I first visited Tonkawa, accompanied by Art McSweeney from Mid-America Arts Alliance (MAAA), this past January. We were on the road doing site visits to communities that had been selected as finalists for the MAAA Mural Project in Oklahoma, and Tonkawa was our first stop. Pulling up to Tonkawa's lone stoplight at the corner of Main and Grand, I recognized features common to many small towns in the Midwest - the two block downtown with as many vacant storefronts as those doing business, the water tower emblazoned with the high school football team's recent state championship, and at the heart of downtown, standing taller and sturdier than any building around despite the fading paint on its surface, the co-op grain elevator.
For someone like me who grew up in a big city, towns like Tonkawa often elicit a hard to pin down emotion of a sort of quaint sentimentality mixed with concerned sadness. I love the look of these places, the unrefurbished beauty of bricks and boards that have been worn and colored by time, but am also aware that these weathered surfaces may be signs of the precarious economic position they are in. How uplifting it was then to meet residents of Tonkawa who, while not blind to their town's challenges, emanated a genuine sense of possibility and community pride that I hadn't expected. Driving back to Kansas after visiting the last of the finalist communities in Oklahoma, it was the people of Tonkawa that stuck with me. More than other places we visited, I could envision their community coming together around the mural project.