Sunday, January 26, 2014

Big Art in Lawrence: One step back, two steps forward

As the tides of retail economics and whims of local diners ebb and flow, often overlooked are the site-specific artworks that are lost when businesses change hands or reboot. Fortunately, as some vanish others appear.

Last year, I wrote about the loss of two of my old murals at Quintons. This year marks the disappearance of another well-known downtown artwork as Tellers morphed into Merchants and Stan Herd’s unique series of murals behind the bar were removed to make room for a shroud of crimson (read about the designer’s inspiration for the change here). But as we lost Stan’s, we gained two great new pieces - one a painted mural at the renovated Poehler Building by KT Walsh, and the other a mosaic mural at Free State Brewery by Lora Jost.

Stan Herd - Tellers
For those who frequented Tellers over the years, Stan Herd's murals were familiar and a bit of a mystery with their translucent overlapping shapes camouflaging images underneath. They were also an early influence on me as I began doing murals. In fact, I first met Stan while he was painting in Tellers back in 1992. I remember walking in the open door to find him high up on a ladder. We chatted for a minute when, as I recall, he had to take a call from Donald Trump? (He was planning a new landscape piece for New York City at the time, the story of which was later turned into the film, Earthwork).

Now that the Tellers murals are gone and solving their matrix of pictograms is not an option, I asked Stan to describe how they had come into being and what they were all about. Here is what he recalled to me in his email response -

“I was approached by the family that owned/ managed Tellers before they first opened. The bank was being renovated and the bar had not been completed yet when I fielded the commission. My first design was a compilation of figures including friends, famous and infamous, in Lawrence's history juxtaposed with ephemera, and whimsical figures. The ownership pretty much gave me free license to do anything that I wanted which was pretty cool.

I had been involved in an experimental exercise to explore color with a half dozen small canvases which grew from some free form drawings of shapes, figures and symbols overlaid without pre thinking what it might look like. It was fun. I was trying to 'loosen up' and not be so tight in my drawing. The subsequent paintings were to explore color and the idea of multiple dark, medium gray, and muted colors juxtaposed against a few high chroma colors. It wasn't very scientific, just more a 'feel' thing. When I went in to visualize the five-panel mural I took the six panels in and placed them against the wall. That is when it occurred to me that I could just transfer the designs on the wall and 'float' them as if they were being dropped from space or caught up in a Kansas tornado, rather than the figurative Lawrence historical mural. 

Stan Herd's Tellers murals

As I began to transfer the drawings, I decided to add a central panel which was painted on a larger canvas than the six small canvas's. This painting had a lot more thought and included three important seminal iconic images that define my artistic journey- The figure of Cerros Unitas- an ancient Chilean land design, my sunflower still life design (link here) created outside of Lawrence, and an inverted Buick logo- to embrace my 'commercial' work.

I went out and bought 400 dollars worth of oil paints- then realized that i had to paint the panels while the guys were actually building out the interior including the bar. Everyday the building was filled with sawdust for four hours after the crews left- So I went out and bought 300 dollars worth of acrylic paints to create the work. It took me about 200 hours to complete, mostly at night after the day workers were off. Early on I decided that I would stretch canvas on each panel so that the work would stand alone from the building itself, just in case something happened down the road to jeopardize the work.

The new management of Merchants called me to tell me that they were going to replace the works. As an artist, I don't have a lot of strong feelings about my past work....thinking that the effort to create the work is more important than the completed piece- that the object itself is just a byproduct of that time and artistic expression. That’s probably why I will never make it financially- Ha. Anyway- I still have all of the original drawings and paintings. Merchants has the mural panels rolled up in the office and that is probably where they will stay.”

So fans of Stan Herd, his iconic Lawrence murals await a new home, preferably one with twenty-foot ceilings…

KT Walsh - Poehler Building
Around the same time that Stan’s murals were being rolled up, KT Walsh was putting the finishing touches on a colorful tableau that traces the cultural history of the Poehler Building and its environs at the east end of 8th Street.

As a longtime resident of East Lawrence and passionate protector of the neighborhood’s spirit and character, KT was the perfect artist to tell this story. She already had loads of research. All she needed was a wall. Enter developer Tony Krisnich and his interest in incorporating the work of local artists into the redevelopment of the Poehler. Tony commissioned KT to create a site-specific piece for the tall and narrow entryway on the north side of the building, a spot open and visible to passersby as well as tenants.

Research material for the Poehler mural
Joining KT on the project were her partner Brad Gibson and assistant Amber Hansen. The three of them worked together to fashion a design that would recall the people and stories connected to this small slice of Lawrence. Included are portraits of Theodore and Sophie Poehler, Exodusters, Mexican railroad workers and references to La Yarda, German immigrants, Native Americans, farmers and a giant reproduction of one of the iconic Poehler can labels with its polar bear emblem. The mural also includes a night sky with personalized constellations and a beloved tree tragically cut down for a sewer project while the artists were painting.

Mural color study
I asked KT why she felt making a mural was an effective way of telling this story. She said, “ It’s important to visually educate people about this special part of Lawrence and to have that storytelling happen right in the place where it occurred. Not everyone goes to museums and much of this, unfortunately, is not covered in history classes. By making the mural, we are saying that these histories, issues and people are worth remembering.”

“It’s also pure joy to paint a mural right in my own neighborhood. It’s wonderful while you’re working to have people (workers, tenants and passersby) stop and share their stories about the building and the place with you. In a way the mural becomes a way of instigating storytelling and cultivating memory.”

While current excitement about the newly designated cultural district (also known as the East Lawrence Neighborhood) has focused on a kind of re-branding that emphasizes real estate speculation and opportunities to leverage cultural assets for economic development, artists like KT are reminding the new prospectors that this neighborhood is not to be played like a game of Monopoly but is a thriving community with a proud heritage and strong sense of its own identity.

KT speaking at the mural dedication

Lora Jost - Free State Brewery
Over the years, Free State Brewery has embellished its building with a series of locally made artworks including John Havener’s metal adornments around the restaurant’s interior columns, a clay tile frieze above the windows on the porch and now a scintillating bricolage mosaic mural by Lora Jost on the wall at the landing of the inside stairwell.

In an email, I asked Lora about the impetus for the project, the techniques she used and the imagery depicted in the finished piece titled “Nearly Spring.” She responded with a detailed description that reveals the behind the scenes workings of coordinating and implementing her project - 

“The project was initiated by Chuck Magerl, proprietor of the Free State Brewery. The imagery and ideas for the mural grew out of our meandering conversations that focused on the area landscape, birds, the environment, and the return of the south wind -- Spring.

The mosaic is comprised of thousands of irregular pieces cut from ceramic dishes from secondhand stores. I broke the plates with a hammer and then used a tile nipper to cut and shape the pieces. Additional materials in the mosaic include small found objects, donated tiles, rocks, shells, hardware from the brewery, a shard of a beer bottle that includes the Free State’s Prairie Falcon logo, and special dishes and found materials contributed by friends and brewery-workers. 

Laying tile in the studio
The mosaic was created on four different panels that were later installed as one piece. The panels were built and installed by Todd Pederson and Jim Lewis of Independent Woodcraft here in Lawrence. The mural was in the works for about a year with intensive tiling and grouting occurring between July and December of 2013. Installation was on New Year’s Day 2014. 

Lora at work during the installation of "Nearly Spring"
The design includes references to three area landscapes in the early spring. A river runs through the center of the mural, farm fields form a patchwork landscape each with its own color and design, and cattails in the foreground represent the wetlands. Birds in the mosaic that might be found in these rural settings include crows, red-winged blackbirds, and a scissor-tailed flycatcher.

The tracks left on the land from last year’s harvest and this year’s new growth (last year’s corn, this year’s wheat) as well as fields of a small wildflower called henbit are described with variations in color, line, and pattern and provide a sense of movement or motion in the overall scene. Lines and color variation in the sky represent a clear blue sky to the left and rain towards the right.

