krumbee’s Scarecrow Festival, Belle Plaine, Minnesota. October 1993. An evocative sculptural creation.

Front Yard Art, Rural Wadena, Minnesota, July 1992. This pair of images is from an ensemble of weird figures that are open to interpretation…

Front Yard Art, Rural Wadena, Minnesota, July 1992.

Coffee Cup, Vining, Minnesota, June 1996. Metalworker Ken Nyberg applies his curiosity and wit to producing welded scrap metal sculptures that have put tiny Vining, Minnesota (population 78) on the map. His creations grace Nyberg Sculpture Park on Highway 10 and are featured on the website Roadside America.com. Coffee Cup is one of his early works and routinely appeared in local parades.

Aurora Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota. January 1990. Series of modest homes in the Frogtown neighborhood illuminated by Christmas lights still in their display boxes; an efficient method for seasonal decorating!

Aurora Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota. January 1990.

Travel Log #4

Last weekend, I attended the opening for a show of new work by Judy Onofrio, part of a two-woman exhibition Accumulation, New Work, Monica Rudquist and Judy Onofrio at St. Catherine University Gallery, Saint Paul, Minnesota on display through March 30, 2019.

I became acquainted with Judy’s work through her jaw-dropping 1993 solo show entitled “Judyland” in the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program galleries. Judy adapted the environment she had created in her home and backyard in Rochester, Minnesota, transforming the galleries into a sparkling, joyful place. The show was so popular, it was held over for several weeks. Her work was intriguing and I asked if I could visit to photograph her gardens - and our friendship began. By chance, the period captured in my photos 1995-2004 turned out to be a critical time in her career.

Here are my photographs of Judy’s gardens accompanied by images of her sculptural work created during that period and the contemporaneous remarks of art curators, historians, writers and friends who have followed Judy’s work for years and write affectionately about it – and by Judy’s own words.

Judyland - Garden of Grit & Glamour

Photographs: Judyland July 16, 1995 - Summer

Laurel Reuter, Director, North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks:
”Judy Onofrio is an artist of uncommon spirit, one who seems to live on the edge of the primordial garden, the facsimile of which exists outside her studio window, spread across the hillside, overrun, luxuriant, home to frogs and snakes and raccoons, to arches and pillars and graves for family pets. She calls it Judyland. The gardener is her beloved husband, Burton. Their long and fruitful marriage surmounts modern statistics and hazards. Judy, the magician artist, twines the family, the gardens, and the home into a living work of art – and all the while, she toils away in her studio, with her own hands making something from seemingly nothing.

A series of private outdoor rooms connected by meandering paths form the structure of Judyland. One enters through a “Welcome” archway, its columns adorned with bowling balls. As the garden spreads up the hillside, paths turn into steps cast of concrete and inlaid with tiles, ball point pens, marbles, horse shoes, and so on. Different artist friends have created works for specific sites.

Welcome arch entrance to Judyland

Certain motifs reappear throughout Judyland. Among them is a collection of bowling balls that float in the air on mounts fabricated from lamp bases and truck springs, or on upside down trees whose upward reaching roots cradle the balls. Onofrio’s cast concrete columns embedded with mosaic visually dominate the garden.

Judyland goes on and on offering up to the visitor an endless succession of the weird and wonderful: whirligigs, a statue of David, John Riese’s large quirky birds of logs and welded materials, collections of rocks, odd parts of clay sculptures left over from Onofrio’s years as a ceramist; and a profusion of flowers over the banks of the hillside. Judyland is an informal work in progress.”

Yard Art, 1998. Judy Onofrio, 2005 McKnight Distinguished Artist, Minneapolis (monograph).

Robert Silberman, Curator, Historian and Critic:
Onofrio identified with her great-aunt Trude who painted on trays and furniture and had a garden filled with wonders. Onofrio had always loved the visionaries who created large-scale, often madcap works from Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles to Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Georgia to Gaudi’s Parque Guell in Barcelona with its magnificent undulating benches covered with china bits and pieces.

She sought out Midwestern examples, such as the Grotto of the Blessed Virgin in Dickeyville, Wisconsin a fantastic display of assemblage. Over time, on the hillside behind the house on a quiet street that she shares with her husband, Burt (a retired neurosurgeon from the Mayo Clinic), Onofrio has created her own version, Judyland, a continuing work in progress. It combines grottoes, sculptural pieces and other delights featuring a dizzying range of materials from barn-roof ventilator covers to tractor seats, from horseshoes to glass telephone insulators.

The decisive moment for Onofrio’s art came in 1989 when she found herself flat on her back after surgery. She started making brooches, collage pieces that included elements such as the charms she had been collecting as far back as junior high school. The brooches led to small shrines, where the brooches could be shown to advantage, and then things… got bigger. Before she knew it, Onofrio had fashioned a full-scale installation entitled Judyland, like the hillside garden, and first presented at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1993.

