American Religion in a Fantasia of Quartz and Seashells
|Dickeyville Grotto in Dickeyville, WI|
The start of the new academic year often prompts us, as we reunite with colleagues and friends, to describe our summer’s activities or accomplishments. This year I have responded by recounting the road trip that my wife and I took over the summer break, from Indiana to Colorado and back again. Some have asked about the route. “We drove through Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas on the way there,” I say, but before I can continue I am interrupted by my interlocutor, who feels the need to weigh in on the topography of our country’s vast central section. Their unanimous verdict: the Midwest is flat, featureless, and boring.
“Kansas was actually quite pretty in parts,” I offer. They shrug with indifference.
Fair enough, perhaps. After all, if you are looking for mountains you’ll find few; depending on your route, you’re unlikely to see much by way of forests or interesting foliage. I could nitpick and point to sections of the drive in just about every state that made us swoon a bit, but this is not a travel site and I am not a naturalist. What I can say with full confidence, however, is that the Midwest has something more to offer RiAH readers: a surprising number of unique religion-related sites that encourage us to put the books down, at least for a moment, and to think about religious history in more experiential terms.
Consider, for instance, the region’s penchant for large grottoes. One of my first grotto experiences, and still one of my favorites, was the Dickeyville Grotto in Dickeyville, Wisconsin. Erected in the late 1920s, the grotto was constructed by Father Matthias Wernerus who served at the connected parish for much of the early twentieth century. Describing the grotto is difficult if only for its complexity and sheer abundance: mountains of concrete are densely ornamented with a range of gems, colored glass, and special stones. Pictures don't do such sites justice, either. Zoom in too close and you lose the immensity of the place; zoom out too far and you lose the detail. In "Dickeyville Grotto," poet Mark Doty describes it as "a fantasia of quartz/ and seashells, broken/ dishes, stalactites/and stick-shift knobs." Building the grotto was as much a collective activity as a private endeavor, a fact made visible through the variety of materials brought by community members to be embedded in the site: broken dishes, children’s toys, and other artifacts from the average home. A number of shrines provide points of anchorage and attraction for visitors, beckoning them to stop, admire, and contemplate. There is a shrine for Christ the King, for Fatima, a Sacred Heart shrine, and the Stations of the Cross.
|Patriotism at Dickeyville|
|Grotto of the Redemption, West Bend, IA|
|The Immaculate Heart of Mary |
Queen of Peace at Trinity Heights, Sioux City, IA
Thinking about how others respond to these and other sites - I've taken to calling them "public religious attractions" for lack of a better term - is often as interesting as visiting the spaces themselves. Scholars of art and art history often lump them in with a broad and somewhat problematic category of art that goes by many names - outsider art, visionary art, folk art, grassroots art - which seems to be defined primarily by the artist’s lack of formal training or institutional support, as well as the unconventional aesthetics of the work itself. The popularity of websites like Roadside America has brought a host of new visitors to these often overlooked attractions, but their language and style can also encourage viewers to approach the spaces as baffling spectacles, as paradigms of the weird. It's admittedly hard not to approach them that way yourself, as they often appear quite outside the norm of everyday experience or "conventional" art. But in the process of marking these spaces as curiosities, the religious or spiritual content of the art is often overlooked or marginalized; the fact that these spaces are often sites for religious practice and expression as well as sites to be admired or explored by tourists can be easily forgotten.
It is not clear, however, that the original builders of these sites would be altogether displeased with such ambiguous responses. I spent some of my summer trying to dig up public and private commentary from the periods when the Midwest's grottoes were constructed. Although I haven’t found many personal accounts yet, it is clear from the region’s small-town newspapers that many of these builder-artists understood themselves to have been creating a type of tourist attraction. Some of them intentionally added extra elements of curiosity and surprise to attract guests. Live animals were apparently popular in this regard: as Roadside America notes, the Grotto of the Redemption kept a bear on the premises in its early years. Many offered tours. Others added food stands and gift shops at an early date.
And it worked. One of the peculiar benefits of small-town papers from the early-twentieth century is that they often chronicled local citizens’ vacations, visitors, and other affairs. It’s clear from these accounts that people from all over the Midwest and beyond drove to these sites on weekend getaways or longer roadtrips in the early-twentieth century, often grouping them together as sites of interest on a single trip, not unlike we do today. Thinking about how they might have encountered these attractions - as tourists in search of a spectacle, as a site for religious veneration, as art, even as a space of unexpected interreligious encounter - should encourage us to pay closer attention to our own responses, to consider the multiple ways of approaching spaces we might designate as "religious." Indeed, they encourage us to question the very designation of "religious" and the implications or assumptions that the category might carry. Perhaps most importantly, they are a reminder that it's important to put down the book and step out of the car as there's a lot to learn on foot - even in the supposedly barren and boring Midwest.