In October 1979, observant commuters going east on Wausau's Stewart Avenue noticed a new bit of construction going up just before crossing the Wisconsin River. It was an art installation being installed by local artist and museum curator, Edward Schoenberger (with some help from the Park Department).
An article published in the Wausau Daily Herald on October 11 explained that Schoenberger's piece of modern art was titled "The Pinery." It was funded by the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Wausau Festival of the Arts, and was intended to memorialize the lumbering pioneers that built Wausau into the community it had become.
Ed Schoenberger had moved his family to Wausau in 1957, and quickly became an important part of the community though his work at the Marathon County Historical Society and his enthusiasm for promoting art of all kinds. He had helped to establish the Festival of the Arts in 1965, and was himself a well established public artist by 1980; with works that included the totem pole outside the historical museum (erected in 1960), the “Wenebojo” statue at First American Plaza (1976), and other works displayed at institutions across Wausau.
"The Pinery" consisted of over a dozen utility (telephone) poles being placed at odd angles—some set into the concrete base to stand straight up, some bolted to the others to be held aloft. Originally Ed had intended to stack them in abstract piles, but found the upright tangle of timber to be evocative of the tangles of logs that was once a common occurrence on the nearby Wisconsin River.
Into a concrete pedestal surrounding the central poles, the names of 62 pioneering families were inscribed and impressions were made from historic logging equipment Schoenberger borrowed from the museum. Ed wanted the piece to be large enough and open so that people could walk through it and take in the sculpture from various directions, and hoped people would engage physically with the work.
"The Pinery" was a challenge to many who watched it being constructed over the fall of 1979. Wausau has never lacked for critics of public policy, and many of them wrote in to the Wausau Daily Herald to express their thoughts and concerns. And the Herald regularly published these letters in the "Brought by the Postman" editorial section.
“… If Wausau feels it must put up a memorial to the industry that built it and, in the building, slash-cut the state into moral bankruptcy, all right. Then do something that makes sense, that doesn’t hold the town up to ridicule, that doesn’t make us the laughing stock of the northwoods. Tear down that 'world’s largest toothpick sculpture’ and, in its place plant white pine trees."TOM MITCHEL, Wausau
[October 17, 1979]
“… Please Mr. Schoenberger, after all the years you have lived in this community, can’t you accept and prevail upon your avant garde sponsors to agree – that this is Wausau, Wisconsin, with an identity of its own and desist from trying to transform it into an imitation of the Left Bank or Greenwich Village?"“Come forth, won’t you, my fellow traditionalists, and let your views be known.”D.G. PRAHL, Wausau[October 23, 1979]
… “Oh yes, Mr. Artist, just one more thing before I sign off. This ‘Pinery’ also would make a lot of nice firewood and keep someone snug and warm for a long time.”AN OLD-TIME LOGGER, Wausau[February 4, 1980]
“I've got this pet theory.""You know that thing they call ‘The Pinery’ off Stewart Avenue? Some think it’s art. I think it’s a message to alien spacecraft instructing them how to land on the observation deck at Rib Mountain State Park.”Don OaklandHerald Staff[August 22, 1980]
"The Pinery" clearly had its detractors, but the Wausau Daily Herald published some supportive letters as well.
"Schoenberger's artistry can be greatly appreciated if you just use a little imagination and thought. If they would only do so, many people would be pleased to discover that Mr. Schoenberger's work is of great historical value as well as aesthetically pleasing."Chris Meurett, Route 2, Wausau[December 12, 1979]
When asked what he thought about the controversy over his work, Ed Schoenberger said he thought it was great. Even as the debate was in full swing, Ed commented that he was pleased with the results of the project. "I think it makes a powerful statement. And that statement doesn't have to do anything with logging."
Wausau generally had traditional tastes when it came to art, and Schoenberger's work was clearly a challenge to many of these "traditionalists." The resulting debate was a genuine reaction by many to the modernist work, by non-experts in the field. After all, these were not curators at a museum or art history scholars, but rather representatives of the general public who were voicing their honest opinions on a piece of public art. "The Pinery" managed to compel many self-admitted amateurs to chip in with their thoughts, and therefore it's construction led to a surprisingly vigorous debate over basic concepts of art.
It led to a request by Mark Bruner to resist calls to tear down "the Pinery" because those people felt it was not good. "To ridicule is only marginally constructive," he wrote. "To seek destruction of another's work is a double-edged form of censorship."
It led Randall Stanke to suggest that, "any art piece should stand of its own merit, exuding beauty and meaning to all who either chance upon, or purposely pause to dwell upon it," and that someone should not have to know the background information to appreciate its construction.
And it undoubtedly led to many more private and public discussions on the relative merit of Schoenberger's work not published in the newspaper.
After the Debate
Despite all the spirited discussion surrounding "the Pinery," it was dedicated in September 1980 to relatively little attention. As the newness of its construction had faded, it just became part of the landscape. And Wausau moved on to argue about something else.
Sixteen years later, planned changes for the roads led to the removal of "the Pinery" and the little park on the river. In stark relief to the noise surrounding its construction, the take down of "the Pinery" happened so quickly and quietly that Ed himself was not notified until after it was already down.
"I would have liked to at least attended the wake, see them tear it down," Ed said. "I guess progress is progress, no matter what you destroy."
The Park Department apparently put the pieces of "the Pinery" in storage after taking it down. The precise fate of the pieces is unknown. Probably, after years of separation from their origins, the poles were reused or recycled someplace else without the knowledge of their controversial past.
But for a few months in 1979 and 1980 at least, this attempt to memorialize the pioneering lumberjacks with an abstract art installation, sparked a debate on the merits of public art. And what more could any artist ask for than that?
A big thanks to Kim Schoenberger for sharing photographs of her father's work from her personal collection.