Kansas City artist’s Jayhawk paintings show off rock chalk spirit — literally

Fine art for KU fans: $25,000 Rock Chalk Jayhawk paintings

The University of Kansas granted this artist licensing to create six historic Jayhawk paintings. They are for sale at Niall, a luxury watch shop at the Country Club Plaza.
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The University of Kansas granted this artist licensing to create six historic Jayhawk paintings. They are for sale at Niall, a luxury watch shop at the Country Club Plaza.

Here’s a gift idea for the Kansas Jayhawk superfan who has everything: a set of six paintings, each depicting one of the trademark crimson and blue Jayhawk logos over the past 105 years.

The set of six will set you back $150,000 — or $25,000 each.

Officially licensed depictions of a sports logo with a fine-art feel and price tag to match is a novel concept.

Megh Knappenberger, an artist in Kansas City who studied fine art at the University of Kansas, explained the origins of the artworks, now on display at Niall, a luxury watch boutique on The Plaza, one recent evening.

Typically, she paints cows, horses, bees, things like that. A lot of her work is commissioned and she sells prints on her website. She describes the style of her colorful acrylic renderings, with bold brush strokes, as abstract realism.

“It’s sort of walking a line between abstract and realistic,” she says. “It’s bending the rules enough that it gives it some life while still being able to look at it and recognize what it is.”

The Jayhawks came about, Knappenberger says, when she strayed into painting a human being, specifically a portrait of James Naismith as a Father’s Day gift for her husband, based on one she’d seen in the basement of the state capital in Topeka. Naismith devised the first rules for basketball and was the first basketball coach at KU.

“I showed it to friends and family, and it became clear very quickly that other people might like it,” she says. “So I put prints of it (for sale) online and that’s where the connection to Michael (Wilson) all started.”

Wilson, owner of Niall and a KU alumnus, saw Knappenberger’s Naismith portrait and ordered a print for his shop. Knappenberger delivered it to him herself.

The entrepreneurial Wilson had created the Fieldhouse Blue, a wristwatch with Naismith’s original 13 rules of basketball inscribed on its dial, which sells for $4,450. (Another gift idea!) The rules are so tiny as to appear like pin dots, but are legible under the lens of a microscope.

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Niall on the Plaza sells a watch with the 13 rules of basketball microinscribed on the watch face. The tiny words are seen magnified through a device. Jill Toyoshiba

“We’re selling these like hotcakes,” said Lisa Stanger, sales director at Niall. “They’re officially licensed through University of Kansas, and they’re limited edition. There are 126 watches, and the serial numbers range from 1891, the year that basketball was invented by Naismith, to 2017.”

All but seven of the watches have been sold since they were introduced in February. KU basketball coach Bill Self owns one.

From there, Wilson and Knappenberger came up with the idea for her to paint the Jayhawk logos, and he helped her get them officially licensed through KU so she could sell them.

Knappenberger spent the next three months painting, but not before coming up with a unique concept: incorporating Kansas limestone dust — the limestone on KU’s campus being an inspiration for the university’s rock chalk chant — into her acrylics.

“It’s a tactile homage to Rock Chalk Jayhawk,” she says “The way I paint is thick and textured, and I was looking for different things to mix in. I have a friend whose family owns a quarry so I knew there was this limestone dust that came from the process of cutting the rock. I went one day and collected a bucket of that dust, brought it back and tested it on some canvas, and it looked really cool.”

The concept, she says, harkens to the way the earliest painters mixed powdered pigments with egg yolks and water, creating a paint that thickened with time.

“It changed the way the paint flowed a bit,” she says, of adding limestone. “It sucks up the moisture so it did kind of get very dry and crumbly, and I had to kind of watch that as I was applying it to the canvas. As it dried it really glued in there to the canvas.”

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Artist and University of Kansas graduate Megh Knappenberger created six paintings of the school’s mascot, the Jayhawk, even incorporating rock chalk (limestone) in it. She was able to get licensing to use the Jayhawk image. The works are displayed at Niall, a watch shop on the Plaza, owned by fellow KU graduate, Michael Wilson. Jill Toyoshiba

She began each painting by carefully drawing the Jayhawk logo on a grid on the canvas to make sure she got the proportions perfect. She finished each of the first five paintings by numbering them with the year they were trademarked. The last logo doesn’t get an official year because it’s not retired.

Knappenberger had a leg up over most artists when it came to trademark licensing. She used to work in branding.

“I used to be the person who read the branding books about ‘don’t stretch the logo, don’t add anything to it, don’t change the colors,’ ” she says. “So I understood the respect that had to be paid when I was doing these, and it’s part of the reason they agreed to license me because I was so respectful of the original marks when I did these paintings.”

Once done, she and Wilson took them to Paul Vander Tuig, assistant athletic director, trademark licensing at KU.

Vander Tuig was skeptical at first. He had seen other artists’ interpretations of the Jayhawk and a lot them, he says, were really bad. They did not get official licensing.

“I was pleasantly surprised at Megh keeping the integrity of the logos,” Van Tuig says. “It’s a little subjective. What one person thinks is a change, another person doesn’t. When one person says ‘I kept the integrity,’ in their mind, they might have kept it. But in the university’s mind or in my mind that artist didn’t. The other really intriguing part of Megh’s originals is the inclusion of the chalk rock.”

She’s already had a lot of interest in the paintings from individual buyers but is hesitant to split them up. Her wildest dream, she says, is for the paintings to stay together and be publicly displayed — perhaps, say, in Allen Fieldhouse?

Since that’s probably not going to happen, she is seriously looking at individual offers.

And for those who can’t afford to spend $25,000 on artwork, she’s also offering sets of limited edition prints. The 152 hand-signed and numbered sets come with a small jar of the same chalk rock used in the paintings and are priced at $1,500 for 18-by-18-inch framed and matted prints or $1,200 for 14-by-14-inch unframed prints.

The paintings and prints will be for sale at Niall, 612 W. 48th St., through the holidays. Knappenberger will be at the boutique from 5 to 8 p.m. Dec. 14, signing prints and offering buyers the opportunity to choose an edition special to them, such as the year they got married or graduated.

KU gets a 12 percent royalty from sales of her originals and prints.

And there will only be prints. No coffee cups, T-shirts or other novelty items.

“I’m trying to keep the level of this at a premium, fine-art level,” Knappenberger says. “It’s kind of like the watch. There aren’t a lot of licensed things in that luxury category with KU or really with any school. That’s part of inspiration behind this to create something that was first, really beautiful, but then second, about something that people love and have a lot of good feelings about.”