Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Kansas Murals" book available from the University Press of Kansas

The University Press of Kansas has a new website where it's easy to purchase copies of "Kansas Murals: A Traveler's Guide," the 2006 book I collaborated on with Lora Jost.

"As much a book on Kansas land and history as about its mural art, this is a portrait of a place and its people. From beloved clichs to unexpected innovations, Jost and Loewenstein's selections take us from a wild-eyed John Brown to the ornate box turtle capital of the world, from silos to post offices, covered wagons to rocket ships, graffiti to architectural heaven. Read this even if Kansas is not on your itinerary.” 
—Lucy R. Lippard, author of Lure of the Local

“Makes me want to jump in the car right now and go look at those marvelous murals!”
—Marci Penner, author of The Kansas Guidebook for Explorers

“An essential book for every traveler in the Kansas art-scape.”
—Charles C. Eldredge, author of Tales from the Easel

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Wings of Desire - The Art of William H. Howe

(This essay was originally published in on February 24, 2006. Since links to many of my old blog essays are broken, I am republishing them here.)

In 1941 as the U.S. entered into World War II, 13-year-old William Howe was busily filling sketchbooks with remarkable renderings of butterflies, as a student at the West Coast Institute of Arts and Crafts in Berkley, California. Later that year, William's father Edwin hastily moved the family away from the coast, in order to protect them from potential bombing by the Japanese. After a brief stay in Lawrence, the family settled in Ottawa, Kansas, which - as fate would have it - was directly in the path of the annual monarch migration. 

One of Howe's teenage journals.

William's infatuation with butterflies began at an early age. As he told it, the defining event of his childhood occurred when his father, who was an entomologist working for the USDA, brought home a cage full of caterpillars and left them on the dining room table. Over the following days, William watched spellbound as the striped caterpillars metamorphosed, first forming chrysalides and then emerging as elegant black swallowtails. From this experience grew a lifetime passion for the gossamer-winged insects. Howe said, "My fascination with butterflies has been welded into a lifelong avocation that has commanded both my spirit and my labors. But it isn't a scientific interest. The scientific problems I leave up to the experts. Sitting under a microscope in an office doesn't appeal to me. It is the emotional experience of catching a butterfly and the reward of being able to use my paints to capture it on paper or canvas. I do this for one reason - it's fun. And most jobs are not fun, I have found." 

In 2006 at age 77, Howe was still painting everyday in his small apartment in Ottawa. All of his paintings were made from observing actual butterflies (he never painted from photos), many of which he collected on his eighty-three trips to Mexico. Today, he is considered one of the country's most admired butterfly artists. His paintings are in the collections of museums around the world including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. His authoritative book "Butterflies of North America" (out of print), illustrated with 2,033 watercolors, is hailed by many entomologists as the greatest volume ever published on butterflies of this continent.

Howe at work on "Butterflies of North America."

I first saw William Howe's paintings in 1991 at the old Plum Tree restaurant on Iowa Street. They may have clashed a little with the Chinese decor, but Howe always favored restaurants, offices, and other retail businesses that he frequented to show his work. The advantages of these venues over galleries were that they had a captive and frequently changing audience, and usually no commission on sales. 

I continued to spot Howe's curious and original paintings over the years, like "Butterflies Greeting Columbus" below, and always wondered what the artist who created them was like. Then in 2004, we met. It was in Ottawa, at the house that he'd lived in since 1941, where I interviewed him about his mural depicting monarchs migrating through Chase County that he was restoring in the old Ottawa Middle School cafeteria. That first meeting led to others where, over slices of blackberry pie and coffee at his favorite restaurant, we discussed organizing a show of his paintings in Lawrence.

That exhibition, Wings of Desire - The Art of William H. Howe, opened in March of 2006 at the Olive Gallery. At the opening, Howe gave a short talk about his work and signed copies of his first book "Our Butterflies and Moths" published in 1964. The twenty plus paintings in the show represented the wide range of approaches Howe had taken to his life-long subject. 

