On a diamond-bright, humid May morning, two tall men in plaid shirts, arms raised, check the balance of a slender, 15-foot hedge branch, stripped of bark and crooked like a witch’s pointing finger, as it sways in the breeze above their heads.
The branch floats on a metal rod atop a weathered 6-by-6 post in the ruins of a burned-out corral next to the train tracks. The stockyard and depot here were abandoned in the 1960s, when cattle shipping moved from trains to trucks. The massive railroad-built chutes, pens, ramps and high pole gates have been collapsing ever since, their deterioration sped by lightning and controlled pasture burns.
Artist Jeroen van Westen has flown here from his home in the Netherlands to collaborate on this sculpture with retired Chicago architect and local sculptor Bill McBride, who bought the land occupied by the former stockyard and built a wind-powered home and studio nearby.
In all, at least five hedge branches on tall posts will make visible the ever-present prairie wind. The sculpture is called “High Stakes” because these traces of human endeavor in a harsh landscape are the detritus of big dreams that often went bust.
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The sculpture sits on the Matfield Green Sculpture Path, set to open in spring 2017. The half-mile swath of land with 1.5 miles of walking trails dotted with permanent and temporary art installations will be the fifth in a series of unlikely venues for contemporary art in the Kansas Flint Hills.
The galleries are scattered in tiny towns along Kansas 177, a national scenic byway that wends 102 miles through the world’s largest stand of virgin tallgrass prairie, from Manhattan in the north to El Dorado to the south.
This sudden profusion of modern art often takes thematic cues from the western landscape but is uncoupled from romantic imagery of riders on horseback and weathered barns. The works seek to engage viewers in cultural conversations that go beyond the beauty of nature.
The new galleries build on a long tradition of art in the Flint Hills, whose wide vistas are nectar to plein air painters and nature photographers. But the recession of 2007 killed off some of that art-driven tourism. Since the recovery, there has been a shift, with more people coming to look at art than make it.
The focus on contemporary art seems to be working. Hotel and vacation rental owners say bookings are up, and weekend accommodations are scarce from spring through fall.
“People come to the Flint Hills looking for the unique landscape above all,” says Suzan Barnes, longtime owner of the Grand Central Hotel & Grill in Cottonwood Falls (population 874). “But the art helps bring in the travelers and explorers. People are looking to enjoy the landscape through art.”
The Dutch influencers
The unlikely rise of contemporary art in the heart of cattle country can be directly traced back to the vision of one man, a modern-day settler from the Old World.
In 2009, Dutch graphic designer and journalist Ton Haak, seduced by the open range landscape around Matfield Green (population 52), persuaded his wife, Antonia Zoutenbier, who was perfectly happy in the dream home the couple had built in Abiquiu, N.M., to uproot once again. (In the mid-’80s, both quit successful jobs in The Hague and sold everything to come to America to travel the western half of the country.)
Soon after landing in Matfield Green, Haak opened the Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs, a two-story ranch home on the grounds of a nonprofit cultural heritage site north of town.
“They loved the idea of an art gallery, and then we came in with a totally different idea of art than what they had expected,” Haak says.
Haak immediately engaged contemporary artists he knew from Los Angeles, New York, Santa Fe, London and Berlin, sometimes offering them residencies.
He forged connections in outlying cities, nurturing a market for his artists. He sold artworks to the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University and Emprise Bank in Wichita for their permanent collections, as well as to private collectors from Kansas City and Manhattan.
“Financially, we were not a New York gallery. But we created an audience, and we had good sales,” Haak says.
He expanded boldly, adding first The Bank, then Symphony in the Flint Hills Gallery and partnering with McBride to launch the Matfield Green Sculpture Path.
His vision for each new art space was focused to avoid duplication: Pioneer Bluffs would present established artists, and the Symphony gallery with its expansive interior could accommodate large installations, while The Bank would give freshly minted art school graduates a solo show, “and not in a bar setting or restaurant setting, but a real show that treated them like they should be treated.”
Extending such an opportunity to young artists was also a way of pulling more people into Chase County to eat at restaurants and stay for opening weekends.
