The Kansas City Star Magazine

Finding art in unexpected places

Updated: 2008-10-13T16:53:45Z

MICHAEL HUMPHREY

Special to The Star

Finding great art in Kansas City is easy.

The Nelson-Atkins, Kemper and Nerman museums are right around the corner. Galleries in the Crossroads and across the metropolitan area, as well as regional museums, reveal the breadth and depth of the arts here.

But to be a great arts community, there must be surprises. Art you might find where you least expect it. And Kansas City has that, too.

Maybe you’ve driven by a sculpture for years without ever knowing its story. Or maybe you just never ventured into certain areas that happen to have gems awaiting art lovers.

We set out into the city and beyond, looking for art in unexpected places. Here are six samples of what we found.

Story of a city

Main Post Office, Union Station

300 W. Pershing Road

Robert Secor picks up his mail at the post office in Union Station several times a week. Like hundreds of others, his post office box sits under a large mural with a long history.

“I look at it all the time,” says Secor, who lives in Westport. “I don’t think people appreciate Union Station enough. I think things like this mural and the whole station make Kansas City special.”

Secor sets to explaining the mural.

“See, it’s about the earliest days of the city. That’s the Missouri River,” says Secor, 47. “You see people unloading supplies off the steamboat and starting to build the town. There’s some trade going on.”

The painting was always meant to hang in Union Station, originally in Fred Harvey’s Westport Room. When the station was closed and went into disrepair, a local company bought the mural and moved it to its space. When the train station was restored, the Westport Room mural returned home.

The large, active mural was created by New York artist Hildreth Meière, best known for her art deco style of the 1920s and ’30s, especially the domes and ceilings in the Nebraska State Capitol and the medallions on Radio City Music Hall. Meière worked in a world dominated by men but was much sought after for her mixture of power and elegance.

She did only one other commission in Missouri, a series of mosaics for the St. Louis Cathedral.

“It’s something to be proud of,” Secor says. “Not something just to walk past.”

A profile of courage

Salvatore Grisafe Memorial

16th and the Paseo

You won’t learn much about Salvatore Grisafe by visiting the sculpture created in his honor.

“Presented to those citizens who believe in the principles of law, order and good citizenship, as best exemplified by Salvatore Grisafe,” reads the memorial’s plaque.

Grisafe is remembered for a brave deed: In 1964 the 17-year-old De La Salle High School student happened upon the robbery of two women. In attempting to stop it, he was shot and killed.

In April 1968 the Junior Chamber of Commerce raised the stainless steel statue in his honor.

That statue, which resembles both a flame and a person reaching for the sky, was created by Jac T. Bowen, a noted local artist. Bowen, who studied and taught at the Kansas City Art Institute, was a painter, sculptor and illustrator.

A student of Thomas Hart Benton, Bowen found his own style, which bears little resemblance to Benton’s. Bowen was best known for whimsical animal sculptures he created for local shopping malls. But he was also a serious artist, as demonstrated by the Grisafe piece.

Bowen also created the brass relief on the Kansas City Board of Trade’s building and the “Industrial Activity of the City” mural found in the Higginsville, Mo., post office.

Miraculous Kansas

St. Benedict’s Abbey Church

1020 N. Second St.,

Atchison, Kan.

Painter Jean Charlot’s story sounds like a trip around the world.

Born in Paris to a Russian father and a Mexican mother, he found himself studying in Mexico City and eventually settling in Hawaii. Some of his major work can be found in … Kansas.

In 1957 Charlot went to St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison at the behest of Abbot Cuthbert McDonald. The abbey church was just being completed in anticipation of the community’s 100-year anniversary, and Charlot was commissioned to paint a major fresco, created by applying paint to wet plaster.

“The fresco was designed right along with the building,” says Owen Purcell, former abbot of St. Benedict’s. Purcell arrived at the monastery the year the church was being completed.