Part of the Olive Gallery installation.
There were trompe l'oeil portraits of butterflies hovering slightly above the canvas. There were carefully composed families of butterflies, rendered like Audubon, in their natural settings. There were the paintings, Howe often called 'surreals' or 'abstracts,' where his mutable subjects become vehicles for storytelling and abstract design. And exhibited for the first time, were Howe's figurative and narrative paintings which explored his personal life and political concerns.

All of these paintings reflected William Howe's devotion to craft and reverence for nature. But his paintings are about much more than studied technique and patient observation - they are deeply felt personal statements, that illuminate the fragile and quiet life of both butterflies and the man who rendered them with such affection.

William H. Howe died on August 18, 2009 in Ottawa, KS. He was 81. For more on Howe's work, go to his website here, and this 2004 article in the Pitch by Gina Kaufmann.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mural postcards at Essential Goods in Lawrence

You can now buy postcards of most of my Lawrence murals (including the restored Seeds mural below) at Essential Goods, 825 Massachusetts Street.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Will East Lawrence become as pretty as a French Neo-Impressionist picture?

Lawrence City Commission elections are right around the corner and candidates have been pulling out all the stops to appeal to voters. This includes using all sorts of media from internet ads to yard signs and mass mailings, with one even appropriating a famous French painting to bolster their message.

For as long as there have been politics, politicians have understood and used the power of art and music to influence voters. These days it seems like every presidential candidate has a well-known and carefully chosen pop song playing at their events - just think of Bill Clinton and Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow).” And with visual art, Barack Obama got a real boost from Shepherd Fairey’s hugely popular “Hope” poster (although Fairey ran into copyright issues for the photo he based his poster on). Most candidates know not to use an artist’s work without their permission, some are uninformed, and a few figure they can get away with a little appropriation here and there and not get caught.

One of the best examples of this was Ronald Reagan’s co-opting of the Bruce Springsteen song “Born in the USA” during his 1984 campaign for president. Reagan not only didn’t have the musician’s permission, he didn’t understand the song’s meaning, which he took to be a patriotic cheer even though the lyrics clearly express the struggles of Vietnam veterans returning home to a broken system. More recently, Florida Senate candidate, Charlie Crist was sued for appropriating the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” and eventually had to make a public apology.

Even when artworks or songs can be licensed, most institutions and individual artists specifically prohibit the use of their work in political campaigns. The reason is clear - associating a work of art with a particular candidate or political platform implies that the artist or institution supports them.

This is why I was surprised last week to find in my mailbox a campaign postcard that appeared to be in clear violation of those prohibitions. On the front of the card is a reproduction of Georges Seurat’s beloved 1884 painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte.” Superimposed over the bottom of the image is the word ARTS, while a banner runs along the top of the card that reads “March 3 – Vote for Bob Schumm.” Turning the card over, the campaign message deals exclusively with Mr. Schumm’s support for the East 9th Street corridor project, but nowhere on the card is credit given to Seurat or the Art Institute of Chicago which owns the work.

It's hard not to come to the conclusion that the juxtaposition of Seurat’s painting with Schumm’s campaign message represents the candidate’s vision for the future of East 9th Street.

Setting aside the issues of licensing and copyright (which probably are applicable in this case), I’ve been considering what else this campaign ad is communicating to voters. Looking again at Seurat’s painting and then thinking about the neighborhood of East Lawrence, I wondered if this bucolic fantasy is really what proponents of the East 9th Street project envision, and if so, what that means for those of us who live and work there now.

In Seurat’s painting, Parisians (all of them white) lounge along a riverbank. Women hold parasols, men wear top hats, one couple has a pet monkey on a leash. They are still and apparently silent but for one trumpet player - playing the tune to “Road to Nowhere” perhaps? This may be an accurate representation of 1884 France, but East 9th Street in 2015? It’s an unusual choice. With so many great artists in Lawrence (let alone Kansas), it begs the question - why Mr. Schumm chose to appropriate this famous painting instead of using the work of a local artist for his campaign postcard.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Half Empty

For the next six weeks I'll be working with students at Washburn University on Half Empty, a campaign to inform and advocate on issues related to water in Kansas. We have a blog for the project that you can check out here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

East 9th Street and the Allure of Creative Placemaking

Over the past couple of months, there has been lots of conversation about the Lawrence Arts Center’s proposed development for East 9th Street. At City Commission, East Lawrence neighborhood meetings, in the Journal-World and on the street, people have been discussing the potential impacts and opportunities of this ambitious and first of its kind project in Lawrence.