Crows in flight are cut through with red spirals to form focal points in the scene. The spirals are intended to show movement and to take the viewer away from the scene’s figurative realism and into a place more dreamlike or imaginary.”

"Nearly Spring"

Lora has been making mosaics for years, but this is her first large public piece in that medium. Thanks to the Brewery for commissioning her and giving the wider public a chance to enjoy this remarkable work. Go see it for yourself and while you’re there try the “Mosaic Pale Ale,” while it lasts. You can see more photos of the mosaic and read about the process here.

These three murals (two since the removal of Stan’s) are gifts to Lawrence. Instead of being sold to the highest bidder and hidden away in private, they are at home in public, available for us all to enjoy. And although they are integrated into the architecture of existing buildings, they are not mere decorations, but serious (and seriously beautiful) artworks imbued with rich depictions of our shared history, ecology and character. Over the years, they will become part of the fabric of our visual environment, places of memory and visions of our aspirations.

Thanks to Stan, KT and Lora for sharing their stories with me for this piece.

One final note - Soon I’ll be posting an update about the Pollinators mural at farmers market. The wall that the mural is on is slated for demolition to make way for a new upscale apartment building being developed by Doug Compton. The Spencer Museum, which commissioned the mural in 2007, has expressed to the developers its wish that the mural be preserved.


Monday, January 13, 2014

The New Recruit (in honor of WIlliam Burroughs's 100th)

(Here is a slightly updated version of my essay, first published on December 14, 2006)

Lawrence, Kansas: City of the Arts, Harvard on the Kaw, bastion of hippie liberalism, spark to the Civil War and basketball empire. It’s said to be a great place to raise a family, but hasn't yet caught on as a destination for retiring stars of the literary and art worlds. Perhaps it's because we lack the scenic attractions of mountains and oceans, the grittiness and cultural wonders of big cities, or the comfort of a mild climate; all of which make the relocation of writer William Burroughs to Lawrence in 1981 that much more remarkable. (For more about how he came to Lawrence, read Tom King's interview with James Grauerholz here.)

For nearly sixteen years Lawrence was on the map as the place where Burroughs lived. Although many couldn't understand how he could live in Lawrence, the devotional effect he had on his followers and popularity as a cultural icon drew many to make pilgrimages to the writers' new home. And during that time, it wasn't unusual to see his peers and protégés like Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Keith Haring, Kurt Cobain and Laurie Anderson pass through. It was cool to be from Lawrence, where William Burroughs lived.

Burroughs's home on Learnard Ave.
Burroughs died in 1997, but his spirit still roams downtown, reanimated by the memories of those who knew him well, those who know those who knew him well, and those who count a happenstance encounter with the writer as a fish story worthy of a thousand retellings. Today, you can still hear the slightest anecdotes about him traded like hipster currency in bars and coffee shops, with admirers referring to him as “Burroughs” and those who can claim a closer connection referring to him by the more familiar "William." Ones I’ve heard include - 

I used to always see Burroughs at the dirty Dillons.
I once had to drive William to the methadone clinic in Kansas City.
Someone who did landscaping at his house told me that Burroughs's lawnmower was stored in my garage in North Lawrence after he died.
I actually had sex in William's house during some sort of party and remember what an incredible library he had. 
We stocked shotgun shells for him at our store until he died. 
I cut William's hair for thirteen years.
I shook Burroughs's hand at a birthday soiree in D.C.
I lived two doors down from him, I think.

And here's one final anecdote I heard from an old friend. I won't reveal her identity except to say that her story has been verified by six people at the Bourgeois Pig.

One time, William S. Burroughs came in to my work to buy cat food and we went bungee jumping off the Kaw River bridge together. I told him he was the best and he shot a can of paint in the most talented way. So then I said let's make this shit real, and we blended our souls into one and the clouds opened up and he ascended with my soul into the heavens and stood next to Jim Morrison and waved at me and told me to Don't Stop Believin'. It was intense. He was amazing. He loves me more than he ever loved you.

