Monday, July 13, 2015

Wisconsin Art Discrepancies: Dr. Evermor vs. Frank Lloyd Wright

There are only about 26 miles between the towns of Sumter and Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Spring Green is home to several of the creations of Frank Lloyd Wright: The Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, Taliesen, and the Unity Chapel. It is also home to the infamous House on the Rock.

Spring Green you might have heard of. Sumter, maybe not.

Over the weekend I visited both of these towns, and had a strangely different experience from one town to the next.

My friend Kari and I decided to take a last minute camping trip in light of the fact that she will be leaving soon to attend grad school at Cornell University. Needless to say, it was a bittersweet excursion. But Kari and I have a history of traveling well together, and this trip, despite its brevity, was no exception.

I had chosen the location in which we were to camp because I have been wanting to make a visit to the site of a famous art environment called Dr. Evermor's Art Park in Sumter, WI. We camped in a lovely Veteran-maintained campsite on the Wisconsin River and talked until the sun went down about all the things we haven't gotten to talk about in a while. In the morning, we awoke early and hiked at Devil's Lake.

I should mention that this area of Wisconsin is stunningly beautiful. I often forget that as you drive West in the state the infamous flatness succumbs to a breathtaking, glacially-formed landscape of hills and cliffs, covered in green as far as the eye can see. I couldn't shut up about how beautiful it was. 

It was through this stunning scenery that we drove, from Devil's Lake to Sumter, to reach Dr. Evermor's. When we arrived we found that visitors are only able to enter the grounds through a surplus store called Delaney's Surplus, located in front of the park, closest to the highway. We had to wait around until noon for the store to open. I was nervous that the park wouldn't be open that day, so I actually called Lady Eleanor Every (Dr. Evermor's wife) to make sure that it would open. She assured me that it would, but warned us to make sure it didn't look like we were trespassing, because there had been some vandalism on the property recently. 

When it finally opened, we joined a crowd of people that had already ventured back behind the store. Immediately, I was struck by how big this place actually was, especially considering that you can't see it from the road, or from the entrance of Delaney's. 

I would not consider it to be as much of an "environment" as say, Howard Finster's Paradise Garden. I didn't get the urge to lay in the grass and eat lunch there. In fact I was a little nervous to sit at all, feeling like I might sit on something rusty. The only difference between Dr. Evermor's park and the junk shop attached to it was the obvious arrangement of the elements, painstakingly welded, nailed, screwed, and wound together to form such creations as the "Forevertron," a 300 ton tower resembling a spaceship that is supposedly able to blast into space, should its operator, Dr. Evermor, be so inclined. 

In addition to the Forevertron, there is a scrap-metal bird orchestra that guards the park like an eery, rusted army on the verge of battle. 

There is also an assortment of creatures and machines in various shapes and sizes scattered throughout the park, each one more confusingly conjoined than the last. 

We stayed long enough to catch a glimpse of Lady Eleanor, and hear her talk about some of the upcoming plans for the park, as well as apologize for the graffiti (she vows that she will catch whoever did it and make them paint over it themselves). Stupidly enough, I had just assumed that Dr. Evermor (whose true name is Tom Every), was dead. So I was surprised to hear her say that Tom was in California with their daughter, at ComiCon. I guess I should have done my research. 

From the park, we made our way to Taliesin. Kari and I were aware that there was an outrageous, $50.00 fee to take a tour of Taliesin, but we had assumed that we would be able to at least wander around the property and view the gardens. On our way there, we kept on seeing signs for a visitors center, but no signs for Taliesin, so we pulled into the visitors center, confused. Once we arrived we were told that the only way to get to Taliesin was on a bus that left from the visitors center. This bus would take us to Taliesin, where we would be given a tour. Which would cost $50.00. 

When we asked if there was anything else we could do or see in the area that did not cost $50.00, we were given a relatively snooty answer by the woman working the desk. She said we could not wander around Taliesin, as there were people that lived there, but that we could park on the road and view the property from a bike path. There was another tour that cost $20.00 that we could go on, or, we could visit the Unity Chapel, which we could not go inside of, but could see Frank Lloyd Wright's grave. (We also had the option of visiting the gift shop inside the visitors center and viewing a 12-minute video on the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation). 

Being the stubborn, adventurous ladies that we are, we rejected these as the only options. We went to the Chapel, saw Frank Lloyd Wright's grave (which I later read does not actually cover his body, as it was moved to a different location in 1985), then went to see if we could in fact wander around Taliesin. It was confusing. There was a sign that read "Private Entrance," but there were people walking around it, and cars parked outside of it. We got out and walked a bit, but couldn't figure out if these were cars of people that lived in the house, or people who were touring the house. We got a little bit nervous, and decided to end our investigation in annoyance. 

I couldn't help but notice the differences between the two experiences:

Dr. Evermor's-
-free admittance
-free to wander unguided around the park
-made from reclaimed materials
-associated with a surplus shop on the property
-is Dr. Evermor dead or alive?
-no real literature or information at the park, no gift shop either
-not advertised on road signs or in tourist info about the area
-vandalism on some of the structures

Frank Lloyd Wright's-
-minimum of $20.00 to gain any kind of access to any of the buildings on the property
-tour basically required
-large and elegant visitors center with reception, gift shop, restaurant, and information on Frank Lloyd Wright, his work, his life, and his legacy
-informational video about his life
-artist is super, super dead and everyone knows that, and everyone has heard of him
-no vandalism, relatively high security

And then the similarities-
-both artists from Wisconsin
-both male
-their life's work involved building innovative structures that questioned the status quo of built things
-both in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin
-both sites get visitors from all over the world

I'm not trying to say that there is necessarily a fair or even valid comparison between Tom Every and Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright's work was obviously a lot more extensive. He has also been (unquestionably) dead for over 50 years, while Every is still alive and kicking, and still making art. Who knows how Every's art will be regarded when he dies? But it is certainly strange to observe the contrast between the low-brow and the high-brow, the zany and the posh, the eccentrically esoteric and the bourgeoise esoteric in such close proximity to each other in one state, just a few rolling, luscious, green miles apart from each other.

But then again, why am I surprised? That is my Wisconsin for you. 

Frank Lloyd Wright's psuedo grave: "Love of an Idea is Love of God"

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