“Hello and welcome to my junkyard.” – That’s the hilariously understated way in which ironworker-turned-artist Tom Lakenen introduces his scrap metal sculpture park, Lakenenland, on his website (www.lakenenland.com). Lakenenland is situated on Highway M-28 between Munising and Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but forget all your notions about dumpy, overpriced roadside “tourist traps”, because this is something altogether different–and thank God for that.
First off, the self-guided tour down the sculpture trail is absolutely free, and you can take said tour on foot, by car, or on a snowmobile or bicycle. Donations are accepted, but never begged for. In fact, the only thing Lakenen insists upon is that his guests stop to write a quick hello in his guest log. There’s nobody asking you to buy anything; in fact, there’s nothing to buy even if you wanted to! This is one roadside attraction that doesn’t exist for the sake of profit; Lakenenland is truly built out of an artist’s love, his desire to share his passion with his fellow man, and maybe just a little bit of good old-fashioned Upper Michigan weirdness.
Everything in the park is singularly built by Tom Lakenen himself. Yet the park never feels self-serving or egotistical. Instead, visitors get the distinct feeling that Lakenenland isn’t a tribute to Tom Lakenen at all, but to all of his friends, and to every traveler fortunate enough to stumble onto his trail. Lakenen displays an impressive range of sculpting styles and methods in his park: you’ll find sculptures that are clever, scary, political, cartoony, intentionally kitschy… and sometimes all of these things at once.
Lakenen is a self-admitted ex-alcoholic and has been quoted as saying that Lakenenland is his way of “creating all of the things [he] saw when he was drinking.” This tongue-in-cheek explanation sheds some light on the existence of menacing blue and red wolves doing cartwheels, giant spiders, and unidentified monsters trapped inside iron cages scattered among the iron sunflowers, 9/11 memorials, and friendly-looking dinosaurs and elephants. But then the most beautiful thing about Lakenenland is the fact that none of the sculptures beg to be explained in the first place. They’re all simply fun to see. The vast majority of Lakenen’s sculptures are art for art’s sake, placed inside of a park that is also purely for the sake of that art. You don’t any special training to ooh and ahh at Lakenen’s work; you don’t need to “get” art to enjoy Lakenenland–it’s not that kind of exhibit. Anybody can appreciate the craftsmanship and beauty of the pieces, and the fact that they just plain look cool (not to mention the sheer good nature behind the entire idea of the park.)
The sculpture trail ends at a little open-faced shed where you’ll find the guest book and donation bucket (which is also a sculpture.) A few feet away lies a fire pit with a circle of stump seating arranged around it. In the winter months, Lakenen has been known to sit outside and cook hot dogs for the snowmobile riders who stop to visit Lakenenland on their cold journeys. And if Lakenen isn’t around to greet you himself, you’ll see signs instructing you to make yourself at home.
Regardless of whether or not you’re even interested in scrap metal junk sculptures, you have to appreciate Tom Lakenen as a master in the dying art of plain old human kindness.
Sadly, Lakenen and his creation have faced harassment from the authorities of Chocolay Township, where Lakenenland lies. Lakenen’s supporters–and all supporters of art and freedom–are encouraged to write to said authorities at the following address:
5010 US41 South
Marquette, MI 49855