This story takes us to a spot that’s surprisingly secluded given that it’s in the City of Kalamazoo, a short walk from the popular Mayor’s Riverfront Park. You can get there if you walk southeast on the bike path, past the ballpark and up a spur trail into a stand of trees and bushes. In the middle of the overgrowth there's a circle of pillars.
“I called it Kalamazoo’s Stonehenge,” John Schmitt of Kalamazoo told “Why’s That?”
The surface of the pillars is anything but plain.
“On every side of the columns you see all these different objects, and if you start looking you’ll see everything from, you know a little face like that, a stalk of celery. You see a hand here, you see leaves you see a beer bottle - there’s a gun in there,” he said.
John was fascinated. He even visited the site on the summer and winter solstices to see if the pillars lined up with the sun.
“I’m trying to figure out, what crazy person put this here and why?”
There’s no plaque at the site, but John’s lived in Kalamazoo for decades and he knows a lot of people. He started asking around but he couldn’t get an answer. He says the arts groups he asked couldn’t name the artist and neither could the city, which owns the property. Eventually John mentioned the site to John Liberty, who manages West Michigan Beer Tours. Liberty scoped it out and he too was intrigued.
“Especially for people who appreciate Kalamazoo you can kind of go through it like a scavenger hunt and can kind of pick out oh I know what that is or I know what that is - you know Richard Nixon’s mug is in there somewhere and Checker Cab and other fun things,” he said.
Liberty thought the columns might make a good field trip for a beer tour. Like John Schmitt, when he tried to find the artist, he found it wasn’t easy. Several leads turned out to be dead ends. But he got a break when he pictures of the pillars on Facebook, and quickly heard from a friend.
“He was like, ‘I was there, I helped put it up!’ And I’m like ‘Oh, no way!’” he said.
The friend said the artist who built the pillars was Mitchell Wilcox. That was funny for Liberty because he knows Wilcox, he just hadn’t thought to ask him about the sculptures.
“In sort of keeping with my theory that Kalamazoo is the Kevin Bacon of American cities, everybody knows everybody somehow and there’s a way to figure all of this stuff out, there’s a connection,” Liberty said, referring to the game where players link any actor to Kevin Bacon in six steps or less.
One evening in June, John Schmitt, who came across the sculptures on his bike, and artist Mitchell Wilcox met at “Stonehenge.”
“No one’s asked for 21 years so John, thank you so much,” Wilcox said. “It’s been forgotten so I appreciate all of your interest.”
We’ve been calling it by a nickname, but Wilcox says when he cast these columns in the late 90s he named the piece The Circular Ruin. He says people donated items they wanted to see in the surface - including that cartoonish Nixon face.
“They said ‘stick this in’ - people put their hair in it. A lot of stuff, I was just open to anything,” he said.
Wilcox also wanted the pillars to tell a Kalamazoo story. He says each column represents a different era.
“From bones and plant life that I collected from here, to Pokagon artifacts to celery and the 18, 1900s and then we go to Bell’s and more modern stuff,” he said.
Wilcox pressed the items into clay to make molds, then poured cement in the molds to make the pillars. The objects appear to emerge from the surface, as though they’re just underneath it, covered by the thinnest layer of clay.
Wilcox says he built The Circular Ruin as part of a commission that called for a kind of sculpture park and that also paid for a towering abstract work a short distance away.
“Tom Ex is the other artist over there who did the Riverwatcher,” Wilcox said.
Kalamazoo artist Lad Hanka contributed to the project as well. Hanka and Wilcox agree that the funding came from Kalamazoo College, though the school couldn’t find a record of it. In any case, the money ran out before the plans were fully realized, with nothing left over for upkeep. Wilcox tells John Schmitt that as the weeds grew up around The Circular Ruin, people forgot about it. Schmitt says he finds that hard to believe.
“This is one of the things that makes this area so - cause you stumble onto things like this. I’m sorry, I’ve never seen anything like this. Mitchell: Well, it’s very few sculptors that get a public piece so I was honored,” he said.
The Circular Ruin, which is not as old as Stonehenge but is about 21, has not worked out for a beer tour yet. But John Schmitt is making his own plans with Mitchell Wilcox.
“Let’s meet up here, I’ll bring the beer, I’ll bring a chair, I want to sit down and I want to tap into your mind because any mind that can create this a mind I want to learn more about,” he said.
“Well, come to my house, dude,” Wilcox replied. “You’ll see a bunch of weird stuff.”
Note: If you visit the Circular Ruin aka Kalamazoo’s Stonehenge, don’t nibble the plants. There’s a lot of poison hemlock back there. But do send us your questions about life in Southwest Michigan!