When Onofrio realized that she had found a way to bring her collecting and her love of naïve and visionary art into her own work, she knew that she had arrived: “I was really excited – I felt like I was in Aunt Trude’s garden.”

Photographs: Judyland October 12, 1996 - Fall

Judy Onofrio:
”I am a self-taught artist. Throughout my life, my artistic interests have ranged from the formal to the naïve to the outrageous. In childhood, my role model was my great-aunt Trude, a lovable and eccentric outsider artist who worked beyond the confines of the mainstream art world. Aunt Trude followed a personal vision that drove her to make art until she died at the age of 90. It was her influence that launched my lifetime search for grottoes, visionary environments, and contemporary artists whose personal visions clearly stand apart.

The joy I derive from making art complements my love for collecting an odd assortment of curios that provoke strong memories. I have a lifelong obsession with frequenting garage sales, flea markets, and auctions within a hundred-mile radius. This has led to a stockpile of materials for my work: buttons, glass jewels, beads, vintage jewelry, shells, glass fruits, mirrors, ceramic tiles, and many figurative objects.

My process of working is additive. I start with a narrative often based on events that happen in my everyday life. I carve people, birds, fish, dogs, carrots, flowers – a whole world from basswood. Often, I use a vintage found object as a model, changing its proportion or meaning as I carve a version of it. These objects, with their rich trove of memory images, reference the passage of time and its effect on what we remember. Aside from the extravagance of color, surface ornamentation, and my ever-present sense of humor, each work tells a story of utopian wishes and dreams, a saga of seduction, duality and temptation.

Anything You Want, 1998. Photo: Gus Gustafson.

Although I’ve been acquiring objects, images and ideas all my life, it seems only recently has everything – my art, environment and life – come together and merged into a wonderful oneness.”

Judy’s Pink Squirrel Hotel, sculpture by John Riese

Laurel Reuter: “Underpinning the artist’s personal story acted out within the setting of the circus (in the exhibition Come One, Come All) is her search for physical health and mobility. Having struggled with lupus much of her adult life, her health issues were compounded by a near-fatal care accident in 2000. The artist became mostly wheel-chair bound for the next few years – and she dreamed of the circus. But she never stopped working in her studio. “ I thought about balance, about acrobats flying through the air in total freedom. I imagined Madame Twisto (2002) a circus woman with her legs twisted together like a Dairy Queen.” In Onofrio’s sculpture she is transformed into a glamorous woman, ensconced under an arch reminiscent of Bernini’s canopy for the papal altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Four equally gorgeous miniature women hold court at her feet. According to the artist, “Madame Twisto is a sideshow as well as a portrait of my own physical vulnerability. The circus became a metaphor for my healing.”

Madame Twisto, 2002. Photo: Gus Gustafson.

Ring of Fire (2000) evolved as a work about balance. According to the artist, “This monument is a sideshow under the Big Top and is, in fact, the most difficult trick of all. The balancing act between a woman and a seal is one of the hardest acts to perform. Defying both fear and danger; the woman balances on top of the seal, trusting her safety to the animal.” As in Madame Twisto, the pair are supported by four standing women who mirror the balancing woman. Like a chorus, they provide the foundation, setting the stage for freedom, danger, trust, glamour, and seduction.”

Ring of Fire, 2000. Photo: Gus Gustafson.

Photographs: Judyland April 26, 2004 -Spring

Hattie Bremseth, Owner, Hattie’s Antiques and Junque, Grand Meadow, Minnesota:
”Until I met Judy, my work, as I considered it, was being dealer and collector of antiques and junk gathered from all sources – including flea markets, auctions, and private homes – and placing it in my shops. Golly, little did I know that the stuff I sold her by the ton was soon to be the makings of Art. When she invited me to the Judyland show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I said, “I won’t know anyone there.” Judy egged me on, I bought a pink suit, and when I showed up at the opening, I knew a lot of people. All those whom Judy had brought to my shop for years made me feel like I owned an art-supply house, not an antiques and junk shop. When Judy showed me her recent show catalog, it was so much fun – I studied every picture to try to identify all the materials I remembered.”

Sherry Leedy, Director, Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri:
”I first met Judy Onofrio over twenty years ago at the University of Northern Iowa where she had just given a talk and slide show. I knew immediately that this was a woman I wanted to know. From that initial meeting, we’ve gone on to create a personal friendship that has survived a myriad of life’s difficult and joyous situations, often simultaneously. What I felt initially has since proved true: Judy Onofrio is an artist and person of originality and integrity, generosity and commitment, grit and glamour.

