Nick Engelbert’s concrete art lives on

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Neil Hattes
TRADITION CONTINUES: Trinkets embedded in concrete by students carry on artist Nick Engelbert’s work.

An organ grinder, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Swiss patriots, a viking in a boat – this motley group welcomes visitors to Grandview, a home outside of Hollandale, Wis., where an artist’s imagination came alive in concrete creations embedded with stones, shells and pieces of glass.

Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1881, Nick Engelbert immigrated to the United States and became a dairy farmer. The self-taught artist began adding his whimsical works to his yard while recovering from a sprained ankle in the 1930s. By the 1950s, he had created a landscape depicting more than 40 scenes from history, myth and his imagination – enhanced by flowers planted by his wife, Katherine.

The site’s menagerie grew to include an elephant, lion and monkeys. The organ grinder collects donations – a sight inspired by Engelbert’s memory of the grinders he saw in Europe as a child. The artist’s origins also show through in his house, which he built to resemble a European cottage with a Gothic arch. It, too, is covered with concrete embedded with rocks, shells and glass.

The attraction today

These days, not all of Engelbert’s original work remains. The site went into disrepair after his death in 1962, and today, only five dwarfs accompany the lawn’s concrete Snow White, not seven. An ax and a seal of Wisconsin, both located inside the house, are all that’s left from a Paul Bunyan statue.

In 1991, Grandview was purchased by the Kohler Foundation, a private organization that supports arts and education in Wisconsin.

The foundation provided documents on restoring the deteriorated sculptures, and the people of Hollandale helped save the home and farm. The small town, with a population of just 280, not only maintained the site, they were also able to turn it into a center for art education.

The Pecatonica Edu­cational Foun­da­tion took over the site in 1998.

A learning place

Engelbert once said that “if a man can’t be happy on a little farm in Wisconsin, he hasn’t the makings of happiness in his soul.” Grandview represents that belief.

 “The key to this place is its solitude,” said Rick Rolfsmeyer, executive director of the Pecatonica Educational Foundation and one of its founders. “The grounds are always open.”

While researching Engelbert, Rolfsmeyer realized people talked­ about what an eccentric the artist was, but that perception had nothing to do with his statues.

It was because he milked brown cows, Rolfsmeyer said, and “anyone who milks brown cows is nuts. This is Holstein territory.”

Engelbert’s do-it-yourself spirit lives on in community art classes taught by locals. Schoolchildren made the signs outside, and a 6th-grade class produced the site’s walking tour brochure.

The educational program has brought local teachers and students together with the University of Wisconsin-Madison history department and the Wisconsin Historical Society. A grant allowed high school dropouts to learn carpentry skills building a storage shed for Grandview.

At the end of every school year, concrete is put on the shed, and children are encouraged to shove in treasures, just like Engelbert did.