Kansas City has long been known as the City of Fountains, but it’s quickly becoming the City of Murals.
Several new large-scale commissioned paintings are going up around the metro, including a three-story portrait of Michael Wheeler, aka KC Superman, unveiled this week in Westport between Port Fonda and Spa on Penn.
The work by Whitney Kerr and Chase Hunter features white-bearded Wheeler in his KC Superman outfit — red and blue “S” jersey, Royals shorts, and carrying a football spray-painted with the word “JESUS.”
The 66-year-old Wheeler often is seen blazing his way around town and at sporting events. He has run more than 130 marathons and jogged through each state at least twice in the last 44 years, spreading a message of unity, love and acceptance.
Despite some occasional aches and pains, he says he runs six out of seven days — around 50 miles a week, stopping to take photos with folks whenever asked.
“Running around, I get strength because it’s my calling,” he said.
Wheeler picked up running again several years ago, after his sister was murdered.
“It hurt me so bad,” he said. “I really got depressed. I was suicidal. So, like Forrest Gump, I started running. It was my therapy.”
Wheeler said the new painting has really touched him.
“Usually something like this happens when someone passes from the scene,” he said. “I was thinking about kind of giving up on running and doing something different, but that’s my message to keep going. I’m outrunning teenagers. I’m in pretty good shape for my age.”
The KC Superman mural isn’t Kerr’s largest work: He said he and a friend painted the 4,500-foot Sporting Kansas City sign at 17th and Main streets in two weeks.
Kerr said the KC Superman wall took a little over three days. During the process, he and Hunter heard an abundance of positive comments about the painting. The project was sponsored by Steve Shields, CEO of Action Pact, and Steven Smirnes and Shannon Willis, owners Spa on Penn.
“People would stand by it and figure out who it was and go, ‘Oh, that’s KC Superman! That’s awesome!’” Kerr said. “There was nothing but love being shown. It was really cool.”
The Superman outfit helps attract eyeballs. Not just in the painting, either. Wheeler said once he started wearing the super-suit, people were more open to him.
“I think I run faster with the cape,” he said.
The Westport KC Superman painting is the latest completed work in town; here are some others recently completed or in the works.
A light on the League
In downtown KC, muralist Alexander Austin is working on a tribute to the Kansas City Monarchs on the new Two Light building.
The Two Light mural, which the company commissioned to replace another one covered by construction, depicts Monarchs players getting off a plane after one of their world championship title games. Soon the painting will wrap around the north side of the building.
Austin said the height and the wind are making the work difficult. Paper patterns fly away, so he’s using grids and painting freehand. He’s also using a lift to work on the painting.
“I try to take everything I can up there, because if you forget one thing it can cost you time coming down, time going back up and that adds up,” he said. “Tons of brushes, tons of paint.”
Phil Shafer is working on another baseball-themed mural, for the Kansas City MLB Urban Youth Academy at Parade Park off of Truman Avenue.
“The whole piece is kind of two parts baseball and one part youth,” Shafer said. “It’s really based on Kansas City youth baseball and a little bit of history, too.”
The work also depicts flags of many baseball-rich regions: Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, among them. Venezuela is represented, because Royals catcher Salvador Perez contributed $1 million to the facility.
“Salvy gets a flag,” Shafer said. “Then the U.S. and Mexico. The Monarchs used to go down to Mexico and play teams there in the ’40s and ’50s, and the Monarchs had a trip to Japan, as well. Then there’s the Juneteenth flag, which is kind of a shout-out to this area and the African-American culture that’s here.”
Shafer has murals in the tunnels between Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums. He was one of several artists hired by the Royals to create “Raised Royal” murals throughout town. This new work should be completed in the next week or so.
“To me it’s slow and steady,” Shafer said, “but it’s coming along.”
Love Kansas City
Longtime Kansas City muralist Donald “Scribe” Ross completed his Love Kansas City mural earlier this year. It’s in the Foxx Equipment parking lot off of Southwest Boulevard and covers up a former piece by Ross.
The piece showcases Kansas City icons, from the Scout statue to Charlie Parker and the Chiefs, Royals and Sporting Kansas City. But one adjustment has been made since its completion.
After someone painted “HST = Termination of Native Culture” over Ross’ depiction of Harry S. Truman, the artist replaced the Missouri-born president with a bee and a speech balloon that reads, “I (heart) You” and the words “Keep Standing Up” underneath.
Ross’ Facebook post about the incident created an interesting dialogue among locals about art and intent. Personally, Ross used the incident as an opportunity to reflect on himself and his work.
“The main thing I learned was to make an effort to look at as many angles as possible and practice patience the best way I can — make an effort to respond with love,” Ross said.
A giant DNA strand
Ross was somewhat inspirational to another large-scale piece installed in town, though it’s not a mural.
“Genome,” a glass and metal sculpture by glass artist Dierk Van Keppel, is now occupying a five-story stairwell at Children’s Mercy Hospital, where Ross serves as staff artist. Van Keppel was taken with Ross’ use of color throughout the hospital.
“I had never worked with those sort of basic, saturated, primary colors, but I thought what a great opportunity to really change my color palette,” Van Keppel said.
Like many of his other public art projects, “Genome” is inspired by physics, astronomy and the microcosm of the body. He’s been fascinated by the shape of the DNA strand since he was a kid — a glass and metal double helix he created hangs from the ceiling of the Lawrence Public Library.
“As soon as I saw the call for proposals, I started sketching,” he said. “The hospital showed the artists a basic view of the architecture of the stairwell, which was really narrow and sort of elliptical-shaped, which really relates to the shape of the DNA strand.”
Recreating something so small on such a large scale — at times he was 55 feet in the air — had its challenges.
“What you have to get over pretty quick is standing on a scaffold,” Van Keppel said. “I just had to keep in mind not to ever make a step without looking around and getting a bearing on where I was and where my next step would be. I had to wear fall protection, but the idea of falling was pretty scary.”
The result, however, is pretty spectacular.
“Ultimately what I’m trying to do is create peace and beauty in the build space,” Van Keppel said. “In this case the space, although architecturally interesting, was really rather spare. It was really just a great opportunity to bring color and light to the space.”