His paintings are big, brash and energetic. With their brilliant colors and lunar surfaces, some call them cosmic. His ceramics — made of thrown, torn and twisted clay — broke new ground.
But it’s not just his artworks that have made Jim Leedy, now 81, a towering figure in the Kansas City art world. The retired Kansas City Art Institute professor is also known as the founder of the Crossroads Arts District.
Later this month, a film produced by a Kansas City artist will celebrate Leedy’s life and achievements, from his childhood in Virginia and Montana and a harrowing experience during his military service in Korea to his rise to eminence as an artist, teacher and arts-district trailblazer.
“The whole plan was to create a situation where I could help young artists,” Leedy said. “We were losing all of our talent.”
The now vibrant arts hub was a cluster of derelict warehouses 30 years ago when Leedy began to buy buildings and renovate them into artists’ studios. He also created a place for artists to show their work, teaming up with ceramic artist Peter Voulkos to open the Leedy-Voulkos Gallery.
How he got to that, as the new film recounts, is nearly a textbook case in organic urban redevelopment and the power of creative contributors to a city’s landscape.
Kevin McGraw’s “Leedy: The Documentary” captures the artist’s august presence in the classroom and intense creative sessions in the studio. It includes never-before publicized early photographs, tributes to Leedy by colleagues and artists he has inspired, and footage of huge First Fridays crowds.
“I always felt energy when I was around him,” McGraw said. “My vision was to tell his story. Here’s this guy that has been all over the world, made amazing amounts of work — everything to me that encompasses an artist. People need to know about it.”
The two met while McGraw was a student at the University of Kansas in the mid-1980s, and they became friends. A decade ago, when McGraw broached the idea of making a film, Leedy resisted, but McGraw’s persistence eventually won out.
McGraw and director Matt Hawley have been doing final edits, and the first public screening will be at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 31 at Screenland Crossroads Theater.
In a recent interview, Leedy expressed enthusiasm for the results and a measure of relief that the filming is finished.
“I think they’ve done a fantastic job,” he said. “It’s taken a long time. I’m glad it’s about over.”
McGraw began filming in 2005 and got a boost early on from Leedy supporter and Grand Arts gallery founder Margaret Hall Silva, who contributed $20,000 toward the production.
But trying to get a documentary financed in the midst of an economic recession posed a huge challenge.
After emerging empty-handed from several fundraising parties, McGraw covered basic costs himself. Hawley was equally committed to the project and has worked for free.
Recently the two turned to Kickstarter to help defray the costs of the film’s $60,000 budget. They plan to use those funds — and revenues from sales of various Leedy items, including a book — to produce DVDs of the film and pay for closed captioning. KCPT-TV will air it in September.
Money was not the only challenge. The filming was derailed for almost two years after Leedy was injured in a motorcycle accident in 2006.
McGraw spent hours going through Leedy’s “informal archives” — photographs stacked in piles and boxes and pinned up in the studio. He was most struck by the artist’s Korean War pictures.
“He looked happy,” McGraw said, “then it dramatically changed when he had nightmares about a creek with dead bodies in the bottom.”
Leedy encountered the harrowing sight during his 1951-52 tour of duty as a military photographer.
The art community learned just how traumatic that experience was when Leedy set out to exorcise it by creating a huge sculptural wall piece composed of blackened skulls and bones. It was the centerpiece of a big show, called “War,” at Grand Arts in 2000.
Some of the most fascinating material to emerge in several film trailers and teasers are images of the artist as a young man who signed on at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1966, following teaching stints at the University of Montana and at Ohio University.
Compared to students in the university system, “here, every student was an art major,” Leedy said. “That really appealed to me.”
Another big draw, he said, was the presence of Laurence Sickman, a Chinese art specialist who headed the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Leedy had studied ancient Chinese art and architecture while earning a master’s in art history. He also holds a master of fine arts.
Sickman was “one of the guys who had been my idol,” he said, “and I realized some of the greatest pieces of ancient Chinese art were in Kansas City.”
When the two met, Sickman urged Leedy to stay.
“I stayed for 43 years,” Leedy said. “I was a hippie professor. I had long hair and the beard; I was into the folk music thing and that sort of stuff. It was a good time; it was a horrible time in some ways. I was always pushing for the underdog. It was an interesting time.”
And it was an important time for the Kansas City Art Institute. Under then-president Andrew Morgan, Leedy, with new arrivals Ken Ferguson, Dale Eldred and Rob Roy Kelley, helped transform the little known unaccredited college into a leading art school. While teaching part time in sculpture, Leedy built the school’s art history program, including its projector room and screen.
“The Art Institute was an island when I first came here,” he said. “People didn’t even know it was an entity itself. They thought it was part of UMKC.”
At the time, he said, there was no gallery on campus.
In the early ’70s, “I went over on Broadway in Westport and rented a building,” he said, “and put my studio upstairs and a gallery downstairs so my students and my colleagues would have a place to show off campus.”
The space lasted two or three years, until Westport started gentrifying.
“My rent went from $300 a month to more than $5,000,” he recalled. “The lesson I learned was: Don’t rent. Buy.”
He began looking for a new place to set up a gallery.
“I looked in the Bottoms, River Quay” — now the River Market area — “and all the time I kept passing through this area that was really run down by the railroad station,” he recalled. In the early ’80s, Leedy bought a building on Wyandotte Street, just north of Southwest Boulevard.
“We had three studios and rented them cheaply to pay the mortgage and have a gallery without paying rent,” he said. “That concept was a success, so I bought a couple more buildings.”
Leedy vividly remembers going to the bank and being told, “You don’t have any collateral.”
“What if I go and get 20 people who will sign a document saying that if you sell me this building, they will rent from me,” he retorted.
“I came back the next day with signed letters. The guy still thought it was crazy but said, ‘OK you’ve got it.’ I finished the first studio and rented it right away, and with that money I had all the studios finished before I started working on the gallery.
“It was chance-taking. I knew I could do it, but there were times Oh God,” he said with a sigh, remembering the moment he discovered that the carpenters he’d hired were on drugs and that the replacement crew had built a wall he could push over with his hand.
In the end he did most of the renovations himself, at night, after teaching.
Leedy is not surprised by what the Crossroads Arts District has become.
“I planned it,” he said. “It was a definite plan.”
Early on, he encouraged other artists to buy buildings and start galleries and small businesses.
John O’Brien opened the Dolphin gallery on Baltimore. Sculptor Stretch opened the Zone Gallery on Wyandotte and later helped pioneer the East Crossroads with his Grinders restaurant and other ventures.
Leedy’s former wife, Sherry Leedy, who ran the Leedy-Voulkos Gallery for many years, stayed in the area and opened Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art on Baltimore. Artist David Ford took over the old YJs Snack Bar on 18th Street, anchoring a strip that includes Peregrine Honig’s Birdie’s lingerie shop and designer Peggy Noland’s Kansas City showroom.
Although he lives in Lake Lotawana, Leedy has his studio in the Crossroads, right in the middle of it all.