Volland Store owner Patty Reece, of Mission Hills and Alma, Kan., says Haak and Zoutenbier have had a profound impact on the region.
“Ton and Ans coming to the Flint Hills and opening the first gallery, and then another one, I think that was a real turning point,” Reece says. “Ton’s vision was so expansive, it gave a whole new aspect to the Flint Hills, in terms of its culture. In anything we do, unless we move forward, we move backwards, and it was a real step forward into a whole new era.”
And then, when Haak and Zoutenbier decided they were ready for a new adventure — they are moving to Portugal next month — Haak spent a year and a half recruiting two young couples from larger towns in the region to take over, so the galleries would continue to grow and thrive.
The Bank’s new owners
Two summers ago, Derek Hamm, now 29, who teaches graphic design at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., was driving to Siloam Springs in northwest Arkansas to see his girlfriend, Katherine, now 30 and his wife.
Driving through Matfield Green, Hamm noticed a sandwich board sign on the sidewalk in front of The Bank saying “Welcome!” and “Free coffee.” On a whim, he pulled over and walked in.
“Here’s Ton, who stands up and with his Dutch accent says, ‘Welcome to my contemporary art gallery,’ ” Hamm recalls.
Haak talked about his other gallery at Pioneer Bluffs, so Hamm went there, too.
Back in his car, Hamm called Katherine.
“You’re not going to believe what’s out there. There are two contemporary art galleries in Matfield Green,” he told her. Shaking his head, he says, “It sounds so absurd, even now.”
Soon afterward, Hamm returned to Matfield Green with Katherine, and the couple struck up a friendship with Haak and Zoutenbier. Fast-forward two years, and the Hamms have purchased Haak and Zoutenbier’s home in Matfield Green and will take over The Bank when the Dutch couple leave.
Even though their hometown of Hillsboro is less than an hour away, the Hamms have struggled to explain to friends and family in that close-knit community why they are moving to a town where the nearest store is 18 miles away.
According to Hamm, Hillsboro (population 2,900), is the kind of place where every store you walk into, the owner calls you by name. If people leave, it tends to be to take a job in a larger city.
Hamm sees irony in the small-town notion that bigger is always better.
“Hillsboro wants to be Newton. Newton wants to be Wichita. Wichita wants to be Dallas. Dallas wants to be New York. But New York wants to be Hillsboro — everyone there wants to live in close-knit neighborhoods with little shops where the owner calls you by name,” he says.
Hamm, who is finishing up a master’s degree at Portland State University in art and social practice, muses: “Does Portland need another 30-year-old graphic designer, or does central Kansas need that?”
He will commute to Hillsboro four days a week to teach, and Katherine will continue to do her full-time design job for a subsidiary of Hallmark from home.
The Hamms are excited about the opportunity The Bank provides to meet artists from all over, and also to provide a gathering spot for the locals, perhaps even by offering a mini-mercantile of general store goods that would save people a trip into town.
A young family and a gallery
Haak met and persuaded another young couple, Matt and Tia Regier of Peabody, 45 minutes to the west, to buy a home in Matfield Green and take over the Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs. The Regiers, now 33 and 34 respectively, moved in with their son Eliot, now 4, just before daughter Lyda, now 15 months, was born.
“It’s important to get young people moving in,” Haak says. “That way, in the future there will still be children on the school bus.”
The elementary school in Matfield Green closed more than 40 years ago, and the county’s lone remaining elementary school is plagued by eroding enrollment.
Still, two things enticed the Regiers to relocate. “We wanted to move to the country and grow our own food,” Matt Regier says. Also, Regier, who earned a bachelor’s in philosophy and theology from Tabor College and a master’s from Pacific Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Calif., is an artist, and personal contact with visitors increases sales of his work.
“People come in here and meet me, and they want to know about the process. They get invested,” he says.
Like the Hamms, the Regiers also want to be catalysts in revitalizing a rural county.
“All the smartest kids leave to go to good colleges and get jobs in cities. There’s a loss of intellectual and cultural resources, and that has a negative impact on the people who stay,” Regier says.
