NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For Lora Jost, art shouldn’t be separated from community.
“I’m interested in art that brings the broader community into the vision,” she says, “that has a bigger than individual draw.” The story that the art reflects is also an important component, she says.
One art form dependent on story and community is the mural. With Jost’s philosophy of art, it’s not surprising that she became part of a project to document public murals in Kansas.
The University Press of Kansas released Kansas Murals: A Traveler’s Guide in both hardcover and paperback on Oct. 3. Four days later, on Oct. 7, Jost was on the campus of Bethel College to promote the book and sign copies during the annual Fall Festival fair on the Green.
Jost grew up in the Newton community and is a graduate of Newton High School and Bethel College. She now lives and works as an artist in Lawrence, along with her husband, Chuck Epp, and son, Nicholai Jost-Epp, 4.
Jost teamed with fellow Lawrence artist Dave Loewenstein, who initially catalyzed the Kansas mural project in 2000 at a “surface arts conference” sponsored by the Kansas Arts Commission and several other organizations.
“There was interest in a couple of things,” Jost says, “where the murals are [in Kansas] and in telling artists how to make murals. Dave raised his hand and volunteered to ‘kick something off.’ I didn’t know him well at the time, but I ran into him in a coffee shop later and we talked.”
The two ultimately secured two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the first of which enabled them to travel the thousands of miles around Kansas required to see murals. The second grant helped pay for the services of professional photographers – Edward C. Robison III from Eudora was the main one.
Eventually, Jost and Loewenstein decided to drop the “how-to” part of the initial idea and instead began developing what became both a showcase of Kansas murals and a tour guide. The book pictures 90 murals but lists at least 600 more and how to find them.
Artists range from the internationally known such as Joan Miro, Blackbear Bosin, John Steuart Curry and Birger Sandzén to artists known only in their communities, groups of children or other local volunteers. The murals are on silos and sides of buildings as well as inside banks, post offices, churches, schools and other public buildings. Most are painted but some are tile mosaic.
Some of the murals are decades old (going back as far as 1890) and others were created within the last 5-10 years. The 1970s and ’80s in particular saw a rise in the number of public murals created.
“Stan Herd, who did a lot of murals in the ’70s and ’80s, inspired others in small rural communities,” Jost says. “These were murals that especially meant to remember the past, the heritage or history of a place.
“There was kind of an explosion in the ’80s,” she continues. “There was a big mural movement in large metropolitan areas in the ’60s and ’70s that trickled down. Acrylic paints were easily available. The farm crisis and drop in farm prices meant there were a lot of empty buildings in small rural towns, and city governments were looking for ways to draw people in [to their towns].”
Jost and Loewenstein started in 2001 with a database of about 135 Kansas murals. “Before we began traveling, I would call a library or Chamber of Commerce in a place where we knew there was a mural and ask about it. Often, they’d know where there were others. Word of mouth would get to us. Some muralists have done a number of murals around the state.”
When they had a “final” database of almost 700, it was time to choose which ones to picture. “It was part gut feeling, the ‘wow factor,’” Jost says. “We also wanted to have representation from across the state and across the decades. We wanted diversity of subject, of ethnic and cultural heritage and of artists.”
Loewenstein and Jost divided up writing the short essays that go with each of the 90 pictured murals. The opportunity to write was another aspect that drew Jost to the project.
Underlying all was the importance of the community and its story, she says. “We’re interested in people traveling to see the murals, using the book as a guide, as well as to see what’s in their own area. It gives a glimpse of a lot of different kinds of public murals, a range of artists and work, but there’s a relationship [overall]. Murals [almost always] connect with identity and place, and this guide makes that relationship clear.
“What’s unique about murals,” she continues, “is that often people in a community will get together to plan a mural and sometimes to paint it, too. There’s a democratic component to murals not found in other public art – a lot of collaboration.”
In writing the text for Kansas Murals, she says, she and Loewenstein picked out interesting stories and quotes from artists. “This is deliberately more narrative than museum descriptions,” she says.
“Because murals don’t fit easily into the ‘high art’ world of galleries and museums, they are often overlooked by art historians even though they are in plain sight,” Loewenstein adds. “Our goal was to shine a light on our state’s great mural tradition and to give readers and travelers the opportunity to discover some of the great artworks and great artists from Kansas that may have been overlooked or forgotten.”
In the Newton area, Kansas Murals is available through Wordsworth Books in North Newton or Pages a Bookshop in downtown Newton. It can also be ordered online.
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.
Sidebar: Artists famous and obscure
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – With a project the size and scope of Kansas Murals, there were bound to be some surprises and unusual stories encountered along the way.
Many are mentioned in the text that accompanies each of the 90 murals pictured in the book. For example, the celebrated landscape painter Birger Sandzén, whose mural in the Belleville post office is shown on page 109, completed more post office murals in Kansas than any other artist. Sandzén was an artist and teacher at Bethany College in Lindsborg for 50 years. He also painted murals for post offices in Lindsborg and Halstead.
Jost also notes the surprise of discovering murals by artists she had never known had work on display in Kansas. For example, “Dream,” on page 141, was painted by Robert McCall and hangs in the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson. “McCall is the space artist,” Jost says. His work has included space movie posters (e.g., 2001: A Space Odyssey), space postage stamps, space mission emblems and murals for prominent institutions, among them the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
Jean Charlot, one of the 20th century’s most highly esteemed muralists, created a fresco that can be found in the Abbey Church on the campus of Benedictine College in Atchison (pictured on page 19). Charlot was born in Paris and later moved to Mexico, where he painted murals with Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
But just as compelling are the stories of the murals that reflect a community’s sometimes forgotten history or even a community that has itself almost disappeared.
For example, Newton’s featured mural is “La Vida Buena, La Vida Mexicana,” found inside Sunset Elementary School and pictured on page 151. Patrice Olais and Raymond Olais painted the mural as a commission in the mid-1970s to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the area’s first Mexican-American Fast-Pitch Softball Tournament, started by Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in 1946 and now the oldest Mexican-American ball tournament in the United States. The mural was originally displayed in the ballpark.
The murals of Vermillion came about in 1981 after artist JoAnn Dannels had watched more than two-thirds of her town’s population disappear just during her lifetime. With the help of Vermillion schoolchildren, Dannels painted murals on some of Vermillion’s abandoned and neglected buildings that both reflected the town’s past and that – in 1981, at least – showed where life still existed. The murals were restored in 2000. One of them can be seen on page 83 of Kansas Murals.