My gallery in Kansas City had shown her sculpture for the past 20 years. (In 2005), Judy and I worked together to organize and curate a traveling exhibition that spans the last decade. Entitled “Come One, Come All”… the show puts into context the monumental work… and illuminates the gradual transformation from the density and complexity of the sculpture of the 1990s to the clarity and elegance of the most recent work. As always, Judy’s sculpture seduces viewers to come closer. And when they do, the reward is always greater.”

Patricia McDonnell, Chief Curator, Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington:
”Onofrio’s art celebrates strong women, defiant actions, underdogs, odd ducklings, even misfits who exude a proud braggadocio. It also, wisely, imparts a resonant humanity and acknowledges human vulnerability and foibles – the delicate balance of personal relationships, precariousness of good health, whimsy of good fortune, inevitable human blunders and faux pas.”

Bye, Bye, Birdie, 2003. Photo: Gus Gustafson. This work has a particular resonance for me; the sparkly brooch belonged to my mother, Hazel Flanagan. After she passed away, I shared her cache of costume jewelry with Judy and this piece found its way into a sculpture.

All work above from the monograph Come One, Come All. Photos: Gus Gustafson.

I consider myself extremely lucky. Every day, I have the opportunity to construct a world of memory, humor, and stories through my work in the studio. Best of all, I live in that world and invite others in. There is nothing I would rather do and no place than I would rather be. My life and art are best when on a continuous roll, including everything I desire – love, happiness, good friends, success and working concrete mixer. Judy Onofrio

Burton Onofrio tended the hillside garden and often contributed sculptures including one memorializing their beloved cat

Fifteen years have passed since I visited to photograph Judyland on that spring day in 2004 when the sculptures stood in the bright sunlight against a field of blooming Mertensia virginiana (Virginia bluebells) carpeting the hillside.

In 2008, Judy found a new direction. She began to collect bleached animal bones, assembling them into elaborate organic sculptural works. Many of the overall shapes and forms are familiar from the garden experiments and her previous work, but this monochromatic work has a gravity very different from the playful, colorful earlier pieces. No less complex and obsessive in execution, figuration and narrative have been left behind in works that are more subjective, and open to interpretation by the viewer. I find them somber, elegant and very moving.

Judy presented this body of work in a major retrospective exhibition at the Rochester Art Center, Rochester, Minnesota in 2016 entitled “Unearth.” The show featured more than 80 works, presented on two floors and in four galleries.

Megan Johnston, Executive Director, Rochester Art Center:
”Since the 1980s, bones have occupied space in her studio and her psyche. As early as 2008, Onofrio began to integrate bone and teeth into her sculpture, focusing on it as a material. By 2009, Onofrio’s work contained bone and flowers – an interesting and complicated combination. Still symbolic, fruit and other objects found their way into the self-referential work. But the sculptures eventually became quietly monochromatic.

That Peach is Pretty Nice, Too, 2008. A transitional work with all of Onofrio’s signature elements but introducing bones that hold their own in this tableau.

This new work emphasized Onofrio’s life-long interest in form and materiality. Unearth is an exhibition about the spiritual idea of digging, finding, uncovering, and revealing the beauty of both life and death through earth and bone. Onofrio’s work embodies a transcendence of spirit. The sculptures seem to float between worlds – both physically and spiritually.”

There is an intensity of emotion and concentrated intricacy. Look deeply at Orchid, 2014 (above) for example and you will find yourself overwhelmed with the sublime, emotive reflection in the work. - Megan Johnston

Garth Johnson, Essayist:
“In the modern Western world, we have come to consider death as a boundary. In many other cultures it is not – it is conceived simply has a transition, and a dialogue between the living and dead forms a meaningful part of social discourse.

The use of bone as a material in her [Onofrio’s] work coincides with a struggle with cancer. [She says] “In this work, I’m talking about mortality. I’m talking about the celebration of life – two very opposite things.”

The bones become a metaphor for memory. As an artist who has always balanced intellect and intuition, she knew that both as objects and metaphors, bones held a special power. In recognition of the bones’ primal power, she purged every element that detracted from that power. Colors became more muted and gradually fell away. Beads and found objects disappeared, too. Scale, ambition and Onofrio’s fierce attention to form and materiality remained… She allows the bones to speak for themselves, improvising relationships and building structures.

Her bone sculptures in particular can be linked to Victorian mourning culture, with its emphasis on objects linked to the deceased. From the 1870s onward, it was thought that memories could migrate from the mind and attach themselves to objects. It was believed that objects hold memories, passing them from one person to another… Morbid associations are swept away as the viewer is caught up in the artist’s own curiosity.

Traditional views of material hold that material is inert, and is only activated through human agency. An understanding of materiality leads us to understand that material can have a life of its own, call for collaboration with an artist. Onofrio’s process gives agency to materials. In the studio, she begins with an object, slowly and methodically adding others until a tension, or vibration emerges. Her studio is filled with many pieces that take months – even years to complete. While audacious large-scale works that require elaborate planning take shape, smaller improvisational pieces fill in the gaps.”