Regier loves it when strangers passing through from far away drop in and encounter art that defies their preconceptions of rural culture.
The best example, he says, was a pre-wedding party the Hamms threw in Matfield Green. Some two dozen of their friends, many recent college grads working in Portland, Chicago, Nashville and Honolulu, among other places, descended on Matfield Green for the weekend and toured the galleries.
“They were amazed by all this,” Regier says. And there’s a ripple effect when those people go back to their cities and talk about the Flint Hills.
Sculptor Bill McBride, who oversees the Matfield Green Sculpture Path, has also welcomed surprised urbanites into his home studio to see his abstract sculptures made of materials he finds on the prairie.
McBride is building on ties Haak established with the art department at Wichita State University. A group of WSU students is currently working on signage and trail markings for the path.
At the Volland Store, owner Reece says she wants the art she exhibits to relate to the landscape in some way, but her first criteria is finding the best art, be it abstract like the current show, or expertly restored large-format photographs by Volland Store founder and adventurer Otto Kratzer, or computer-generated 360-degree images of vaulted stone caves built by the area’s first settlers. Reece says showing high-caliber artworks has a transformational effect on small communities.
“When urban people come out and rural people are there, exchanges of ideas happen. I’ve seen it many times, and it’s a good thing.”
In June, Haak and Zoutenbier will toast the artists at the last round of openings they booked at all three of their galleries before handing off the reins to their successors.
At Symphony in the Flint Hills Gallery, that organization’s director, Christy Davis, will curate future shows as the Hamms and Regiers forge their visions in the Matfield Green galleries and deepen ties with the sculpture path, the Volland Store as well as the Ulrich Museum at WSU and the Beach Museum at K-State.
Looking back at their time here, Haak says he feels proud of what he and Zoutenbier accomplished.
“People from big cities who stop here for the scenery are not expecting to find what we have created here. We have changed people’s perceptions. We have brought artists here to work and live, so young people in the community can find culture here and don’t have to leave. We have established a beachhead for contemporary art in the outback.”
Where to find art along Kansas 177
Noon-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
“Paper Giants: Ky Anderson, Meg Lipke & Vicki Sher,” through May 29
The Bank Art Space
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday, spring through fall
“Shirotaeno-Prairie Journey: Chiyoko Myose,” through May 29
Symphony in the Flint Hills Gallery
8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
“Prairie Art,” a juried exhibition of works to be auctioned June 11 at Symphony in the Flint Hills, through June 1
Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Monday
“Seasons of the Grass: Chris Wolf Edmonds” and “Settlement and Solitude: Matthew C. Regier,” through June 5
Matfield Green Sculpture Path (under construction) / Bill McBride Studio
By appointment year-round, hikers welcome to view ongoing construction; opens to public in spring 2017
Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday; closed on major holidays
“Minidoka on My Mind: Paintings and Prints by Roger Shimomura,” through July 17; “Behind the Glass Eye: Photographs by Toyo Miyatake,” through July 31 (and more)
Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 1-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed major holidays
Where to eat
Saddlerock Cafe, 15 S. Sixth St., Council Grove; 620-767-6411, Facebook. Homemade, from-scratch comfort food and friendly, not-in-a-hurry service. Try the biscuits and gravy, chicken-fried steak and giant cinnamon rolls. Breakfast and lunch daily; dinner 5-7:30 Thursday-Saturday.
Ad Astra Food & Drink, 318 Cottonwood St., Strong City; 620-273-8440, Facebook. Upscale bistro decor and food with full bar. Famous for its Reuben sandwich and fried Brussels sprouts. Lunch and dinner Friday-Sunday.
Grand Central Hotel & Grill, 215 Broadway St., Cottonwood Falls; 620-273-6763, Facebook. The place for premium Kansas steaks and super-fat, flaky onion rings. Lunch and dinner served Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.
Keller Feed & Wine, 317 Broadway St., Cottonwood Falls; 620-273-5050, Facebook. Rustic antiques create a cool 1940s vibe, and huge portions of smoked meat, comfort food and milkshakes keep the locals coming back. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, dinner Friday and Saturday.