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In Overland Park, proposed murals spark conversation about what represents the city

Overland Park City officials will be considering a multi-mural art project for downtown

The proposed art has the community talking if the images best represent the community.
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The proposed art has the community talking if the images best represent the community.

The murals are bright, vibrant and — if greenlighted by city officials — would grace four buildings in downtown Overland Park.

The artworks would be the first major multi-mural project in Overland Park, where last year city leaders designated the downtown area as an “innovation, design, entrepreneurship and arts district” meant to serve as a “hub of creativity.”

But the proposed art also has the community talking about what images best represent the community.

There’s the colorful green, blue and orange Bluegill fish — one of the most common fish in Kansas — that would adorn the InterUrban ArtHouse at the corner of 80th and Conser Streets. And the yellow and brown meadowlark, the state bird, on a teal background planned for across the street.

Then there’s a four-artist mural proposed at Penzey’s Spices on Santa Fe Drive that, according to the artists, will “symbolize a multiracial community, its cooperation, creativity, relationship to the earth, hopes and dreams.”

And finally, a mural featuring women from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East at Ten Thousand Villages, which sells fair-trade crafts and housewares made by women around the world.

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Overland Park city officials will consider whether to allow a multi-mural project planned for downtown. One mural, planned for the side of the Ten Thousand Villages store, depicts women from cultures across the world. City of Overland Park

Craig Sole, who owns the florist shop on Conser near two of the proposed murals, said he was instantly excited about designs he called “modern and moving-forward.” He imagined teenagers and brides flocking to to take pictures in front of the brightly colored walls.

“It’s not Conestoga wagons, which is what some people expected,” Sole said. “I thought, ‘oh what a cool idea — it’s bright, bold and fabulous.’”

But not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Since art plans have been shared in multiple public meetings, some concerns about the murals downtown — and their content — have circulated in online forums and community conversations. The pieces have sparked talk about art, race and city process.

“I don’t want the downtown to look like a cartoon — it’s embarrassing,” said resident Ralph Beck. “It’s totally disrespectful to the history of our downtown and the historical character of our downtown.”

Beck added that for many in the community, the Ten Thousand Villages mural depicting women of color, some wearing headscarves, has inspired the most conversation.

“Seventy-five percent of the whole piece is in regards to women of a particular ethnic background, which I have no problem with, but why do they need so many?” asked Candy Hull, an Overland Park native.

She also questioned whether the mural served as an advertisement for the Ten Thousand Villages store. What if the store moved elsewhere and the mural remained?

“Here you have this so called advertisement that has nothing to do with anything in Overland Park and yet it’s stuck here on this building,” said Hull, who said she also objects to the bright, bold color scheme.

The artist, JT Daniels, said in an email Thursday that his aim was to represent the store and how the artisans’ works impact other communities.

“My hope is that people are willing to be open towards seeing something different,” Daniels wrote. “Instead of focusing solely on the product, I chose to highlight the people making said items that the store purchases and sells. I thought it fit right in with the area, considering its proximity to the farmers market and the new apartments/lofts being built in the area.”

On his website, Daniels explained that his work includes words that have personal meanings. For example, the “SUP” thought bubble found in the Overland Park mural means: “surviving under pressure.”

He has also written about the inspiration for his piece, saying the background of the mural “is the former logo for the organization, just repeated and spread out across the wall, to reflect the idea of 10,000 villages and how these people are interconnected.”

That makes sense to Sole.

“They all make sense for where they are located,” Sole said. “I think (the city) is on the right track.”

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A four-artist mural proposed at Penzey’s Spices on Santa Fe Drive will “symbolize a multiracial community, its cooperation, creativity, relationship to the earth, hopes and dreams,” according to the artists. City of Overland Park

Beck and other critics also have criticized a process that did not allow residents to weigh in on the designs before the city’s zoning decision. But city officials say it’s not their job, or the public’s, to police the content.

“It’s private art,” said Leslie Karr, the city’s planning manager. “The question really is, is painting okay on this wall, and is this an acceptable location for a mural?”

The murals are all on privately owned buildings and aren’t funded by city dollars. A $15,000 grant awarded to the InterUrban ArtHouse by the Kansas Department of Commerce’s Creative Arts Industries Commission covers the project costs.

But the artwork, part of a Downtown Art Master Plan, requires city permission because of code requirements. The Overland Park Planning Commission is scheduled to review the request on Monday. The City Council will also consider the proposal.

The mural artists commissioned by the InterUrban Arthouse are local and worked with the property owners on their designs. The paintings would join eight mosaic benches, as well as a sculpture, planned for the downtown art project.

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Donald “Scribe” Ross designed this mural of a yellow and brown meadowlark, the Kansas state bird. It would be located at the corner of 80th and Conser Streets in downtown Overland Park. City of Overland Park

Nicole Emanuel, the artistic director and founder of the InterUrban Arthouse, said the artists are prepared to start immediately and would likely continue their work through June.

“We talked about community and that this is an IDEA district,” she said. “There’s a history. There’s all kinds of efforts to do sustainability. Each mural interprets from the artist’s point of view a different aspect of these ideas.”

Emanuel is aware of the criticisms. But she says critics should be heartened by the progress — it means there is now a precedent for “people to create work that they want to see.”

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A green, blue and orange Bluegill fish — one of the most common fish in Kansas — would grace the InterUrban ArtHouse at the corner of 80th and Conser Streets if city officials give permission to a multi-mural art project. City of Overland Park

“Let’s say somebody wants to depict pioneer culture or suburban culture, they are free now to enter into this process that had been defined,” she said.

A muralist doesn’t have the responsibility to depict the “entire history of an entire culture,” she said. And art has long prompted discussions about what a community believes in.

As for those who worry about Overland Park’s history being erased? None of the murals purports to depict the “entire history of an entire culture,” she said.

“This doesn’t deny you,” Emanuel said. “This doesn’t say you don’t exist.”

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Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.


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