Artist Michael Young grew up in Lansing, Kan., and remembers visiting the state capitol in Topeka on a middle school field trip.
The massive dome was impressive enough, but inside the rotunda Young’s child eyes fixed on murals depicting significant moments in the state’s history on the walls of this prodigious house of government.
“I was awed,” said Young who today lives and works in Kansas City, Kan., where his art studio is located just south of the Leavenworth County border — kind of out in the middle of nowhere.
Dwarfed by those massive murals, Young remembers thinking, “I could never do anything like that.”
Then last year, Young heard by chance that a Kansas committee of state government leaders and historians was looking for a muralist for a capitol project.
He had no idea what historic event they wanted painted. But that didn’t matter: He had a chance to paint a mural that would hang on the walls of the Kansas capitol, maybe forever. So he applied.
Unbeknownst to him, so did some 15 other artists from across the country.
“That is the commission of a lifetime,” Young said. “An artist’s dream.”
In November, Young applied the first stroke of paint to a 22-foot-wide, nearly 8-foot-tall canvas — the state’s first mural depiction of the 1954 landmark Oliver Brown et al vs. the Board of Education of Topeka case that legally desegregated schools across the United States.
“It’s sad to know that this hasn’t happened before now, but government moves slow,” said Sen. Elaine Bowers, a Republican from Concordia and a member of the Kansas Capitol Preservation Committee. “It’s definitely long overdue.”
Journey to Topeka
Paint runs through Young’s bloodline. His father, grandfather and great grandfather were artists. His dad, Eugene Young, at 89, still paints. His parents have owned Young Sign Co. in Leavenworth since 1978. And Young has a son who, as an artist, is carrying the talent forward another generation.
Young remembers his dad spending hours painting in the basement of the family’s home in Lansing.
But Lansing High School didn’t have an art program when Young was a student there so he didn’t get to test his talent until he graduated and attended a vocational school in Salina. He was 17.
“It took me years to get a knack,” he said. Before that would happen, he had gotten pretty good at painting buildings and landscapes at his first job as an architectural illustrator in Kansas City.
He avoided putting people in his building design renderings. Painting people wasn’t his thing.
That changed somewhat after he studied anatomy and art at the Art Student’s League of New York in Manhattan. He worked for a while in a painting studio on Madison Avenue, “a somewhat shady business copying original works,” Young recalled. There he learned a variety of styles.
Having that skill served him well. Young’s own style of fine art, which he describes as “stylized realism,” commanded exhibitions in galleries across the country, including at the well-known Dyansen Company Gallery and a show at the Jacob Jarvis Center in New York City.
He has murals and artworks hanging in Trump Towers, Boston Aquarium, Leavenworth County Court House and painted the Gates & Son BBQ Mural in Kansas City.
“I got pretty popular and then other people started imitating me,” Young said.
Young’s Kansas roots played a role in his work being selected to hang along with 26 other murals that don the capitol walls.
“We preferred that it be a Kansan,” Bowers said.
For Young, learning that he would paint a depiction of the ground-breaking case conjured a swell of emotion. These days he pictures thousands of children staring up at his work asking questions about what made the moment significant.
“I would have been so disappointed not to get it,” Young said. About 70,000 people visit the capitol every year, and 42,000 are schoolchildren.
Bowers recalled that when the committee announced he’d won the commission, Young closed his eyes and exhaled a long breath.
The process for commissioning the mural started about a decade ago, when an African American Kansas civic leader began asking around the capitol about where he could find artwork there depicting the famous Supreme Court case.
When he learned there was none, he suggested that should change. Shawnee resident Charles Jean-Baptist, the former president of the Kansas NAACP, petitioned the legislature to pass a resolution for a Brown vs. Board of Education mural.
In 2012 lawmakers passed such legislation. But, the legislation stated, “no public funds shall be used to pay the costs of creating and installing the mural....”
When it’s done, and it nearly is, the mural will hang on the third floor of the capitol, just outside the doors of the old Kansas Supreme Court chambers.
In 1925, that court decided to prohibit the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan in Kansas, the first of the states to take such action, said Kenya Cox, executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission.
The commission is raising the $125,000 in private dollars — $110,000 goes to the artist — needed to pay for the mural and hang it. Former Gov. Sam Brownback made the first $1,000 donation.
Raising the money, Cox said, has not been easy.
“I just thought that this is such a wonderful thing, people would be so excited and just want to give.”
The group is still $30,000 short, and the mural is set to be revealed on May 17 to commemorate the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The first mockup of Young’s mural was unveiled at the state’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration this year.
What struck the committee about Young’s work was that the style and tone of it complemented other works already hanging in the capitol or painted on its walls.
Before even his first sketch, Young said, he immersed himself in study about the case and the time period.
“I needed to make sure I got the clothing right, the hair right, all of that,” he said.
The stunning mural covers an entire wall, floor to ceiling, in Young’s studio.
In the foreground, a black teacher sits at a desk reading to a diverse group of students standing around her. Behind her stand the pillars at the front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
On a hill to the left of the teacher (the viewer’s right) is Monroe Elementary school in Topeka, the school attended by African American children before the landmark decision. The school attended by Topeka’s white children is on the right.
Below that school is a school bus and an angry mob of white citizens carrying signs, shaking fists and protesting against the notion of having black and white children attend school together. On the other side of the mural, black teens in cap and gowns and other protesters carry signs and sing spirituals.
The mural is full with many elements of the time packed into the background — something burning in the far distance, the pointed tops of hoods worn by the KKK.
“The teacher and the students had to be the focal point,” Young said.
The committee agreed. His first try showed a white teacher surrounded by children, but the committee insisted the teacher be African American and that the children be black and white.
“Before Brown vs. Board of Education no black teacher could teach white children,” Cox said. “We wanted that change to be depicted in the mural.”
The committee, which included the president of the Kansas Historical Society, wanted to make sure the mural was done with historical correctness, right down to cobblestone streets.
The testimony that pretty much sealed the deal in Young’s favor came from Cheryl Brown Henderson, one of the three daughters of the late Rev. Oliver L. Brown, who along with 12 other parents led by the NAACP filed suit against the Topeka Board of Education on behalf of their children.
Oliver Brown died in 1961 before ever knowing the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Brown Henderson told the committee that Young’s depiction of the court case made education the central part of the picture.
“A teacher, children — we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that that was the battleground,” she said. “It spoke to me.”
Brown Henderson, who now lives in Florida, said she plans to be in Topeka on the day the mural is unveiled.
“Each mural in the state capitol tells a part of the story of the state of Kansas,” she said. “I’m pleased the NAACP and the state took this step. It (Brown vs. Board) is part of the narrative of the great story of our state. Events do not become history until at least 50 years.
“Now that Brown vs. Board is in fact true history, it’s time for it to be part of that narrative.”