PhD candidate, Art History
Faculty advisor: Ann Smart Martin
If you’ve ever driven by a roadside concrete art park – think sculptures, grottos, or even houses – and been intrigued, Cortney Anderson Kramer is the person to talk to about this unique art style in the Midwest. Kramer is a PhD candidate in Art History at UW–Madison studying roadside concrete sculpture gardens designed between 1910 and 1960. Examples include Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park, Father Dobberstein’s Grotto of the Redemption, and Samuel P. Dinsmoor’s The Garden of Eden.
Kramer said previous scholarship has considered works of art like these to be Outsider Art, but she treats them instead as an artistic movement of their own.
“As opposed to interpreting the work individually as unique visions, I interpret them collectively,” Kramer said. “As a result, the artworks reveal themselves as illuminating examples of American heroic individualism in a way that continues to resonate with American identity today.”
These art parks are scattered throughout the Midwest, and there is no central archive where you can view the collection. A Graduate School fellowship made it possible for Kramer to travel to a dozen sculpture gardens to conduct her research. She interviewed caretakers, photographed the sculptures, and combed through on-site archives, building a wealth of information that informs her dissertation, “’It’s gotta be in ya:’ Heroic individualism and the roadside concrete sculpture garden, 1910-1960.”
Kramer said her research combats two problems. First, a lack of representation for artworks created outside of market centers like New York and Los Angeles flattens the scope of art history in the United States, inhibiting researchers’ ability to conceive of a multifaceted, diverse canon of American Art.
Second, art made by outsider or folk artists – often non-coastal, racially minoritizes, rural, poor, or untrained in the traditional sense – is often left to the fringes of conversations on art history. Many of the concrete sculpture gardens Kramer studies were built by individuals with no formal training, and the places they inhabit are often small Midwestern towns like Phillips, Wisconsin, home to Wisconsin Concrete Park.
Kramer’s scholarship also draws a line between these early 20th-century artists and American identity today.
“On a deeper level, my exploration of how the works represent heroic individualism as it relates to American identity resonates with citizens even today,” she said. “By reflecting on how artists of the early 20th century, when faced with war, pandemic, and depression, turned to and amplified their values of hard work, grit, pioneerism, and individualism, we learn about our heritage and values and how they have shaped us in a variety of positive and negative ways.”
Learn more about Kramer’s work on her website, cortneyakramer.wordpress.com.