Article by Jeffrey Hayes
Wisconsin may have more folk art environments than any other state. Some are elaborately embellished grottos; others are collections of sculptures arranged in open fields; still others started out as ordinary houses that became covered with stones, cement or found objects. One of the most fascinating of these constructions is Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron.
There is something remarkable even about the location of the Forevertron. As seen from a distance, this unusual structure rises from central Wisconsin’s fertile Sauk Prairie just below an ancient line of rugged hills known as the Baraboo Range. From a more immediate standpoint, it faces the old Badger Army Munitions Plant and shares ground with Delaney’s Surplus, a disheveled but bustling outlet for obsolete equipment, unwanted appliances and salvage merchandise. Finally, the simple fact that its address falls within the obscure township of North Freedom, Wis., rounds out a physical as well as a metaphysical context that evokes such basic ideas as time and history, life and death, rebirth and liberation.
The maker of the Forevertron, 59-year old Tom Every, was himself reborn in the early 1980s. After nearly three decades of work as an industrial wrecker, Every began to question his role in the wholesale destruction of well-designed but commercially outmoded factories, buildings, mills, breweries and other large-scale manufacturing sites.
In 1983, he gave his demolition business to a son, renamed himself Dr. Evermor, and began to build what he called the Forevertron. His new identity and mission, which he admits was a “total figment” adopted by “a man under great duress,” reprises the imagined saga of a Victorian inventor from Eggington, England — Every’s actual ancestral home. As a child, the fictive Dr. Evermore had been trapped in a massive electrical storm with his father, a Presbyterian minister, who explained to his son that such a force could come only directly from God. From that day on, the young man dedicated his life to constructing an extraordinary spacecraft that would ultimately deliver him from the “phoniness of this world” to the truth and unity of the next.
The present-day Forevertron is a monumental sculpture weighing roughly 300 tons and standing 120 feet wide, 60 feet deep and 50 feet high. It consists almost entirely of metals — iron, brass and stainless steel are the most evident — and it is both welded and bolted together to maximize stability. The overall arrangement is symmetrical with the principal central section anchored by a broad bank of generators, thrusters and other electromagnetic power sources. The whole structure is capped by a copper-strapped glass ball meant to serve as Dr. Evermor’s space capsule.
At the north end, a great Celestial Telescope points toward the heavens (“in case there are any Doubting Thomases”), while the south arm concludes with a spiral staircase and a fancy, wrought-iron gazebo originally reserved for the Royal Family. Peripheral components include the ever-vigilant, blaze orange Celestial Listening Ear, the cage-like Graviton used to reduce Dr. Evermor’s body weight on take-off day, and, just to the east, the urn-shaped Overlord Master Control with its constituent Love Guns aimed, according to their inventor, “at the butt of anyone who is not smiling by now.” A first encounter with the Forevertron often brings to mind such worlds as Oz and the creations of Barnum, Jules Verne and, of course, Rube Goldberg.
The Forevertron also exemplifies Dr. Evermor’s most distinctive and deliberate creative priority: “to blend history and art.” Each part of the Forevertron preserves some facet of early technology or machine culture that is now rapidly disappearing, often beneath the wrecker’s ball. Some components, such as Thomas Edison’s pioneering pair of late 19th-century bipolar dynamos (which were acquired after being deaccessioned by the Henry Ford Museum) appear naturally linked to the operation of the Forevertron. Other components are more imaginatively transformed: An early x-ray machine converts to the Graviton; part of a junked fast-food sign becomes the glass Space Capsule; an old theater speaker acts as an Ear on the Universe. Whether tied logically or alchemically to the Forevertron, all of these industrial artifacts honor the inventors and inventions of an age that we are departing with a mixed sense of expectation and anxiety.
“These forms were made in a certain time frame,” Dr. Evermor explains, “and we can pick up the energy of whoever the creator was, whether it be a small blade or something else. That unique form comes along again and is put in that place, so that you always have that energy. That little piece may have a very historical connection to other things and beings of a certain time frame.”
Although a profound regard for the history and achievements of the waning machine age informs the Forevertron, Dr. Evermor makes clear that his creation must be appreciated primarily as a work of art. “You have to understand,” he insists, “that all this early industrial stuff had a flavor and character. Even the spokes in the wheels were artistically done. There were intricate things put into the castings. And the tools and stuff that I inject into these pieces — the form of the handles — were rhythmic for hand use, where now we have sterile, rigid designs.”
His often-stated commitment to “form before function” is evidenced by the acute sculptural quality and decorative coherence of the Forevertron. When asked about the suspended bridges and smaller objects strung from cables on all sides of the Space Capsule, he emphasizes their formal rather than practical nature. “If you look at this thing, it is all curved arches and circles. It is built on the principle of odd numbers — sets of 3,5,7,9.” Given the historical make-up of the Forevertron, it seems appropriate that its essentially profuse, buoyant, undulating lines recall late Victorian aesthetics, from World’s Fair architectural follies to Art Nouveau.
The yard that holds the Forevertron (and which Dr. Evermore variously envisions as a playground, sculpture garden, artists’ colony and grassroots museum) contains an assortment of other, seemingly independent pieces — several kiosks and shelters: Arachna-Arty (the great spider); a genuine Roscoe-the-Clown circus car; a turn-of-the-century popcorn stand; and the Epicurean, a customized vehicle equipped with a striped canopy, a chimney, a king-sized bellows and a six-foot-wide barbecue pit.
The most striking group of peripheral figures is the 46-member Bird Band, crafted expertly from brass bed posts, old tools and other hardware, survey markers, gasoline nozzles and a full complement of working musical instruments. Dispersed in proximity to the Forevertron, all of these fanciful pieces eventually reveal themselves to be perfectly suited to the ultimate festivity of Dr. Evermor’s final leave-taking.
The late JEFFREY HAYES was professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: