Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tonkawa - Behind the scenes I

For our regular go-around design team warm-up, Nicholas asked everyone to reveal nicknames they've been known by for better or worse. In the photo, there's Ken, Audrey, Michelle, Clayton, and Edward contemplating whether they'll fess-up while I record their monikers for posterity. We discovered that in our group there is a Boompa, Breezy, Amburger-hamburger, Red-thunder, Laundry, Clam-chowder, Rag-mop, and Trany-pop-switch-techstyle-fatty-handrail-90-grinder to name just a few.

Experts with a t-square and tape measure, Gordon, Fernando, Audrey, and Irene (behind the camera) measured our wall down to the 1/8th of an inch. The resulting dimensions: 15 feet tall by 124 feet and 7/8ths of an inch long.

Anna, a daughter of the Tonkawa Daylight Donuts owner, is also one of the youngest members of the mural design team. Here she's seen hard at work on one her many remarkable short stories describing what we should put in the mural. Below are few excerpts from her ongoing series...
"Draw a mermaid listening to loud music and she dance everywhere!"
"Draw five people treasure hunting and then draw other people and then they end up seeing each other and when they get tired they say to each other - Are you ok? Nobody should be enemies"
"Draw kids drinking coffee and write Don't drink coffee it makes you shorter. I tried it once."

Pancakes had to wait as a 93 year old Max Carr described his technique for delivering the Sunday paper from the cockpit of his airplane to farms in Kay County in the 1930's.

No one could have predicted that priming the wall was destined to become a roller vs. roller showdown. But when President of Northern Oklahoma College, Dr. Stacy (left) arrived with his wife Dr. Stacy and their grandson, it was on. He faced off against all comers (photographer Ken - Clam chowder - Crowder is seen being bested here) and not only out painted them, but did it while wearing a suit and tie. The wall was primed in no time, and just like Tom Sawyer, I hardly had to paint a lick.

Amber and Nicholas studying volumes of the 1960-70's Tonkawa News at the newspaper office.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tonkawa - Research II

Tonkawa is one of many north central Oklahoma towns who's founding story goes back to the celebrated Cherokee Outlet Land Run. As it's often re-told - at noon on September 16, 1893 over 100,000 would be landowners readied themselves at the Outlet's eastern border/starting line. A shot was fired into the air and the race to lay claim to sections of the 6.5 million acre area was on.

But the story is not that simple, because the Outlet like much of the Oklahoma Territory, had been for many years the federally designated home to Native Americans of many tribes including the Tonkawa, and the opening of this area to new settlement meant that those tribes had to give up most of the land promised to them in perpetuity . Amber, Nicholas and I were fortunate to get a brief illustrated history of this from Tonkawa Tribal President Don Patterson during our visit to the Tribe's community center just east of town. At a dry erase board in his office, Don described the ever shrinking parcels of land Native Americans have been 'given' by the U.S. government, including the Tonkawa, who in 1885 were living on 96,000 acres. Today, Don told us, that 96,000 acre reserve has been whittled down to only around 1,000 acres of fragmented allotments.

Over and over during our research we have heard that the land, how it's settled and the resources it provides are fundamental to the identity of Tonkawa. At our last mural design team meeting, residents reflected on the legacy of the oil boom & bust years, the coming and going of the railroad, memories of the Salt Fork and Chikaskia rivers, and the steadfastness of local farmers some of whom have passed their land on to descendants for more than a century. And although there was a certain sense of pride expressed in what had help establish Tonkawa, some on the design team wondered aloud if looking backward in time, the way many murals in the area do, was enough, especially in light of ongoing economic challenges facing both the tribe and town. A few folks suggested that the mural might be more meaningful to young people if it expressed an acknowledgment of present circumstances, cultural diversity, and a vision for the future in addition to references from the past.

Our initial research is just about finished. Now comes the tough part - trying to coax out a picture story, both meaningful and visually captivating, that conjures the spirit of our conversations, the facts and figures we have gathered, and the input from people in the community that has been shared with us. It is an imperfect process, and as I keep reminding everyone who asks whether this or that will be in the final design - This is just the first mural. There are lots of great walls in Tonkawa just aching for a good idea and a little color.

Tonkawa - Washing the Wall

This short film is the first in a series of glimpses behind the scenes of the MAAA - Tonkawa Mural Project. "Washing the Wall" was shot and edited by Nicholas Ward and Amber Hansen.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tonkawa - Mural Assistants

With only a few days left before the Tonkawa project was to begin, I found the roustabout mural couple Nicholas Ward and Amber Hansen contemplating the post-MFA art world in front of the Bourgeois Pig in Lawrence. Both had recently cleared the next to last hurdle before becoming terminal degree artists and were anxious to put their skills to the test.