Reflecting on the origins of this project, and studying recent evaluations of the new practice of creative placemaking, may help shed light on many of the concerns and questions that have been raised.

East 9th Street
In 2010 Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus completed “Creative Placemaking,” the National Endowment for the Arts report that introduced this practice to a wider public. It was this report that launched the creative placemaking funding initiatives Our Town and later ArtPlace, which are at the center of the proposed East 9th Street project.

But just two years after co-authoring the NEA’s paper, Markusen wrote of her unease about how ArtPlace was measuring creative placemaking success. She writes “ ArtPlace is developing “measures of value, which capture changes in rental and ownership values…” This reads like an invitation to gentrification, and contrary to the NEA’s aspirations for creative placemaking to support social cohesion and community attachment.”

This is not a surprise. Gadwa Nicodemus and Markusen alerted us to the potential of creative placemaking to spur gentrification in their original NEA paper when they wrote, “Arts-initiated revitalization can set off gentrification pressures that displace current residents and small businesses, including non-profit arts organizations.”

And they are not alone in their concern.

In his 2013 essay, “Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-Belonging,” Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima County Arts Council, writes, “The blind love of Creative Placemaking that is tied to the allure of speculation culture and its economic thinking of “build it and they will come” is suffocating and unethical, and supports a politics of dis-belonging employed to manufacture a “place.”

These comments by respected arts leaders are clearly reflected in the dialogue that has emerged around the proposed East 9th Street project. Although East Lawrence was represented on the Cultural District Task Force, which made general recommendations for the Cultural District, the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association (ELNA) was not consulted in the development of the actual ArtPlace and Our Town grants related to East 9th Street. Concerns about this lack of agency in the process, led ELNA to initiate forums for discussion around the project’s implications, including facilitated public meetings and a three-hour “Imagine East 9th Street” event. 

Imagine East 9th Street event, November 16, 2014
Comments from many participants at these meetings expressed the need for accountability and the desire for full participation in the overall process. These ideas taken together concern social equity - the idea that fair access to livelihood, education, and resources; full participation in the political and cultural life of the community; and self-determination in meeting fundamental needs is a social good intrinsic to healthy and just communities.

In her 2014 article, “The Gentrification of Our Livelihoods: Everything must go,” about an ArtPlace funded project in San Francisco, writer Megan Wilson speaks directly to this need for equity. She writes, “To achieve these ends, we must work to put far more pressure on our city officials and hold them accountable to provide the best services, opportunities, and amenities for residents, while ensuring that existing communities are protected and supported through high functioning planning, permitting, and legislation with strong and clear avenues for oversight and accountability by their constituencies.”

This is what many East Lawrence residents have been advocating for – genuine accountability and an acknowledgment of the value that their unique experience and knowledge can bring to the process.

Hiring the city’s first Director of Arts and Culture, Christina McClelland, whose task it was to facilitate the East 9th Street process, was a step in the right direction. Her expertise and experience were shown to be integral in creating an informed and equitable process. Unfortunately, that position is now vacant and we’ve been left adrift without a Director of Arts and Culture to navigate the complex and sensitive dynamics of that project.

But perhaps this is a good thing. Maybe it’s exactly what we need - a time to pause and reflect on the underlying questions and concerns the proposed East 9th Street project has surfaced. Doing so will go long way to ensuring that those impacted most by the project have a strong voice in its planning and implementation. It will also allow us to be much better prepared when the new Director of Arts and Culture arrives, and the process of the East 9th Street project resumes.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


January 17- February 22, 2015
Gallery hours: Wed-Sun, 12-6pm
Opening Reception: Saturday, January 17, 5 to 8pm

Smack Mellon
92 Plymouth Street @ Washington
Brooklyn, NY

I am participating in this remarkable exhibition and series of events responding to the continued failure of the United States to protect its black citizens from police discrimination and violence.
More from Smack Mellon here, and a review of the exhibition from the New York Times here.

Ruth Fremson / The New York Times