The current exhibition at St. Catherine’s University Gallery features a roomful of monochromatic, ivory-hued bleached-bone works that seem to glow from within. It is a beautiful installation with wall pieces, assemblages displayed on transparent Plexiglas cubes that make them appear to hover in mid-air, and a large, grounded vase-shaped work holding center stage. Illumination highlights the organic, sensual qualities of the bones and shadows play on the floor and walls.

Janet Koplos: “Bones… are another material with symbolic overtones. Onofrio assembles them into non-body forms… a vast shift to greater abstraction and more explicit identity. With her use of bones, which began in 2008, Onofrio strikingly abandoned the intense color of the figurative pieces, although pale, atmospheric color remains. Bones make systems of organization in nature, and in her works they are both architectural and ornamental. They can also evoke looking into a microscope, seeing teeming elements yet finding order… Onofrio’s work recognizes the fragmented nature of the world whirling chaotically around us and to pull it into resolved and reassuring forms.”


Judy Onofrio, 2005 McKnight Distinguished Artist, McKnight Foundation, Minneapolis (monograph). Judy Tells All; the artist’s own words and testimonials by peers and friends including Hattie Bremseth.

Koplos, Janet. Resolved and Reassuring Forms in a Chaotic World. Essay accompanying current exhibition Accumulation, New Work by Monica Rudquist and Judy Onofrio, February 9 – March 30, 2019, St. Catherine University Gallery, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Leedy, Sherry. “Notes of a Co-Conspirator.” Judy Onofrio, 2005 McKnight Distinguished Artist, McKnight Foundation, Minneapolis (monograph) and Introduction in Judy Onofrio, Come One, Come All. Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, Sedalia, Missouri, 2005.

Reuter, Laurel. Judyland, The Art of Judy Onofrio. North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks, North Dakota, 1993. (Catalog for exhibition that also visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Laumeier Sculpture Park and Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri, 1993-1995.)

Reuter, Laurel. Judy Onofrio, Come One, Come All. Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, Sedalia, Missouri, 2005. Essay “In Pursuit of Joy: The Art of Judy Onofrio.” (Catalog for exhibition that also traveled to the Arkansas Art Center and the Rochester Art Center, 2005-2006.)

Silberman, Robert. Minneapolis: Judy Onofrio at the MIA. Art in America, April 1994.

Silberman, Robert. The Stuff of Art, Judy Onofrio. American Craft, June/July 1996. Vol. 56/ No.3, pp. 40-43, 64.

Unearth | Judy Onofrio. The Rochester Art Center, Rochester, Minnesota. 2016. Catalog of solo exhibition with foreward and essay “Materiality, Texture and Form: A Lived Practice in the Work of Judy Onofrio” by Megan Johnston and essay “Unearthing Materiality and Meaning in the Work of Judy Onofrio” by Garth Johnson.

In 2018, Minnesota Public Television’s MN Original series followed Judy on a hunt for bones in a video Judy Onofrio Sculptor

Travel Log #3

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, I photographed gardens designed by artists, outdoor folk art environments around Wisconsin and Minnesota and odd random yard art displays that I collectively termed “vernacular visual expressions.” This story, written in 1998 about the magical gardens of Riana de Raad in western Wisconsin was never published, but it’s worth telling. I hope you find viewing these images of her gardens, made over the course of several summers almost twenty years ago and now a memory, a welcome antidote to the darkest days of winter.

Once Upon a Time: The Universe of Wouterina de Raad’s Gardens

The blue and yellow polka-dot mail box along a country back road near Beldenville, Wisconsin, signals that you have reached Wouterina’s de Raad’s farm. As you turn into the driveway and approach the house, the life-size statue of Millie, a farmer’s wife fashioned of concrete covered with mosaic greets you. She looks out over the rolling hills and fields and carries a basket, bringing food to the farmhands. The basket is also a birdfeeder and Millie has an opening for a birdhouse where her heart should be.

Wouterina, or Riana as she is known, made Millie, her first statue when she moved to the farm. She chose this home on a hill overlooking farm fields because she found this place peaceful and comforting. The gardens and statues she has created make this humble homestead a unique and magical place.

August 14, 1999

The farmhouse is situated in a grove of trees that separate it from the barn and the open fields and the gardens are arranged in a series of “rooms” around it. Several other buildings edge the gardens including a studio workshop built of 300-year-old hand hewn timbers recycled from an early log home, a coop housing chickens with beautiful plumage, and a small guest house.

August 14, 2004

Riana’s gardens feature an encyclopedic array of native and ornamental plants with unexpected juxtapositions of color, form and texture. Her sophisticated color sense combines plants like maroon hollyhocks, pink lavatera, ‘Purple Queen’ salvia, and Asiatic lilies in a clear bright orange and deep red in a single bed. Statues punctuate the beds, and other times, the beds are composed around the statues.

