Muralist and large-scale public art project programmer Michael Toombs was born in Kansas City exactly one year after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. This ruling would play a large role in this masterful muralist’s life down the road.
Growing up on the eastside of Kansas City, Toombs attended Garrison School. It was there his principal noticed he was frequently drawing and sketching. “Principal Scott saw I had some artistic ability and he asked me if I wanted to learn more. Of course I said yes, so every Saturday, he gave me some bus tokens and I rode the Metro to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and was taught by Mathew Monks, a retired Hallmark artist and well-respected watercolor artist and lithographer, along with about 20 other kids. We would tour the galleries and could do all kinds of art,” Toombs says. His time with Monks at The Nelson-Atkins inspired his future as a community leader and champion for young people and adult artists.
He attended The Kansas City Art Institute and Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas. It was here where his first mural was created. The administration of the college wanted its lobby to be a welcoming place. The students at Donnelly were from many different cultures and they wanted the lobby to be a place where students could gather and get to know each other. They enlisted Toombs to create a design and execute it. He created an 87-foot mural depicting the college with a sunrise and sunset on top. He painted each letter of the college’s name and left the inside blank as a canvas for others to paint something representative of their culture. This would be his first collaborative mural, but not his last.
In 1995, he was commissioned to create two 130-by-nine-foot murals adorning the lower levels of Bartle Hall. In one of his first large-scale mural projects, Toombs, partnering with Marcia Pomeroy of Youth Friends, directed a team of 35 artists and 700 plus school children in the creation of the panels, depicting the types of events that occur in Kansas City’s convention and entertainment centers, including concerts, plays, ballets and rodeos. Most importantly, this project nurtured a romance: he and Marcia Pomeroy fell in love and got married shortly after.
He realized his love for art and collaboration with kids was the driving force behind his creativity. He wanted to inspire children like himself, and be inspired, so he created a non-profit called Storytellers Inc. “I believe art is a change agent for society’s difficulties,” Toombs says. “Storytellers, Inc. is a visual and performing arts organization, designed to provide new venues for local artists and then train those artists to educate and re-sensitize the community through the arts.” His non-profit has served over 17,000 young people in arts programming by contract and as community volunteers in the past 15 years.
Through Storytellers, Inc., Toombs trained more than 50 artists who have partnered with the Jackson County courts to facilitate arts and education with juveniles in the court system with the goal of lightening the burden of what the kids have been through and to help get them through a felony charge. This program was so successful, the prosecutor’s office suggested he do programs with the adults, as well.
Storytellers, Inc. also created a “Teens in Transition” program with the Jackson County Courts, and Police Department and the Mayor starting in 2014. “We work with teens who have had run-ins with police in the summer for 12 weeks and expose them to all different kinds of art forms, even productions of how to DJ. We created a piece with the lyric opera and designed backdrops for the musical Westside Story. We made a large, collaborative art piece at the crime lab called Denim: Step Forward,” Toombs says. The kids learn conflict resolution and financial literacy. Plus, they get paid minimum wage, which is funded by the mayor’s office. Two-thirds of kids who finish the program don’t have any negative interactions with officers afterwards.
Toombs’ largest collaboration came in July 2018 when he was commissioned to design and implement a mural commemorating the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in Topeka. The mural explores themes of equality and justice through the eyes of young people in the community. It is located across the street from the Brown v. Board of Education Historic Site, the former Monroe Elementary School. “The mural allows us to look past that thing that we want to put between us and instead we can say this is just another human being,” Toombs says. “We are trying to bring compassion and love to the mural.”
More than 27 professional artists and art students and 2,000 neighbors, community members, and tourists traveling from as far as China and Africa took part in painting the 130-by-30-foot wall, which was organized by Arts Connect Topeka and led by Toombs. The mural is full of color and features two children holding hands, walking with the words “And the children shall lead” and “A New Day”, along with many civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Thurgood Marshall, to name a few. Toombs describes the mural as a “curated collage of children’s drawings.” A poem by Annette Billings, “What You Allow, Lingers” is written across the bottom of the mural. Its closing lines, “Place a welcome mat for goodness, make your life poorly-suited for anything but love. And when hate knocks, act like you’ve moved!” represent the future and a hope for equity 65 years after the historic case was heard.
Toombs’ advice to anyone who is striving to create art and to make a living as a maker is: “In creative placemaking, the soul of the creative process is you. If you’re not present, the art never happens.”
You can find Toombs working on programming in with the courts, as well as at the African American Artists Collective which just received a grant from The Charlotte Street Foundation for a year’s residency at Pendelton Arts Blocks.