Government & Politics

Downtown Overland Park controversial murals move closer to reality with commission OK

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.

Some opponents of a downtown Overland Park mural project may have decried its bold, bright colors and multiracial themes as contrary to the community’s history.

But the city Planning Commission signaled Monday that it was time to embrace new traditions.

Planning commissioners paved the way for the city’s first major multi-mural project when they approved zoning exemptions for the outside of four buildings.

“I see a lot of rejuvenation with downtown Overland Park, which is great, and I think this adds to that,” commissioner Kip Strauss said. “It creates its own new history.”

The murals, part of a downtown art project that also includes eight mosaic benches and a sculpture, still need approval by the City Council next week.

A green, blue and orange bluegill fish would grace the InterUrban ArtHouse. City of Overland Park

One mural will be a green, blue and orange bluegill fish — one of the most common fish in Kansas — on the InterUrban ArtHouse at 80th and Conser streets.

Donald “Scribe” Ross designed this mural of a yellow and brown meadowlark, the Kansas state bird. City of Overland Park

A yellow and brown meadowlark, the state bird, is planned for a building at the same intersection.

A four-artist mural with themes that “symbolize a multiracial community, its cooperation, creativity, relationship to the earth, hopes and dreams” would adorn a wall of Penzeys Spices on Santa Fe Drive.

Next door, a mural designed by artist JT Daniels, featuring women from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, is proposed for the Ten Thousand Villages store, which sells fair-trade crafts and housewares made by women around the world.

A mural planned for the side of the Ten Thousand Villages store depicts women from cultures across the world. City of Overland Park

Planning commissioners didn’t need to consider the content of the proposed artwork when they voted 10-1 to permit zoning exemptions for murals that don’t conform to city code.

But they allowed nearly a dozen residents to speak on the project. Some critics have bashed the vibrant colors and “cartoonish” style of some of the murals, the prominent depiction of Muslim women in one mural and the city’s departure from past architectural standards. But commissioners heard from several speakers who offered a different perspective.

“It reminds of the diversity reflected in our community in this very moment,” resident Jay McNell said.

“I hear the word ‘deviation’ like it’s a bad thing,” said Anna White, a Kansas City, Kansas, resident who grew up in Leawood. “Speaking for my generation we are looking for areas that are progressive. We are looking for areas that are open to change.”

Karen Greenwood spoke as an employee of Ten Thousand Villages.

“We believe JT’s mural is a beautiful celebration of that dignity and culture and the world we are hoping to build,” Greenwood said.

The project’s costs are covered by a $15,000 Kansas Department of Commerce’s Creative Arts Industries Commission grant given to the InterUrban ArtHouse, which has partnered with the city on downtown art projects.

On Monday, InterUrban Arthouse founder and artistic director Nicole Emanuel stressed that the process they used to get the project approved by the city could be used by anyone with ideas for public art.

Yet some residents shared concerns about the city’s disinterest in controlling the content of the murals. Others found the concept of outdoor murals inappropriate.

“Our downtown is not ugly,” said resident Monica Gfoeller. “It’s not in need of remediation.”

Some questioned whether the Ten Thousand Villages mural served as an advertisement for its wares, though city staff said the design passes standards.

While commissioner Michael Flanagan said he saw the murals as a way “to move Overland Park forward in time,” he said he agreed with that objection and did not support the item with his vote.

But commissioners largely signaled they saw the artwork as a welcome addition to an area the city has rebranded as a cultural and creative district.

“I think this is going to be an asset. It’s going to be beneficial to the community. It’s going to add a splash of color to downtown,” said commissioner Edward “Ned” Reitzes.

At least one speaker appeared to offer what is at stake.

“People like me will move to places that are seen as more progressive,” White said. “It’s not worth the loss of alienating people who are contributing to our community.”

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