Cargill, the giant food products corporation, has been in the news lately for closing its beef cattle slaughterhouse, resulting in the sudden loss of about 600 jobs. Earlier this year, it was at the center of a much quieter story of preservation. The company was in the process of demolishing several disused structures on its property. One of them, an old, decaying cattle ramp, had long formed the backdrop of a small sculpture park nestled in the Menomonee Valley.
The small, well-maintained sculpture park sits in the shadow of the 16th St. viaduct. It was created in the 1980s by Bernard Peck, vice president of the former Peck Meat Packing Corporation. Peck provided sculptors Joseph Mendla and Hilary Goldblatt with studio and gallery space and was inspired to turn part of the company’s grounds into a place for sculpture.
|"Menomonee," Hilary Goldblatt
Mendla and Goldblatt each contributed a sculpture to the new park. Goldblatt’s contribution was a site-specific Cor-Ten steel abstraction entitled “Menomonee” that evokes the history of the Valley as well as its surroundings, including the cattle ramp and nearby viaduct. Mendla donated “Space Game,” a welded-steel sculpture with three interlocking parts in contrasting colors. The sculpture was originally intended for an indoor setting where the three pieces could be playfully rearranged. A concrete pedestal was added when the work was sited at the entrance to the corporate marketing center.
|"Space Game," Joseph Mendla
(Historical note: When the family sold the Peck Meat Packing Corp. Mendla and Goldblatt moved to another Menomonee Valley studio where they established Hartbronze, which, at the time, was Milwaukee’s only commercial foundry specializing in art bronze.)
|"Oops, Missed," Bernard Peck
Bernard Peck added a sculpture of his own to the park. He designed and constructed the whimsical piece entitled “Oops, Missed,” which features a stainless steel lightning bolt penetrating a brick wall topped by a lightning rod.
The 40-foot “Angel in a Cage” has perhaps the most compelling story and certainly the most commanding presence. Richard Pflieger, a student at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, created it for a class competition in 1983. MIAD approached Peck to find a site for the winning work and he agreed to place it in the new sculpture park. Inspired by the backyard shrines common on Milwaukee’s south side as well as the many fences in the valley, Pflieger’s bold statement suspended a fiberglass angel inside a tall cage of cyclone fencing.
|"Angel in a Cage," Richard Pflieger
When the concerns of the arts community and the cost of removal were presented to Cargill, though, the company decided to keep the sculpture in place. Although it might seem anticlimactic, the outcome highlighted overlapping constituencies in the Menomonee Valley, a place that is in the midst of dynamic transformation, where industries coexist with the arts, culture and recreational venues. Interest in a striking but often-overlooked sculpture park also was rekindled. For over 30 years this sculpture park has been more than a monument to Bernard Peck’s personal vision and passion for art. It is a visible statement that places art literally at the center of the industrial Valley, helping to make it more inviting and nurturing an enduring sense of place.
The part of the Cargill plant that is adjacent to the sculpture park is not part of the company that is closing down operations. Perhaps the best outcome of the story is the renewed attention the situation brought to an overlooked sculpture park.
|Untitled, Claire Liberman
This untitled stone sculpture by Claire Liberman rounds out the Cargill collection.
An edited version of this essay first appeared in Art City in a series on "Milwaukee area's under-loved parks." I want to thank Mary Louise Schumacher for inspiring this essay and creating the placemaking series on Art City.
Buck, Diane M. and Virginia A. Palmer (1995). Outdoor Sculpture in Milwaukee: A Cultural and Historical Guidebook. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison
This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.