What's the Deal with the Easter Island Head in New Berlin?

Dec 15, 2017

You’re probably familiar with the dozens of huge sculptures of human-looking heads, known as Moai, on Easter Island. What you may not know is that there’s a piece of the Polynesian island right here in Wisconsin -- well, sort of.

A 14-foot-tall Moai statue stands proudly in a New Berlin neighborhood.

Bubbler Talk question asker David Stevens reached out to WUWM because he wanted to know the story behind the New Berlin / Easter Island head. So, reporter Teran Powell went on a field trip with David to Joe Stanke's house to learn more.

Joe (R) shows David (L) a scrap booked photo of his Moai statue in his studio.
Credit Teran Powell

Joe built the status in 1980 with help from a few friends.

He says he had always been intrigued by the mystery of the giant Moai sculptures, and that’s how one made its way to his front yard.

"Everything I had heard or read about proved that they were an enigma. All these statues were there (on Easter Island) facing the ocean and around the island and the inhabitants of the island didn’t know where they came from."

Moai statues on Easter Island.
Credit Ben Robinson, Flickr

While the 13- to 30-foot-tall statues on Easter Island are made of volcanic rock, Joe’s sculpture is made of wood, diamond mesh metal lath and cement plaster. And it's bolted to a concrete slab.

He says he used measurements from a model he saw at a museum when planning his piece - Joe's creation measures 14 feet tall and 9 feet wide.

Joe's creation
Credit Teran Powell

"I went there with my clipboard and a drawing pad and a ruler and when nobody was looking I even stood on the shoulder to reach up to take measurements and it’s about 7 feet tall and I just doubled everything," he says.

The Easter Island statue in New Berlin has become quite the attraction over the years. He says people stop by and take photos with it, often posing like they’re sticking their finger up the statue’s nose.  

He doesn’t mind if people take pictures, he just doesn’t want anyone scaling the structure, which, he says, has happened.

"I looked out one day and I saw some guy climbing on it, now this is not a kid - this is an adult. I swore at him, I yelled from the window and I said, you know this is not a public park here, you know. It’s private property."

A description of that incident landed on a website that's dedicated to unusual roadside attractions across the country.

“So it said in this little article, and I still have it somebody printed it out for me, it says “Be careful of that old man, he called us a**holes and said get off his property.' I thought it was kind of funny,” Joe laughs.

Joe shows photos of a life sized butler sculpture he designed years ago.
Credit Teran Powell

Our Bubbler Talk question asker David says he has a personal connection to the Easter Island heads, which is why he’s always been fascinated by Joe’s statue.

“I’ve known of this probably since shortly after you created it and it always caught my attention," he says.

David has been intrigued by the statues since he was a kid. His parents had a much smaller Moai in their home; one his brother built for a school project. "This object was displayed in our house while I was growing up, so it was always an image that had a real deep impression in my mind.”

In addition to satisfying David's curiosity about the New Berlin sculpture, Joe also treated David to some of his other art.

He's a painter, and he walked us through his studio, where the walls were covered with his work.

Joe explains the inspiration behind some of his artwork.
Credit Teran Powell

“This is what I love to do,” he says. “I didn’t go to art school, no. But I’ve been teaching art for 35 years and I have some students that have art degrees which is really a compliment to me because I never got to go to college or anything."

If you look closely, you can see the statue behind the sign and trees.
Credit Teran Powell

For those waiting to see the Easter Island head in person, it's on Cleveland Avenue in New Berlin. You'll know you're getting close when you see the yellow road sign with the artist’s palette. The statue is just a few feet away.

And Joe says, feel free to admire it, or even snap a photo – just try to refrain from climbing on it.

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