In 2010, artists Nicholas Ward and Amber Hansen moved into a bed-and-breakfast above a funeral home in Tonkawa, Okla.
For three months, they helped Lawrence-based artist Dave Loewenstein partner with Tonkawa’s tight-knit community (pop. 3,216) to create an epic mural that would reflect the town’s past and present. This kicked off a Mid-America Arts Alliance project that generated murals for six cities in six adjoining states.
But Ward and Hansen didn’t just paint; they picked up a movie camera.
Their resulting feature-length documentary, “Called to Walls,” chronicles the experiences of working on four of these murals: Tonkawa; Newton, Kan.; Joplin, Mo., and Arkadelphia, Ark. It premieres Saturday, Feb. 27, at Liberty Hall in Lawrence.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
“The amount of time we spent in those communities without distraction was significant. We would stay there, go out to eat with people and take on the persona of being an itinerant, invested person in this place,” says Ward, who co-directed the documentary with Hansen.
“It began to feel like a responsibility in a way to be inquisitive about their stories. People would offer up so much about where they were in life, their thoughts and feelings — people all the way from kids to the elderly. Those interactions propelled us to want to share this on film.”
Each of the four cities came with its own set of advantages and difficulties. Tonkawa residents debated how to display their American Indian history — a tribe after which the town is named. Joplin had recently survived a catastrophic tornado. Discussion brewed on how to depict the event without exploiting or overemphasizing it.
“The mural project in Joplin, really the whole experience there, was heightened because of the tornado that had just devastated much of the town when we began,” Loewenstein says.
“It was a real test of the capacity of community-based art to address serious challenges in the moment. Helping to lead the process that led to the mural design being based on young people’s drawings of the storm and its aftermath was extraordinary. And today, the mural site has become a place of memory that sparks reflection … and makes space for conversations about Joplin, what it went through and where it’s going.”
But “Called to Walls” builds to a legitimate controversy in Arkadelphia, a site steeped in Confederate history that has conveniently ignored crucial aspects of the Civil War. So when the dominant individual in the mural is illustrated as an African-American woman, some citizens take issue.
“One caveat — and Dave mentions this in the film — is that any time you depict a figure that is non-white in a mural, there will be comments on it no matter where you do it,” Ward says.
He explains Arkadelphia wasn’t unique in that case, but it stood out when the conflict attracted regional news coverage.
“Fortunately, by the end of the project, all of that was able to be resolved through the community process we were using,” he says.
Ward and Hansen first met Loewenstein while working on a mural at the C.L. Hoover Opera House in Junction City, Kan. After that, Loewenstein invited the pair to join his six-city excursion (which also included Waco, Texas, and Hastings, Neb., neither of which is featured in the doc).
Although the recently engaged couple had dabbled with short films — such as 2014’s “Facing East,” which chronicles changes in east Lawrence — they were unaccustomed to tackling a full-length movie.
“There was a lot of trial-by-fire education for us in terms of technical things, and funding, and learning how to tell a longer narrative through multiple communities and different characters,” says Ward, a South Dakota native who met Iowan Hansen when they were undergrads at the University of South Dakota.
The couple moved to Lawrence in 2007 to pursue their master of fine arts degrees at the University of Kansas. Those were completed mere weeks before they headed to work in Tonkawa.
Ward served as director of photography, and the two split directorial duties, a method he describes as more organizational than cinematic.
“We had to make decisions regarding which characters were going to come to the forefront or who we would pay more attention to with the camera,” he recalls.
In addition to the civic nature of the murals, the filmmakers are proud of incorporating Lawrence’s music community into “Called to Walls.” Local label Whatever Forever recorded a soundtrack featuring Your Friend, Dubb Nubb, Invisible Public Library and No Magic. The last two acts will perform at an afterparty at coffee house Decade, 920 Delaware St., following the Liberty Hall screening.
“The music was really key to how the film was going to roll out in terms of having an emotive quality,” Ward says.
For veteran muralist Loewenstein, “Called to Walls” represents one more piece of a cumulative experience “based on the 25 years I’ve been running around the country doing this kind of work,” he says.
“I have learned time and time again that art is the language of storytelling and that stories, especially when they are shared in public, are at the center of shaping our identities, politics and dreams.”
▪ “Called to Walls” premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St., Lawrence. A Q&A with the filmmakers, artists and organizers follows the screening. Admission is $5. More info at LibertyHall.net.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”