ALTEN, FRED K.
was a carver of small animal sculptures and a few figural pieces in wood, which he produced over a twenty-year period in the isolation of his garage in Wyandotte,Michigan. His motivation to create was never revealed. Alten’s carvings were left behind when he moved from Wyandotte back to his home in Lancaster, Ohio, andwere not discovered until thirty years later at an estate sale in 1975.Alten’s father, an immigrant from Germany, settled with his family in Lancaster. They were devout members of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. The artistworked with his brothers John and August in the Alten Foundry and Machine Works, a business founded by another brother, Henry. He married Mary Ann Weidner about 1890, and they moved to Wyandotte, Michigan, in 1912, where Fred began a series of jobs as a mover, a machinery oiler, an employee of the Ford Motor Company, a carpenter, and a janitor.Alten’s animal figures range from prehistoric dinosaurs to circus lions and tigers to familiar barnyard creatures and household pets. He lined up groups of animals and placed them side-by-side in wooden cages that he constructed with thin metal bars. At times his animals were presented in combat.
Johnson’s Household Book of Nature, a natural history encyclopedia published in 1880 and based on the nineteenth-century writings of such naturalists as John James Audubon, and which Alten probably used as a reference, was found among his animal carvings after he left Michigan.The animal figures were carved with common tools, such as pocketknives, in one piece, or withinterlocking parts, and assembled in a manner similar to the foundry patterns that Alten had worked with in his family’s business. Occasionally, he used metal to balancea wooden animal, or to embellish a dinosaur’s scaly skin. The animals were painted or given a waxy-looking surface, and textured with a pointed object to achieve ahair-like finish. Alten produced a few metal castings of his animal figures, which were turned into doorstops and trivets during the period when he worked in thefoundry. Alten produced more than 150 animal figures in his lifetime.
Doorstops; Sculpture, Folk
Milwaukee Museum of Art.
Common Ground/Uncommon Vision: The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art.
Milwaukee, Wisc., 1993.Hall, Julie.
The Sculpture of Fred Alten.
Ann Arbor, Mich., 1980.