Others would rather have us forget Burroughs, as was clear when the Brook Creek Neighborhood Association put forth the idea of renaming the creek near his house as a memorial. The creek eventually was renamed "Burroughs", and maybe someday his old house on Learnard will be preserved as a place for visiting writers and artists, but what about the loose band of anti-establishment free thinkers who coalesced around and were motivated by his presence? This may have been the biggest effect Burroughs had on Lawrence, as local poet Jim McCrary wrote in the book Embattled Lawrence:Conflict and Community, "By living in Lawrence, William kept alive an alternative community of libertarianism that always made room and stood aside for younger members."  When William Burroughs checked out, this "alternative community" lost its number one anti-hero and sage.

The only other Lawrencian, that comes to mind, who inspires a kind of devotional following is Bill James. Who? He's the guru baseball statistician whose counter-intuitive number crunching brought a World Series title to the Boston Red Sox after an eighty-six year drought. That's sports analysis though. It may be a worthy pursuit (and I wish the Cubs would hire him for a season), but it just doesn't have the same cache as renegade Beat writer. So, isn't there anyone else, any other edgy and brilliant writer or artist living among us, under the radar? Maybe. There are rumors...

Nearly all of them name the same figure. An innovative art multitasker who, if he did live here, would go a long way toward putting Lawrence back on that map. Unconfirmed sightings of him began soon after Burroughs's death. The story spread, and then someone I trust swore that this guy, this artist, writer, producer, and rock and roll hip-star was now confirmed as living in Lawrence. He'd hired a realtor to find a home while he stayed at the Eldridge, they said. Then, he'd bought a house on the southwest corner of 23rd and Massachusetts, and his number was in the phone book under D. Byrne.

That was eight or nine years ago. Nevertheless, a lot of us really wanted this story to be true so we ignored evidence to the contrary, like the fact that D. Byrne hasn't been seen here since his show in 1997, and clung to a fading memory of once hearing about someone who'd seen him riding his bike downtown. I cannot and would not want to try to prove that the front man for the Talking Heads never lived here. All I can say, is that if he did, he was one hell of a recluse, and it appears from checking area phone books that our city's charms weren't enough to hold him here, and he moved to Olathe. Olathe.

So, it seems that we are without an iconoclast captain once again, adrift and invisible on the map of cool. What to do? Will Lawrence ever again be home to a big fish who can rekindle our nonconformist spirit? If so, who, and why would they come here? The way I see it, we can sit around hoping and manifesting or we can get up off our asses and recruit - you know, the way we do for basketball players and CEO's.

With this in mind, I've sketched out a short list of qualifications that I think will quickly narrow the field (feel free to add to or modify the list). The candidate should ...

1) be over 50 years old,
2) never have lived here in the past,
3) have achieved international recognition in their discipline,
4) inspire avid devotion including pilgrimages of more than 500 miles,
5) be commonly referred to by either a first or last name, but not both,
6) be the cause of consternation among elected officials and chamber of commerce members due to their 'alternative' lifestyle,
7) and promise, when they arrive, to live east of Massachusetts Street or in North Lawrence.

I solicited regulars at the Bourgeois Pig for nominations. Their eyes sparkled at the prospect. Noting the prerequisites above, they put forth, Laurie Anderson, Slavoj Zizek, Willie Nelson, Elvira, Amiri Baraka (just passed), John Waters (who will be visiting in a few weeks), Patti Smith, Gus Van Sant, Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis among others. Note: Bjork and Sherman Alexie are too young, Bruce Springsteen already lives here (check the phone book), and Martha Stewart would never live on the east side, so they're not eligible. 

With Burroughs gone more than fifteen years now, I don't think it's too soon to muse about a new nonconformist paragon of culture, the question is who and how would we entice them to come here. Once we agree on a nominee, the recruiting efforts can begin in full. In the meantime, check out the new show at the Arts Center and soak up the memories of Burroughs's Lawrence years.