By Starrla Cray
COKATO, MN People in Cokato and Dassel probably know Mike Newsom as a husband, father, grandfather, and retired pastor but they might be surprised to find out that Newsom is also the son of a well-known artist.
Back in the early 1960s, Mike’s mother, Eva Newsom, created a theme park called Biblical Gardens. The attraction was located in Wisconsin Dells, and featured statues from 13 scenes in the life of Christ.
“It was just the perfect setting,” Mike recalled. “It was down in a canyon, with layers of sandstone.”
Although Biblical Gardens isn’t around anymore, memories of it are still vivid in the minds of people who visited. In a discussion on TripAdvisor.com about favorite “no longer there” Wisconsin Dells attractions, for instance, one person wrote “I always liked Biblical Gardens. It was a cool, shady oasis a place to unwind and see the Bible come to ‘life.’”
Mike was in high school when Biblical Gardens was created, and he remembers the “tremendous” effort his mother put into it.
“It was blood, sweat, and tears literally. It was long, hard days,” he recalled.
The first figures were cast in concrete and weighed about 400 pounds. Later, Eva worked in fiberglass.
Each colorful, life-sized statue helped to illustrate various Bible stories about Jesus.
As visitors strolled through the picturesque garden, they’d start by seeing Jesus as a baby in the nativity and as a 12-year-old boy at the temple. Then, they’d move through to see Jesus’ baptism, blessing little children, calling the fishermen, and being tempted in the wilderness.
The next section of the park showed the sermon on the mount, the Last Supper, the betrayal, and the trial. The final scenes featured Christ bearing the cross, the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and the ascension.
Although Eva is most well known for her work with Biblical Gardens, her artistic talent extended far beyond sculptures.
Eva was born a century ago, on March 17, 1918, as Eva Elaine Gragert. As a young child, she gravitated toward drawing, and used what she had grey cardboard and a dull pencil to create pictures. Sometimes she’d hide behind a bush, because she was embarrassed to be drawing in front of her many siblings.
With 11 children in the Gragert family, money for things like art lessons was scarce. Eva’s father didn’t have time for art himself because he was busy with farmwork, but he saw potential in his young daughter.
He met an acclaimed artist named Marie Hull, who agreed to give Eva lessons in exchange for eggs and butter. Eva’s father also helped pay for lessons by posing for one of Hull’s paintings, titled “Sharecropper.”
Hull’s art lessons were eye-opening for Eva, who was about 15 years old at the time. She told family members she felt like Helen Keller learning how to spell the word “water” for the first time.
“It opened her up in a way she never understood before,” Mike explained.
Eva began painting all kinds of things, and she became quite good at it.
By the 1930s, she was taking art lessons in New Orleans, and was working at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum. There, she was part of a team that created 23 dioramas, which are still on display today.
According to the museum’s website, Eva focused on the agricultural dioramas “designing figures, painting faces and clothing, and arranging the scenery.”
A creative mother
When Eva met her future husband and decided to get married, Hull was a little disappointed, because it meant that art would no longer be Eva’s focus.
“Basically, it was a choice between being an artist and being a mother,” Mike said.
Life was different for Eva once she had a husband and two children, but she still created art any chance she got. She did several portraits during this season, including one of Mike as a young boy.
“She also took a job as a designer at a Christmas ornament company,” Mike said, explaining that Eva started as a laborer, but when managers found out about her art, she was promoted to product design.
Eva’s husband, M. Dudley, was a salesman, and the family moved many times due to his job. One of their later homes was in the Wisconsin Dells area, where Biblical Gardens took shape.
M. Dudley got the idea for Biblical Gardens from the owner of a restaurant he often visited. The owner mentioned that the property was for sale, and that it would be an ideal spot for something like that.
100 years young
This spring, Eva will be celebrating her 101st birthday.
Although she is legally blind, the desire to create has never left. Evidence of this is the annual pumpkin-decorating contest at Eva’s assisted living home.
For the past seven years, Eva has not only entered, but won.
“Every year she says, ‘oh, I’m not going to do that again,’ but then when it comes time, she gets an idea and has to do it,” Mike commented.
Mike Newsom and his daughter Caroline Wigmore, along with the rest of their extended family, have started a kickstarter campaign to help raise the funds to create prints of Eva Newsom’s artwork.
For more information, visit the featured link at dasselcokato.com.