Arts & Culture

Sabrina Staires’ Superfund town images come to life on ethereal silk panels

Kansas City photographer Sabrina Staires’ “Echo” project consists of 16 silk pieces with images from Picher, Okla. Once a center of lead mining, Picher is now a hazardous waste site and formally disincorporated in 2009. “Echo” opens Friday at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center.
Kansas City photographer Sabrina Staires’ “Echo” project consists of 16 silk pieces with images from Picher, Okla. Once a center of lead mining, Picher is now a hazardous waste site and formally disincorporated in 2009. “Echo” opens Friday at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center.

When photographer Sabrina Staires was growing up in 1970s Oklahoma, her father’s work in environmental science was weird.

“So when kids would ask what does your dad do, I didn’t even know how to spell it, and everyone would say what is that? What is the environment?”

Though the spelling eluded her, father Keith L. Stanley’s work did not: He started a company that monitored hazardous waste removal. Five years ago, when he turned 70, Staires decided to combine her love for him, photography and fine art and her interest in environmental tragedies and began the “Echo” project. “Echo” will open Friday in a solo show at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center and was the recipient of an Arts KC inspiration grant.

The project required several trips to Picher, Okla., the town Staires chose to be representative of all Superfund towns — highly contaminated communities that were allocated federal money for hazardous material clean-up.

“These are little towns that are everywhere, that are just leftovers,” Staires said. “The industry is gone, the people are gone; they’re not able to live there anymore. Some towns reinvent themselves if they’re able to be cleaned up. Other towns, they’re just too toxic, like this one.”

But she didn’t want to photograph devastation, she wanted to photograph the beauty of what remains of the town, formally disincorporated in 2009. Only three hours from Kansas City, the “chat,” or discarded gravel that resulted from lead mining, has created what appear to be vast white sand dunes and 200- to 300-foot-tall mountains.

“The first time I went I shot it kind of like a resort. It’s very colorful with the white and the blue skies,” Staires said. The creeks run red, “metallic red, not Oklahoma dirt red,” from the lead run-off.

But ultimately Staires decided the best way to portray the echo of the former town was to print black-and-white images on 52-by-78-inch silk organza panels. As a nod to the wealth that once was, she sparingly added gold stitching to silhouettes of buildings or chat formations.

The lead mined in Picher went to World War I and World War 11 bullet production. Staires says of the town’s residents, “They’re so addicted to this ‘They made our money for us, the mines are not bad, they’re serving a purpose,’ because they were.”

But the relationship between the townspeople and the big corporations was abusive.

“I wanted it to be an experience so that everybody gets that there are lots of small towns like this that are discarded industrial waste sites. That companies have come in and made their profit, left, declared bankruptcy … the people have nowhere to live and they’re sick.”

Stanley, who lives in Oklahoma City, has not yet seen the panels.

Staires, 50, has photographed Kansas City for more than 20 years, briefly for The Star, longer for The Pitch. She owned Landon Gallery for three years but feels that she has rarely been able to indulge her interest in fine art. This project has been a much-needed foray into a more expressive element than photojournalism often permits.

She goes so far as to call “Echo” a “poetic incarnation of an industrial wasteland,” and she really has achieved a sort of visual poetry.

The 16 silk panels will hang from fishing line in Leedy’s corridor-like space.

“If you stood at the front you’re going to see layers, but it’s not going to be purposefully one in front of the other where you see three images at once; it’s going to be more like walking through a town. When you walk by them they move really easily.”

Staires still has a few things to figure out before the First Friday opening.

“I’m trying to decide how dramatic to be with the lighting. And I did a recording of my dad talking about company towns, and we’re mixing it with some pretty surly, like dark, steel guitar music, and I don’t know whether or not that’s too dark.”

The show will also include several 12-by-12-inch boxed pieces, with silken images stretched over gold-leafed backgrounds. And Staires has created 7-by-7-inch books for purchase that include many images not selected for larger-scale display.

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On display

“Echo,” by Sabrina Staires, opens 6-9 p.m. Friday at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., 816-474-1919.

Also at the galleries

19 Below Gallery

What: “Apocalyptic Blush” by Heather Lamanno. First Friday opening, 5:30-9 p.m. April 1.

Info: Five W. 19th.

Belger Arts Center

What: “Desire,” “The Garden Party” and “Role Models.” Through May 21.

Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. First Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, noon-4 p.m. Saturday.

Info: 2100 Walnut., 816-474-3250

Belger Crane Yard/Red Star Studios

What: “Christa Assad: Breathe,” “Objectify,” “The Kansas City Connection” and “Archie Bray Foundation: Resident and Visiting Artists.” Through May 21.

Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. First Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday.

Info: 2011 Tracy., 816-474-7316

Hilliard Gallery

What: “International Human Form in Art.” First Friday opening reception, 6-9 p.m. April 1; runs through May 28.

Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon-4 p.m. Saturday.

Info: 1820 McGee., 816-561-2956

ISOM Collective

What: “Ceramics” by Allan Winkler and Lawrence Bush. First Friday reception, 6-8 p.m. April 1; runs through April 28.

Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday.

Info: 123 Southwest Blvd., 816-256-5556

Jones Gallery

What: “Night Visions” by Fernando Achucarro. First Friday opening reception, 5-9 p.m. April 1; runs through April 30.

Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 7-10 p.m. Friday.

Info: 1717 Walnut. 816-421-2111

KCAI Gallery

What: “Chromaphobia & Chromaphilia.” Gallery grand opening, 5-8 p.m. April 1; runs through June 3.

Info: 1819 Grand., 816-802-3468

Kemper at the Crossroads

What: “Matter and Force.” Runs through Aug. 7.

Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, noon-4 p.m. Saturday.

Info: 33 W. 19th., 816-753-5784

The Late Show Gallery

What: “Overview” by Marcia Streepy. First Friday opening reception, 6-9 p.m. April 1.

Gallery hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday.

Info: 1600 Cherry. 816-516-6749

Leedy-Voulkos Art Center

What: “Echo” by Sabrina Staires, “Skin and Bone” by Josey Lee, “Clay Mentors of St. Louis” and “KCAI: Undergrads Underground.” First Friday opening reception, 6-9 p.m. April 1; run through May 28.

Gallery hours: 6-9 p.m. First Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.

Info: 2012 Baltimore., 816-474-1919

Mid-America Arts Alliance

What: “Traditional Art of the Bedouin.” First Friday opening reception, 6-8 p.m. April 1; by appointment through April.

Info: 2018 Baltimore., 816-421-1388

Plenum Space

What: “Cruising Altitude” by Rif Raf Giraffe. First Friday opening reception, 6-10 p.m. April 1; closing reception, 6-8 p.m. April 30.

Info: 504 E. 18th.

Weinberger Fine Art

What: “SunSet | SunRise: Work From the Studio Nong International Sculpture Collective.” Through April 16.

Gallery hours: 5-9 p.m. First Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday.

Info: 114 Southwest Blvd., 816-301-4428