Saturday, May 5, 2012

"Ad Astra" Ten Years On

Last week I was in Hutchinson, Kansas spending some time touching-up a mural titled "Ad Astra" I created back in 2002. Being there gave me a chance to reflect on how this unusual design came into being, and to share updates about what some of the high school assistants who worked with me on the original project are doing these days.

Situated across Avenue A Park along the banks of Cow Creek, the giant 35 by 150 foot wall is the backdrop to many of  Hutchinson's parades and community celebrations. It's in such a prominent location that I knew back then that the finished mural would become a part of Hutchinson's identity for residents and visitors. Gulp, it was the biggest and most important project I'd ever taken on. When I first visited with artists, students, and community leaders in '02, I heard over and over again a chorus of  Wheat, Cosmosphere, and State Fair. The challenge was how to create something unique, meaningful, and beautiful out of these icons that didn't feel like a billboard for the convention and visitors bureau.

Further discussions at design meetings focused on Hutchinson's relationship to space exploration and how we could create an evocation of the wonder of the starry sky that was different, and perhaps more personal, than what had already been done very well in the Cosmosphere itself. Some suggested that a twilight sky was all that was needed, others wanted to depict the constellations. The constellations, that's it I thought, and asked the group "What constellations do you mean?"

Camille Bachand in 2002 working on the mural design.
"THE constellations," they said "you know, the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, and the other ones." "But who decided how to connect all those dots? I mean, couldn't we just as well make up our own?", I asked.  It took a little more discussing, but eventually we settled on creating a new set of constellations that would reflect the history and culture of Hutchinson.  We were off and running. A train locomotive, sunflower, tractor, bison, Sputnik, were among our new star diagrams. After visiting a local physics professor, the molecular diagram for salt was added along with a hawk, and basketball players reaching for a tip-off.

This poetic take on constellations led me to the great Kansas poet William Stafford, who grew up in Hutch, and to a stanza in his beautiful poem Keepsakes that reads, Any star is enough if you know what star it is. Perfect, I thought. How to incorporate that line of the poem into the design led to the final element in the central part of the mural. Stafford the poet would be there in the mural looking up as he wrote. And he would be joined by an astronomer looking at the same sky through the lens of science, while a young boy perched on his parent's shoulders would touch a constellation that us grown-ups could only imagine.

But the mural is much more than just this panel. The constellations are framed on the left by a giant shock of wheat symbolically aflame at its base and supported by recognizable Kansas quilt patterns, and on the right by a nearly life size State Fair Ferris wheel illuminated in the twilight. Below the wheat and Ferris wheel panels are six smaller panels two of which were designed by Hutchinson school kids and their counterparts visiting for the summer from Northern Ireland.
Student panel with visitors from Northern Ireland.
Throughout this process and during the two-months it took to paint this giant, I was joined by a group of just graduated high school students, enjoying their last summer before college. Trey Morgan, Camille Bachand, Chris Rexroad, Charlie Roberts, and Phillip Tyson came to the project with different goals. Some wanted to make a little cash, some to learn about the mural process. They got both and a little extra, I hope, in the form of a new perspective about what art could mean to everyday folks outside of the art world.
Charlie and Trey on the scissor-lift.
Three of these assistants, Charlie, Chris, and Camille, I got to know better as they all went to KU for art school that fall. Incredibly, all of them have been able to maintain their art practice to this day. Camille and Chris are working artists in LA,  while Charlie, after becoming frustrated with KU, jumped ship, went to school in Vancouver, BC, basically taught himself how to paint (very well) and then due to his work ethic and 'bent leg' (Charlie, Chris, Camille are you listening?) perspective on the world found a large audience for his art. He now lives in Norway with his wife, makes remarkably funny odd picture story paintings, walks his dogs, and is represented by the Richard Heller Gallery.
Charlie Roberts working on the Cosmoshere panel.
I was able to return last week, with my companion Ashley Laird, because the Hutchinson / Reno County Arts and Humanities Council had put away a little money every year for up-keep of the mural and this was the first time they had need to use it. Thanks to Mark Rassette, the HRAH director, for following through on maintenance of "Ad Astra."
Ashley Laird in 2012 repairing the mural.
Me in front the mural in 2012.
When we arrived, I was pleased to see the mural in really good condition except for one relatively small area where the original primer had begun to peel taking with it bits of the mural. The repair was straight forward, we scraped away the loose paint, re-primed the wall and then painted back in those sections of the mural. In all we were there five days leaving on May 4th, the day before Hutchinson's biggest cultural event of the year, Cinco de Mayo. On the day we left, the local newspaper recognized the importance of the mural in an editorial that said in part, "The mural is a defining image for downtown Hutch, and its restoration brightens the look of the district." 

"Ad Astra" 2012

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