Porter Arneill: Public art administrator, chicken coop builder

07/18/2014 7:00 AM

07/19/2014 9:02 PM

Porter Arneill spends the work week with city officials, artists and engineers, handling questions and resolving problems relating to Kansas City’s public art program.

Should the “Bull Wall” be moved to a place where more people will see it? Why don’t more Kansas City artists apply for big commissions paid for with city funds? What’s the best way to stop rainwater from draining onto part of the “Terpsichore” light organ in the Kauffman Center garage?

The maintenance issues never stop.

Trained as a sculptor and seasoned by an administrative stint at the Laumeier Sculpture Park in his native St. Louis, Arneill has built a reputation for competence and straight talk during his 12 years as Kansas City’s public art administrator. He’s also known for his equanimity in negotiating egos, politics, money and issues of taste and public safety.

But when Arneill walks through the door of his Waldo home, the game changes.

The demands of his day job are supplanted by those of his exuberant 7-year-old daughter, Lainey; Charlotte, a rambunctious 2-year-old poodle; Sadie, an affection-demanding cat; and three backyard chickens.

The chickens — Sarah, a white Ameraucana; Ruby, a Buff Orpington; and Aida, a Silver Laced Wyandotte — were his wife’s idea.

“I grew up in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and I loved my chickens,” said Cheryl Herzog-Arneill. “When I was little they were my pets.”

“Chickens are easy,” she added with a sparkle in her eye. “(Porter) will never let me forget this quote.”

The sculptor builds a coop

It started out simply enough when the couple bought four chicks from a farmer in Bonner Springs.

“We raised them in the dining room for four months, then they had to go to the garage,” Arneill said.

“Then the realization dawned that I had to build this coop. With the arrogance of a sculptor, I thought it would take two to three weekends. It ended up taking the entire summer.”

First he went online to search for design ideas. He found several websites, including backyardchickens.com.

“There are also some retired folks who have dedicated themselves to putting out hundreds of coop designs.”

Arneill settled on a standard design that includes a caged-in coop area, where the chickens can “hang out, eat, scratch and be protected.” A ramp leads up to the henhouse, made of beadboard siding on plywood, for laying and sleeping.

“They put themselves to bed at night,” he said. “The henhouse is elevated. They like to be high, and it protects them from raccoons and possums.”

At the back of the henhouse Arneill built a nest box, where the chickens lay their eggs. A hinged top allows him to collect the eggs from outside the coop.

It’s a tidy structure, measuring 12 feet long, 6 feet deep and 7 feet tall at the front. The coop is screened in and goes under the henhouse; a galvanized corrugated steel roof tops the coop and the house.

“I got halfway into building it all and it dawned on me,” he said. “What if we move? So I decided to build it in two sections, bolted together.”

As Arneill was finishing the coop, Cheryl and Lainey left town for a family visit. Not wanting them to miss out on his admirable exertions — and mishaps — Arneill emailed them a plaintive video of his last moments on the job.

“As I lay here dying, bleeding to death,” he says tragically, turning the camera to a bandaged bleeding wound on his right thumb, “I gleefully report that the chicken coop is done. … The irony, as I lay here dying, is that the chickens will probably peck my eyes out.”

The “chicken tractor”

With the coop completed, the Arneill family’s life with backyard chickens really began.

“We let them out at 6:30 a.m.,” Herzog-Arneill said. “The egg-laying relates to how much time they have in the sun and light. Some people put a light on a timer. I’m more about their quality of life.”

Her husband remembers a morning shortly after the coop was completed. “I’d come back from the YMCA and I heard crowing,” he said. “I thought, ‘I have to check with the neighbors.’”

None of them had a rooster.

“We raised four chickens, and we discovered that the one named Sylvie was actually Sylvester,” he said. City ordinance doesn’t allow roosters, so Sylvester was relocated to a friend’s farm in Lawrence. “Sylvester went from three hens to 200, so now he’s a very happy rooster. He shares the hens with another rooster named Elvis.”

“It’s fascinating,” Arneill added, “how many people don’t know that you don’t have to have a rooster to have eggs.”

Early on, the reality that “we have poultry” struck when the couple heard “a cacophony of chicken noises” in the back yard. A red-tailed hawk had landed on a stump. “The chickens, wisely, were hiding under a hedge.”

To protect the chickens during their sun time, Arneill built a 4-foot-square, 3-foot-tall pyramid-shaped cage, called a “chicken tractor,” out of wood and chicken wire.

“You can move it around and keep them out of the garden and out in the air,” he said. “Catching a chicken is not an easy thing to do.”

Winter brought a whole new set of challenges.

“We did all this not thinking about winter, and it was below zero many nights,” Arneill said. “We did a lot of research and left them in the henhouse and they were fine until we put water in the henhouse and it created humidity, and the chickens got frostbite on their combs. At one point, my lovely wife was out there putting Vaseline on the combs.”

Cold temperatures also brought a mouse family. “We got chickens and ended up with mice,” he said. “Our neighbor’s cat spent a lot of time watching the mice in the coop.”

“There have been moments when we’ve said, ‘What have we done?’” he confessed, “but the joy outweighs the trouble. Lainey grows up knowing where food comes from.”

Chickens, the great community-builder

Both parents see the chickens as an important part of Lainey’s education.

Arneill said that when Lainey was born, Jan Schall, the curator of modern art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, gave them a book about Waldorf Education, a program focused on educating and raising a creative, socially responsible child.

In the Waldorf tradition, the Arneills’ 50-by-50-foot yard includes a neat plot where they tend strawberries and blueberries, beets, Swiss chard, lettuce and peppers, beans, carrots and tomatoes.

The garden is off-limits to the chickens — “They’ll dig everything up looking for bugs and worms,” Herzog-Arneill said — but the chickens do contribute in their way. The shredded, dried pine shavings used to line their coop become compost. “It’s a full-circle operation,” she said.

Chickens rank high on the scale of entertainment value at this house. Contradicting the usual rules of dog/chicken relations, big, bronze Ruby will chase barking Charlotte, while white-feathered Sarah is the companionable one.

“Sarah loves to be with people,” Herzog-Arneill said, “and will join us on the patio when we have meals out here. Ironically, we’ll be eating chicken.”

But the Arneill family has no plans to eat their chickens, she said, even when they stop producing eggs.

They do eat the eggs, so Herzog-Arneill is very particular about the chickens’ feed. “What they eat is what we’re eating,” she said. “I go to Buckner, Missouri, for organic, non-GMO food. And they love kale. I give them kale often and some sunflower seeds, which is a good protein treat.”

One of things the Arneills like most about raising chickens is sharing them with others. “There’s a whole cadre of people who stop by to say hi to the chickens,” Arneill said.

“It does build community,” Herzog-Arneill said. “We had two ladies who were thrilled to hold a chicken. I gave them an egg, and it was like I gave them a piece of gold.”

With the trials of coop-building a year behind him and his thumb wound long healed, Arneill said keeping backyard chickens is “an amazing adventure.”

“They say chickens are the gateway animal,” Herzog-Arneill added. “Some people move on to goats.”

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4763 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

The other side of art

The first in a series of three stories looking at “the other side” of eminent professionals in the art world and how they channel their creative energy in other endeavors.

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