August 14, 2004

July 10, 1996

Riana, a slight, wiry, vivacious woman has calloused hands that show acquaintance with the physical labor of building statues and planting and maintaining gardens. I spoke with her in the kitchen of the 100-year-old farmhouse as she cut up a large root of black cohosh to make a medicinal tincture.

She came to Beldenville from halfway around the world. Raised in the Dutch East Indies and the Netherlands, Riana came to study fiber art with Walter Nottingham at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Her father ran a coffee and rubber plantation in the tropics and at age ten, Riana was sent back to the Netherlands for schooling. Her mother maintained a large garden in the tropics, and later in the Netherlands. Riana’s love of gardening began with the exotic plants of the East Indies and continued in the Netherlands where everyone gardens because the weather is so hospitable.

Riana’s early artworks were sculptural environments in boxes that bore a resemblance to folk art tableaus, often containing scenes relating to memories or made-up stories. She sees the gardens as just bigger environments.

The Clothesline People, July 10, 1996

Near a bed of tall flowers beside the driveway are The Clothesline People. Stalwart Gary sports a red-white-and-blue outfit and bears up one end of a wash line in his outstretched arms. He is named after a real person: a large, strong local farmer who has the habit of working in bare feet. Opposite Gary are a female figure leaning backwards, struggling to hold up the other end of the wash line, a child assisting her. These poly-chromed figures embedded with mosaic, represent Riana and her granddaughter, Madeline. Marbles that look like luminous soap bubbles adorn Madeline’s dress and she sports a lid from a ceramic casserole dish for a hat. Recently, a concrete bird was added, perched above their heads on the t-shaped crossbar of the wash line. Madeline and Riana are arguing with the bird because it sits in the tree above and poops on the clothes.

Many of Riana’s statues serve multiple functions, providing homes for birds and animals or seating for viewing the garden and the surrounding rural landscape. On the other side of the fence from the clothesline is the Alligator Bench. According to Riana, the alligator is creeping toward the nearby chicken coop for a meal. He is a very old creature and his back is covered with pebbles rather than the ceramic or glass on the other statues.

Stalwart Gary of the Clothesline People and the Alligator Bench, August 17, 1996

The largest work is the Fish Bench that measures over 12-feet from snout to tail. Located in the back of the garden, it is framed by a grapevine archway and approached via a fieldstone path and provides a vantage point to survey the entire grounds.

Fieldstone path to the Fish Bench, August 17, 1996

The elaborate mosaic on the bench is a self-portrait of Riana on vacation, lying on the beach looking at a magazine. An alternate reading of the subject could be the myth of Narcissus because the figure leaning on her elbow looking at the magazine appears to be gazing at a reflection of herself in a mirror. Her face beams with self-acceptance and satisfaction. Riana found my interpretation of the subject amusing but plausible.

Detail of Fish Bench, August 17, 1996

The tallest and most elaborate work, The Bowhunter, stands at the entrance to the main gardens. The statue depicts Riana’s friend Derrick who holds overhead the actual antlers of his first trophy deer from bow hunting. Lofty, his loyal dog of seventeen years, stands on his hind legs with his front paws on Derrick’s chest, tail wagging. Found street objects are embedded in Derrick’s shirt and his pants are covered with hundreds of buttons. Both statues feature pigmented concrete and applied color.

The Bowhunter, July 10, 1996

Materials such as shells and glass collected from the beach and objects from different countries around the world provide inspiration for particular works. Riana often goes “junking” at local flea markets. All materials need to survive outdoors, so she collects durable materials like recycled bottle caps and ceramic pieces from potter’s shard piles. She remarks that, “the junk tells me what to do with it and the objects direct me.”

August 14, 2004

The power of a “found” object to free the imagination has long provided motivation for artists. Andre Breton, French writer, poet and theorist of Surrealism, wrote a treatise about beauty in 1937 entitled L’Amour fou. He called these ordinary objects that have the power to motivate artists the “marvelous precipitate of desire” and the effect of liberation produced through found objects – “convulsive beauty.”

Convulsive beauty arises, in other words, as the consequence of a chance encounter in the midst of daily life; it is the result of an involuntary act of perception that opens the window on a mysterious world. — Andre Breton

Breton’s concept of convulsive beauty became one of the most enduring and significant art theories of the 20th century and inspires Riana’s garden.

The Upper Midwest, particularly Wisconsin, has a rich tradition of sculptural environments by people with creative temperaments who saw potential in transforming cast-off objects and de-valued materials into unforeseen new objects. Riana’s work shares affinities with several of these vernacular artist’s environments which she has visited including Fred Smith’s Concrete Park in Phillips, Wisconsin. From 1948 to 1964, Smith constructed over 200 figurative sculptures in concrete decorated with colored bottle glass from his nearby Rock Garden Tavern. The tribe of stoical looking men and women arranged in tableaux that celebrate popular heroes and heroines of frontier life and lore are actually patterned after local farmers and townspeople.