What’s most interesting about Charlot’s painting in the church’s main sanctuary is that it blends his two major motifs — work of the common man and religious story — thanks to the history of the monastery itself.

The center of the piece shows the Trinity — God the father breathing life into the world, the Holy Spirit emerging from that breath and Jesus Christ on the cross. Flanked to the left and right are St. Benedict, holding the Rule of St. Benedict, which guides Benedictines, and St. Scholastica, founder of the Benedictine women’s order. Surrounding the religious imagery are scenes of Benedictine history, both local and from Monte Cassino, where Benedict wrote his Rule.

The stories of Benedictine lore include miraculous happenings, such as workers at the Monte Cassino monastery being resurrected from the dead and a stone remaining immobile because the devil was sitting on it.

“You’re not required to believe any of it,” Purcell gently chides.

But the scenes on the right side of the mural show earthier Atchison scenes: a monk readying his horse for missionary work, a brother in the workshop, children being educated, the dying comforted.

The paintings are modern, with sharp angles and exaggerated features, framed in stainless steel to reflect the church’s modern design. But 51 years later, Purcell says, the painting still holds up.

“I’ve never heard anyone say they’re getting tired looking at it,” Purcell says.

If you go, don’t miss two other Charlot frescos in the lower chapels: a painting of St. Joseph and a young Jesus working in the carpentry workshop. And an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego.

Garnett’s gallery

Mary Bridget McAuliffe

Walker Art Center

Garnett Public Library

125 W. Fourth Ave., Garnett, Kan.

How does a town of just over 3,000 end up with a gallery that includes works by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, John Steuart Curry and Dale Chihuly?

For Garnett, Kan., about 75 miles southwest of Kansas City, the story spans from New York to California and right back to the Midwest. It begins at the onset of the 20th century.

That’s when a young man named Maynard Walker was growing up in the small Kansas town — the perfect place for someone who in the 1930s and ’40s would rise to prominence as an art dealer for the Regionalist movement, selling works by Curry, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton.

In the late 1940s Walker was contacted by letter asking him to verify that he was born in Garnett, which would be kept on file in the Garnett Library.

He did them one better. He offered to lend some paintings he owned to the city. In 1951 he offered 70 pieces as a gift, asking that the collection be named in honor of his mother.

“In giving them up, I feel I have lost nothing,” Walker wrote, “but rather, if from time-to-time some youngster or some oldster gains something by seeing them, I shall feel richer.”

Walker must have anticipated Robert Logan and Robert Cugno, who certainly did gain something by seeing them. And gave right back.

Logan and Cugno moved to Garnett from L.A. in 1988 because they found a house they loved that happened to be in Kansas, right next to the Garnett Library. Semi-retired art dealers, they were amazed when they saw the collection.

“We found the collection in the library and could not believe it,” Cugno says. “It was an amazing collection, but it was in need of attention.”

To build a gallery-quality space for the collection, they launched a campaign to raise sales taxes one-fourth of a cent. They also raised grant money to have the works restored at the Nelson-Atkins.

It wasn’t easy to convince citizens to pay more taxes for art, but Logan realized they could sweeten the proposal by adding a children’s wing to the library and by fixing streets and curbs. It passed, and the addition was built in 2001.

But the two men didn’t stop there. In the spirit of Walker, they gathered 90 donated works by California’s most prominent artists from the 1970s and ’80s. That collection is called the Garnett City Art Collection.

In all, the collections are worth several million dollars, or roughly a thousand dollars per resident.

“We’ve done it as volunteers, yes,” Logan says. “But it’s surprising for a town this size to spend money on art. We all saw the potential.”

The other Pendergast

Case Park

611 W. Eighth St. downtown

A figure, larger than life in bronze, sits on an elevated chair and surveys the West Bottoms. He’s remembered as an advocate of the poor and forgotten, praised in the press for his honesty and passion.

There’s just one problem with the story, at least these days: He’s a Pendergast.

