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.
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.
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.
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.
Near a bed of tall flowers beside the driveway are The Clothesline People. Stalwart Gary sports a red-and-white-shirt 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.