Over 200 figures, each of them individual.

Fred Smith Concrete Park, Phillips, Wisconsin, August 1987

The Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden by Herman Rusch near Cochrane, Wisconsin, in the bluff region along the Mississippi River is another reference point. Created in the 1950’s by a retired farmer, its highlight is a 260-foot-long arched fence of steel wagon wheel rims covered in brightly pigmented and painted concrete. Over 40 sculptures including arches, spires, flower planters and other structures are encrusted with rocks, geodes, sea shells and pottery shards. Rusch was also skilled in modeling figures.

Herman Rusch’s Prairie Moon, Cochrane, Wisconsin, June 1997

Herman Rusch’s Prairie Moon, Cochrane, Wisconsin, June 1997

Both the Fred Smith Concrete Park and the Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden have been restored and preserved by the Kohler Foundation of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. These environments are a unique part of our cultural heritage because they celebrate the creativity, and occasional eccentricity, of common folks.

Riana often welcomes visitors in the evenings when she is not busy building statues or maintaining the gardens and often teaches mosaic classes in her studio or nearby at The Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, Wisconsin. Her current work may be viewed online here.

August 17, 1996

August 14, 2004

One summer day in 1997, Riana held an open house and over 100 people from the Twin Cities and the area found their way down the back roads to her farm. As groups of people, some portrayed in her statues, strolled the gardens, it became a universe rich with associations. Riana circulated among the guests, making everyone feel at home. The garden had come alive with the narrative of her life’s story commemorated in statues, and in person, by her family and friends.

Travel Log #2

Landmarking: Farmers and Artists Collaborate with the Land

Fermentation Fest and Farm/Art DTour, Reedsburg, Wisconsin
October 6-14, 2018

GPS maps tell you where you are right now, and the voice of Siri on your phone may direct you to destinations. But where are you, really? I prefer old-fashioned printed maps like the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer that provide the big picture – the context of where you are and where you’re going, and the county highways and back roads that are the real somewhere for many in our country.

The weekend of October 5-8, 2018, I employed my Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer and the Fermentation Fest’s map for the Farm Art/DTour to visit temporary outdoor artworks and a few improvised ones; poetry displayed like the old Burma-Shave signs along the road; art and food marketplaces at rural churches and in small town squares; and on-the-farm stores selling cheeses, meats, eggs and produce. These locations are stitched together by county back roads, some barely wider than a driveway, through the undulating landscape of the unglaciated Driftless Area around Reedsburg.

Fermentation Fest is annually presented by the Wormfarm Institute, a non-profit founded in 2000 by Jay Salinas and Donna Neuwirth, two artists who moved to the area and started a successful community-supported-agriculture (CSA) organic farm. The institute’s name is inspired by a quote from The Formation of Vegetable Mold through the Action of Worms by Charles Darwin that “every grain of soil has passed at least once through the gut of an earthworm.”

Donna Neuwirth, co-founder of Wormfarm with Jay Salinas, and one of the local farmers, Mark Shimniok, who offer their land for Farm/ArtDtour installations

Donna Neuwirth, co-founder of Wormfarm with Jay Salinas, and one of the local farmers, Mark Shimniok, who offer their land for Farm/ArtDtour installations

In 1998, Jay coined the term “cultureshed” which is important to understanding their worldview and work as artists and farmers. He poetically defines it as: 1. A geographic region irrigated by streams of local talent and fed by deep pools of human and natural history; 2. An area nourished by what is cultivated locally; and 3. The efforts of writers, performers, visual artists, scholars, farmers and chefs who contribute to a vital and diverse local culture. Jay says a cultureshed is similar to the agricultural concept of ‘terroir’ in which the products grown in an area reflect its unique geography, geology and microclimate.

In 2011, working with partners in Sauk County, Jay and Donna produced the first Fermentation Fest – A Live Culture Convergence and thousands were drawn to Reedsburg (pop. 10,000) and the surrounding area for classes and hands-on sessions about bread-making, brewing beer and how to make krauts, pickles, kimchi, condiments, cider, kefir, kombucha – anything involving fermentation. The growing event quickly captured the imagination of funders including the National Endowment for the Arts, ArtPlace America, the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, the Educational Foundation of America and the Wisconsin Arts Board.

