Metal Michigan wildlife greet visitors to Tom Lakenen's park.
Metal Michigan wildlife greet visitors to Tom Lakenen's park.

Lakenenland: Junk Art Park

Field review by the editors.

Marquette, Michigan

Tom Lakenen has a lot of energy -- sometimes too much energy for his own good. "I just can't sit around and watch TV," he told us. When he was on the road as a construction worker, he would drink to relieve his boredom. "A 30-pack a day, every day," Tom said. That's nearly three gallons of beer.

One of several space-themed sculptures at Lakenenland.
One of several space-themed sculptures at Lakenenland.

Tom eventually found that binge-drinking was a bad use of his free time, so in 1995 he ditched the beer for a hobby: building sculptures out of the scrap metal that he salvaged from jobs. He was so happy with his first result, "Eight Dancing Wolves" -- with painted-on tuxedos, posed in front of a chain-musician jazz band -- that he moved it onto his front yard. "Nobody threw eggs at my house," he recalled, "so I said, 'Well, maybe I'll make more stuff.'"

Because Tom is Tom, he eventually had dozens of sculptures in the grass around his home. That did not please the Planning and Zoning Boards of Chocolay Township. Faced with the eviction of his art, Tom told his family, "I want to put this junk where people can see it." So in 2003 he mortgaged their house, bought 37.5 acres out in the woods, and started filling it with his metal creations.

Corporate Greed Pig, doing something foul to the tiny American Worker.
Corporate Greed Pig is doing something foul to the tiny American Worker.

Tom named the place Lakenenland (LAY-ken-an-land). The authorities still weren't happy. A feud between Tom and the town lasted for years, and although they currently have an unofficial truce, signs at Lakenenland still warn away local officials. "Everybody in the world is welcome here," said Tom, "except the Planning and Zoning Boards of Chocolay Township."

Moving firewood in Michigan is illegal.
Sad family, caught red-handed with Michigan firewood.

The bureaucrats must have been jerks, because Tom comes across as a self-effacing, generous guy. At Lakenenland he's cleared trees; built roads and trails (and a parking lot); mows the grass; dug a fire pit (and chops wood for visitors to burn); installed outhouses; built a pavilion, a band shell, and a bog walk; stocked two ponds so that kids can fish -- in addition to holding down his construction job and creating over 100 sculptures, some weighing thousands of pounds, and moving them to the park.

Tom clearly likes people, yet he prefers to be as invisible as possible, at least with strangers -- in contrast to some more self-promoting roadside artists. "I don't like being out in the public; I don't want no part of that," Tom said. He usually does chores or sculpture work at Lakenenland early in the morning, then leaves.

Creature.
Some binge-drinkers see pink elephants. Tom Lakenen saw zany yellow monsters.

"When it starts to get busy I get out of there."

And because Tom hates the idea of anyone driving past by Lakenenland and not enjoying it, the park never closes. If you arrive at 3 AM on Christmas morning, Lakenenland is open -- although you'd need cross-country skis to see the artwork, because this part of Michigan accumulates 200 inches of snow a year.

Sign calls attention to bowling ball growth on fallen log.
Sign calls attention to bowling ball growth on fallen log.

Also, everything at Lakenenland is free -- even the hot chocolate and coffee that Tom sets out in winter. "I don't want anybody to not come because they can't afford it," Tom said. "You can always afford to come here! And if you don't like my sculptures you don't have to wait to get your money back, because it didn't cost you nothin' to get in."

None of this would matter much if Tom's artwork wasn't fun to look at -- but it is. A half-mile trail leads from the parking lot on a zig-zag loop, providing the greatest possible display space for Tom's sculptures. All of them are weighted with iron so they can't tip over. Public interaction with the artwork is not discouraged.

Tom's subjects vary, but he seems to really enjoy making dragons, skeletons, dinosaurs, space aliens, and monsters. "I'm recreating the things I used to see when I was drinking," he said with a laugh. The creatures often have multicolor details, which Tom credited to his equally energetic, eighty-something mother. "She just throws some cans of paint in the car and spends all day out here."

Lakenenland is also stocked with Tom's tributes to groups such as ironworkers, boilermakers, the U.S. Marines, mermaids, 9/11, the UP200 dogsled race, and the local Wildcats hockey team. An artwork for "Carp River College" -- Marquette's maximum security prison -- features a student as Frankenstein's monster. If visitors get lost, a helpful sculpture demonstrates that bowling balls grow on the north sides of trees. The Eight Dancing Wolves are here, too.

Like everything at Lakenenland, the fishing ponds are free.
All of the attractions at Lakenenland, including the fishing ponds, are free.

Lakenenland's most popular artwork, based on drawings sent to Tom by school kids, is the "Corporate Greed Pig," which takes bites out of the Lower 48 while doing something unmentionable to the Average American Worker at its rear end. Another political sculpture features a ghoulish anti-union politician hammering a wedge to split the USA. "Moving Firewood in Michigan is Illegal" shows a sad family suffering the consequences of over-zealous law enforcement. "These things kinda bug you, but what can you do?" asked Tom. "I make them into sculptures and laugh at them."

Tom waved off our compliments for producing so much art at Lakenenland. "Building them is pretty simple," he said. "In construction you have to be level, square, and perfect. But when you make the leg of a dinosaur, you just hack off a piece of metal and weld it on. If it's crooked, that's the way it was supposed to be." The credit, he said, belongs to the public, which has treated his sculptures and Lakenenland with loving care. Tom said that he can be away on a job for weeks, and when he comes back to the park he finds no damage, and barely any litter worth picking up.

We asked Tom which artworks at Lakenenland were his favorites. His answer: "I guess the ones that are really tall." That's because after each winter storm Tom drives to the park with a leaf blower and clears the accumulated snow from all 100 sculptures. "Otherwise they'd all be buried. You'd never see them."

Seeing the sculptures is what Tom wants, and he wants them seen by as many people as possible. Working extra to make that happen is okay with him. He told us that he sometimes visits Lakenenland with his wife, and since no casual visitor knows who they are, Tom can anonymously see how typical tourists react to his artwork. "You see people going through, smiling, hootin' and hollerin' and having a good ol' time," Tom said. "That makes it all worthwhile."

Also see: Another Michigan Metal Man

Lakenenland: Junk Art Park

Address:
2800 M-28 E., Marquette, MI
Directions:
From Marquette drive south on US-41 for four miles. Turn east at the stoplight onto MI-28. Drive 9.5 miles. You'll see the entrance on the right (south) side, just past Shot Point Drive.
Hours:
Open year-round Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Admission:
Donations accepted.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Phil the Window WasherPhil the Window Washer, Marquette, MI - 12 mi.
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Town of Fighter JetsTown of Fighter Jets, Sawyer, MI - 15 mi.
In the region:
Pet Casket Factory Tours, Gladstone, MI - 45 mi.

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September 23, 2020

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