But Hansen, originally from Iowa, and Ward, a native of South Dakota, are no novices when it comes to wall painting. Known in some parts as "The Kansas Muralists," this multi-talented couple bring painting, film-making, stop-motion animation, ukulele, and other yet undiscovered talents to the project, and I am pleased to have them as mural co-conspirators here in Oklahoma.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tonkawa - Design Team Research I

Spring had arrived in Tonkawa by the time I returned for the mural design team's first meeting on April 8th. Red buds were in full bloom. Kids skateboarded down Main Street. Garage and rummage sales seemed to emerge out of front yards, along with daffodils and tulips, on every block.

I dropped my bags off at the Tonkawa Funeral Home. We'll actually in the beautiful B&B on the second floor directly above the funeral home. Originally used by relatives of the deceased who wanted to stay with the body of their loved one, the proprietors Edward and Carla Blackwell, have graciously opened up this three bedroom apartment for the muralists to stay in during the project.

As part of the community process, the mural design team is a group composed of about fifteen people from Tonkawa, young and old, long-time residents and recent transplants, students and business people, from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, who can bring a range of perspectives and experiences to the table. Their personal knowledge of Tonkawa and their individual visions for the mural will be integral to creating an art work that has lasting meaning for the community. We first met as a group in the ceramics studio at Northern Oklahoma College, where Audrey Schmitz teaches, and began by imagining how we would like to describe the finished mural, and what were essential images that we felt needed to be included.

I wrote as the group imagined, remembered, and predicted. After an hour or so, we had a list of over a hundred images, places, historical events, and people - enough for five murals at least. At the end of our meeting, we decided that to further our research in the next few days we would 1) do research at the local historical museum, 2) take a walking tour of important spots downtown and photograph them, and 3) set-up 'Give us your two cents about the mural' booths at the Methodist Church pancake breakfast/rummage sale and at Dorsetts Grocery Store (seen below).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tonkawa - 1st Community Meeting

I arrived in Tonkawa for the first mural project community meeting on March 28th. Before the meeting, as people flowed into the conference room at the First National Bank, I looked around at a gallery of panoramic photographs of Three Sands oil filed and the town that sprang up around it in the 1920's. Back then Tonkawa was known as the "Billion Dollar Spot," due to the discovery of these incredible oil reserves. Today, although you can still see a few oil pumps churning away south of town, the skyline of derricks that used to dominate the horizon and the bustling town around them are all but gone.

By two o'clock there was a crowd of about thirty people ready for my presentation, which is basically a fifteen minute history of murals from the cave paintings in Lascaux to Giotto to Rivera to the New Deal post office murals and finally to the contemporary community mural movement beginning with the "Wall of Respect" in Chicago, followed by a brief overview of the development of my murals and how I go about choreographing their design and execution.

After the slide show and a break where we all had a chance to get some cookies and punch, we reassembled and I asked the audience to share with me how they envisioned the mural at this early stage in the process. I wrote their comments on a flip-pad as they spoke: wheat heart, Cherokee Strip Land Run, Tonkawa Tribe, state football champions, Three Sands, the Heart in the Park Labyrinth, the Chikaskia and Salt Fork Rivers, and the POW camp began the list. It was clear right away that Tonkawa was rich with a layered, interwoven, and deeply felt cultural history, and that residents (at least the ones who came to this meeting) were engaged in an ongoing dialogue about how that history was preserved and told, and how it influenced the identity of the place they lived in today.

The meeting ended with a few of us, including Audrey Schmitz and Ken Crowder, walking down Grand St. to look at potential walls for the mural. There were three or four excellent spots, but we all seemed to agree that Tonkawas's first outdoor mural might have the biggest impact on a wall (seen below) at the intersection of Main and Grand, home to Tonkawa's lone stoplight.

Tonkawa, Oklahoma

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.

Mid-America Arts Alliance Mural Project

After nearly a year of preparation and planning, the Mid-America Arts Alliance Mural Project has kicked into full gear. Part I of this two state pilot project is underway in Tonkawa, Oklahoma through the end of May, and will be followed by Part II in Newton, Kansas in July and August. 

Visit the Mid-America Mural Project blog at  to find the latest updates.