The Farm Art/DTour, a 50-mile self-guided drive, is a signature feature of Fermentation Fest. At first an annual occurrence, now because of funding challenges and its complex logistics, the tour happens bi-annually and it was my chance to take it in. To get oriented, I joined a bus tour from Milwaukee with government officials, cultural planners, arts supporters and several artist friends, and we were given a preview. We heard from Jay and Donna who joined us on the bus; six artists creating artwork for this year’s event and the farmers on whose land it appeared; and a special treat, Curt Meine, from the nearby Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo. Meine, who is the conservationist’s biographer, spoke about the Driftless Area and Leopold’s Land Ethic and stayed through lunch. After the bus tour, I remained in the area for three days to participate in an educational session led by Jane Hawley Stevens, founder of Four Elements Herb Farm in North Freedom, about using bitters for digestive health and assimilation of vitamins, and to tour the countryside again, on my own, to make photographs and videos.

Artist Martha Glowacki and Curt Meine, biographer of conservationist Aldo Leopold, speak with the tour group from Milwaukee

Artist Martha Glowacki and Curt Meine, biographer of conservationist Aldo Leopold, speak with the tour group from Milwaukee

Southern Wisconsin has seen extreme rainfall for the past several months and it rained or drizzled every day of my four-day visit. The Baraboo River runs through several communities on the tour including Rock Springs where flooding devastated the downtown and it will likely not recover. Farm fields are muddy with crops still standing and beginning to rot. The farmers and the artists have been equally challenged by the frustrating conditions in the fields. Hardship is the backdrop for this Fest that is usually an end-of-growing-season celebration.

I annotate my official Fermation Fest Farm/Art DTour map and cross-reference it with the detailed maps in the Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer to plot the course of my personal tour. During the bus tour, we only had time to jump out at three spots to experience the art and I am particularly interested in returning to some of them, and getting close-up to several others.

Just outside Rock Springs in Ableman’s Gorge State Natural Area (SNA) artist Peter Krsko of nearby Wonewoc has created a series of curvaceous vertical wood-lathe sculptures that are also musical instruments. The ensemble of forms entitled XYLEMXYL combines the word xylem (wood tissue) and the percussive instrument xylophone. Participants whack rubber flip-flop sandals with the toe part removed on the open ends of tubular PVC pipes of various lengths to produce deep-tone bonking sounds. Sauk County has the most designated SNAs of any county in Wisconsin (I have photographed many including Hemlock Draw, Pine Hollow and Baxter’s Hollow) and the bowl of Abelman’s Gorge and its handsome rock face form a perfect aesthetic and acoustic environment for XYLEMXYL

XYLEMXYL sound sculptures by Peter Krsko take advantage of the acoustics of Abelman’s Gorge


North on Highway 136 at the Van Hise Rock geological formation along the Baraboo River is Seeing Double: New Stereographs of Sauk County History, Stand #3: Quartzite Quarries in the Narrows by Sauk City artist Martha Glowacki. The artist researched and collected a series of historic photographs of the county that she turned into stereographs to be viewed at stereoscope stations at four locations.

Unlike the grand gesture in Krsko’s work and its enveloping sensorial and auditory experience, Glowacki’s meticulously crafted viewing station asks us to engage in intricate movements – to extract the antique stereo viewer from its enclosure, fine-tune the focus on the photo stereo view card – and then imagine a point in the distant past when the place we are now standing was the scene for very different activities. The stereo views show scarring the landscape for the extraction of its resources (stone quarrying and iron mining); a mono-crop craze (hops in the 1880s) that went bust; and prehistoric effigy mounds excavated by curious Europeans and often leveled for farmland.

As the mist turned to drizzle, I drive over hills and around curves through dense forests that capture the luminous yellow leaf light of maples. On County Road PF, I encounter several of the handsome locally carved wooden signs known as Field Notes. They contain 150-word stories to enlighten city folk about rural concerns (land, woods, soil), the different crops and activities in the fields (corn, hay, apples, dairy), and the ethics of Aldo Leopold whose life’s work included experiments reclaiming worn-out farmland along the Wisconsin River in nearby Baraboo.

Conservationist Aldo Leopold’s most-quoted moral dictum from his essay “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac urges us to examine landscape questions in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as economically expedient. Leopold says that a thing is right when it preserves the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community, and wrong when it tends otherwise.

My destination is Birdland, a physically ephemeral work by artist Franck Feurte of LES EOLIENS, a two-person collective with landscape architect Remi Duthoit. Franck traveled over 4,200 miles from Bordeaux, France to create this work in an alfalfa field on Eileen Schutz’s farm. A soft rain is falling as I park my car at the edge of the ditch; but I am prepared for the weather with rain gear, tall rubber boots and a large umbrella. Carefully, I unpack my digital video camera, affix the auxiliary microphone, anchor the assembly to the tripod, and set off up the hill, also balancing an umbrella.

