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Susan A. Niles, professor of anthropology at Lafayette College, will present a slide lecture on her photo essay “Concrete Visions” at 12:15 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, at Lafayette’s Skillman Library. Currently on display at the library, the photo essay consists of more than a dozen images documenting the uniquely American folk art tradition of building concrete monuments to personal, political, and religious visions.

Niles’ talk, in the library’s instruction room, will explore the often-idiosyncratic work of folk artists who used concrete as a medium. It is free and open to the public. Lunch will be provided free of charge.

Niles explains, “Several of the folk artists are German-born American priests who drew from an established religious iconography to build what they called ‘sermons in stone’ to help instill religious values in their parishioners, as well as to put their own spin on this American folk art tradition.”

Niles also documents the work of secular artists, such as Howard Finster in Georgia, who expressed strongly held social and religious beliefs in a number of media, including concrete studded with objects of personal value. One early concrete-art visionary, Samuel P. Dinsmoor, created 40-foot-tall art to express his populist political platform.

“He infused it with down-home religious interpretations, which included the story of Cain and Abel set in a potato patch,” says Niles. Artist William Noetzke used concrete studded with rose quartz to build a monument to commemorate his love for his wife.

The slide lecture will explore some of the reasons that may have motivated the artists to make their private visions both public and permanent. It draws on research Niles conducted through college research funds in 1993 and 1995, when she documented and analyzed a number of folk art genres. The work concentrated chiefly in the American Midwest and also included a few examples in the South.

The result of that research was a book, Dickeyville Grotto: The Vision of Father Matheus Wernerus (University Press of Mississippi, 1997). The Dickeyville grotto was constructed between 1918 and 1931 in Dickeyville, Wisc., by Wernerus, the German-born priest of the local parish. He used concrete, poured into slabs or modeled around metal forms, to shape his handiwork, and studded the surface with colorful bits of glass, carefully chosen stone, shells, and other materials. As the Catholic priest of a German-American parish, Wernerus portrayed the two themes of religion and patriotism in his work.

“I approached the work as a folklorist documenting the environment Wernerus created and looking at archival material — letters, convent archives, and newspaper archives — to piece together a story of how and why he built a place that today is a popular tourist attraction, but nobody knows why it was built,” Niles explains. “Most of my work has been about the Incas. I imagined that if the Incas had survived and developed a tradition of writing, I’d understand their architecture fully. But I’ve learned that even with people who did have a tradition of writing and lived in this century, we often don’t know more about their motivations than we do about the Incas.”

Categorized in: Academic News