It’s not the infamous political machine boss Tom. It’s his brother James, who wielded his power in Kansas City well before his notorious brother came on the scene.

“Big Jim” was no saint. He opened a saloon in the West Bottoms called Climax, named after the racehorse that won Pendergast enough money to buy the joint. He worked his way up the political ranks — first as a committeeman and later city alderman — by doing favors and garnering the support of the working class.

After his death in 1911, Tom and friends of James pulled together the money for a statue and hired Frederick Hibbard as the sculptor. Hibbard grew up in Canton, Mo., along the Mississippi, but eventually settled in Chicago. His most famous works — ironically statues of Abraham Lincoln in the North and Jefferson Davis in the South — were to come later. But with Pendergast, Hibbard was already dabbling in the contradictions of powerful men.

He told his hometown of Canton, in a Founders Day speech, “there is always a great deal of research work to be done. Much time must be spent in libraries and in newspaper morgues, gathering information and hunting for photographs and prints.”

So he knew who he was dealing with in “Big Jim,” and that might explain why the figure looks austere and impatient, nearly ready to rise from his seat to take action. But on both sides of the lofty man are children, sitting relaxed and reaching for bowls, in hopes of having them filled soon.

The statue was dedicated in 1913 at West Terrace Park in the Bottoms. But after years of being vandalized, the statue was restored and moved to Case Park by a group led by Jim’s nephew Tom Pendergast Jr. Case Park, which overlooks the Bottoms, is now best known for Eugene Daub’s “Corps of Discovery” statue dedicated in 2000.

Pendergast, overshadowed again, doesn’t seem to mind.

Back home

Pleasant Hill Post Office

124 S. Lake St., Pleasant Hill

in Cass County

A dark time in Missouri history inspired one of the state’s most luminous works of public art.

On Aug. 21, 1863, William Quantrill led his band of Confederate bushwhackers into Lawrence and massacred more than 185 men and boys. Four days later, believing Quantrill had organized in outlying areas of western Missouri, Union Gen. Thomas Ewing issued General Order No. 11. It expelled most men, women and children from rural Bates, Cass, Jackson and Vernon counties.

Most farms and houses in the area were burned to the ground, property looted and animals stolen or destroyed. When the decree was lifted for those who could prove loyalty to the Union, the sorry migration back home began.

It was the return home that interested Tom Lea, a Texas artist and historian. During another dark period in American history, the Great Depression, Lea won a federal commission to paint a mural for the Pleasant Hill Post Office depicting the return of those sent away by Order No. 11.

“I painted a mural of some forlorn people standing on a piece of desolated ground, after a war,” Lea wrote in his memoir. “I gave it a title: ‘Back Home, April, 1865.’ ”

The painting shows three generations of a family returning. An older man looks over the devastation, his back turned completely away from the viewer. An older woman and a young man look off to the side. But a young mother and her infant look forward, one with determination, the other with innocent directness and hope.

Lea, who remembers painting the piece while listening to news on the radio about Adolf Hitler, said going to Pleasant Hill in 1939 to present his painting was anything but a somber affair.

“The painting was well received, and so were we, when Sarah and I went to Pleasant Hill and attached the canvas to the wall in the post office lobby at the end of May, 1939,” he writes. “More than twenty-five years later I received a cordial letter and a newspaper clipping from the young editor of the Pleasant Hill Times, a man whom I had never met, saying, ‘Nearly every week someone writes the postmaster, a city official or the Pleasant Hill Chamber of Commerce for information and a photograph of the mural.’ ” ★

At KansasCity.com/starmagazine: More places around the region to encounter unexpected art — Topeka; Joplin, Mo.; and Ames, Iowa.


Look up! Look around! You just might encounter a visual gem

Michael Humphrey of Kansas City is a freelance writer. Allison Long is a photographer for The Star. To reach them, send e-mail to starmag@kcstar.com.

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