The artwork is composed of dozens of thin vertical poles set in the ground with a horizontal cross-piece mounted at the apex that rotates slowly. Feathers from various bird species are tethered to the ends of the horizontal piece; they pivot hypnotically at the slightest breeze. The pole structures are nearly invisible, blending with the landscape, but the movements of the feathers catch the eye and suddenly the piece becomes animated.

Artist Franck Feurte speaks about  Birdland  created by the collective LES EOLIENS that also includes Remi Duthoit

Artist Franck Feurte speaks about Birdland created by the collective LES EOLIENS that also includes Remi Duthoit

Feurte set the poles in groupings that proceed up and over the hill and a few clusters are situated at the very edge of the surrounding forest. I head for these remote clusters and produce videos that capture the sound of the soft rain and bird calls from within the dense forest. Unfortunately, the feathers anchored to the pole structures are rather water-logged and barely move. I turn to head back down-hill and behold Birdland playing against the panorama of farm fields, clusters of trees and the forested hills in the foggy distance – an unforgettable vista.

I continue to a Food Chain Marketplace at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at the hilltop crossroads of G and GG. Artist-designed Roadside Culture Stands are selling local meats, fermented products, herbal teas and home-made items. I hope to warm up with some booya produced by the church; a thick stew of fall vegetables and chicken broth said to originate with Belgians who settled near Green Bay. Remarkably, the vivacious lady serving the savory dish introduces herself as Eileen Schultz. She proudly tells me about the history of her farm and the artists, including Franck Feurte, who have produced installations there over the years.

Food Chain Marketplace at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church with Fermentation Fest seed-art mosaic archway by Beth Porsche

My last stop is the McCluskey Brothers Farm Store at Hillpoint that offers on-farm produced maple syrup, and cheese and meat from grass-fed animals. The store is an unassuming single-story concrete block building that was formerly Larry Drea’s Bar for 63 years. The McCluskeys continue the tradition of inviting Irish musicians visiting the area to perform there. I purchase a nice wedge of their Shillelagh Glen Farms meadow cheese.

Sadly, this ends my visit. I turn north and head out of the magical Driftless Area. I close the Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer and connect with I-94 at Mauston; no need for detailed maps now. During the twilight zone of the four-hour drive back to the Twin Cities, images, sensations and conversations drift through my mind.

Rock outcrop in Abelman’s Gorge

I think about how making art and farming are similar endeavors; an observation made years ago in conversations with my Dad, a dairy farmer, while explaining why I wanted to go to art school. Art and farming both require accommodating forces outside of one’s control. In the case of farming – the vagaries of weather influence everything from planting to harvesting and the subsequent health and production of the animals that are dependent on the crops. With art, there’s the mysterious alchemy of inspiration, maintaining curiosity to propel yourself forward, and the desire and discipline to make something entirely new and unforeseen that the world may or may not need.

Artists and farmers are both affected by the disconnect between how society says that it values our role and products, and the remuneration they are willing to offer. While artists and farmers are committed to the belief that our labor and what we make is worthwhile and of value, our financial livelihoods are often tenuous.

Farmers offering their fields as sites for Fermentation Fest art installations and events impress me as open-minded, enterprising and innovative. On their modest-sized farms, they practice rotational grazing, grow organic crops, vegetables, and milk to sell, and many have ambitious on-farm cheese-making or grass-fed beef businesses. They work hard and have a respectful relationship with the land; they collaborate with it.

In pre-settlement days, I imagine that single large oak trees, or a large boulder or rock outcrops, or where streams joined rivers, functioned as landmarks. But after Sauk County was subdivided into townships and villages in the 1830s, humans have made all the marks on the land: mining, quarrying, farming, and now, art-making.


Artists creating work in this environment, making their marks (however temporary) on the land, also must collaborate with the land. This landscape presents rich aesthetic possibilities for both form and content, and challenges when weather becomes a factor, and offers ways to engage an audience unlike anywhere else.

Sensations of the Driftless Area’s undulating landforms, dense forests capturing the luminous yellow light of fall, the patter of rain, drifts of fog in the low areas, the energizing scent of the earth, and the experience of art in this unique landscape – permeate my being – and I don’t want to let them go. This was my first experience of Fermentation Fest and the Farm /ArtDtour, and I vow to return.

Churning by Brian Sobaski

Fermentation Fest and Farm/ArtDtour continue through October 14, 2018.

The full list of participating artists includes:
Madeline Straka
, Wisconsin, Sentinels of the Hills
Sarah FitzSimons, Madison, Wisconsin, Field Sketches
Franck Feurte, LES EOLIENS, a two-person collective with landscape architect Remi Duthoit, Bordeaux, France, Birdland
Martha Glowacki, Sauk City, Wisconsin, Seeing Double: New Stereographs of Sauk County History
David Sanchez Burr, Lake Forest, Illinois, nowhereradio
Peter Krsko, Wonewoc, Wisconsin, XYLEMXYL
Brian Sobaski, Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Churning