Early in its history, Baileys Harbor, located on a bay in Door County, Wisconsin, was surrounded by forests. The harbor served as a port where logs and shingles from local mills were shipped to cities of the Great Lakes. Settlers also had to clear the deeply wooded land for farming. Albert Zahn was a local German immigrant who used this surplus of pine to his creative advantage: he kept a whittling knife in his pocket, and looked toward the sky for inspiration. Hawks, owls, and little songbirds became his subject for ” Birds Park,” Zahn’s tremendous collection of hundreds of sculptural renderings that transfigured his home environment situated on a 160-acre plot of open land into an artistic landscape.
In 1924, Albert Zahn created and built the Birds Park of Baileys Harbor as his retirement home. The home was built of tiers of formed concrete, and the exterior and yard were filled with his craft. Carved wooden birds, totem poles, angels, insects, and animals were mounted on poles or attached to the house. In the front yard he also built square concrete platforms that were used as fish ponds. In 1968, one Door County artist called it “a strange house . a fairy tale house.” Later, in a 1989 article printed in The Door County Advocate , writer Norbert Blei explained: “Nobody passes by without wondering, questioning its existence.”
Zahn’s seemingly simplistic works are strong in the elements of art-form, color, and texture. With the use of the crudest of tools, his sculptures show off the vernacular beauty of the wood that is native to Wisconsin. The imaginative designs also implemented building materials such as hinges and metal pegs and rods in order to transform carvings into animated structures.
Albert Zahn died in 1953 and vandalism deteriorated the outdoor art. Many of the freestanding pieces that decorated the interior of the home were sold off to vernacular art enthusiasts or given as gifts to Zahn’s extended family. The artist’s work is now on display at the Smithsonian Institute, as well as other galleries in the nation, and at a Sotheby’s auction in 1998, one of Zahn’s birds sold for $1,200. The craft of this Midwestern artist is also featured in several folk art books, such as John Beardsley’s Environments of Visionary Artists . Zahn’s home is now on the National Register of Historic Places and thankfully it is slowly being restored. But this exhibition represents a rare opportunity to showcase Zahn’s prolific collection as it once appeared, emphasizing the delight that Zahn must have found in nature in order to dedicate his life to its representation.