Greetings from Lucas, KS: Art Environment Mecca

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Smack dab in the middle of the contiguous United States, really in the middle of nowhere, you will find the strangest, most amazing, per capita city in the country – Lucas, KS.  Population 393, give or take a person or two. Lucas is home to three or four art environments (depending on your definition), a great folk art museum, a terrific meta roadside attraction and the coolest public bathrooms you could ever hope to do your business. All within a three block radius. New York City by comparison has a population of over 8.4 million people, probably at best has  three or four folk art environments, also has a really great folk art museum and a few roadside attractions, but unlike Lucas all their public bathrooms are vile pits.

Lucas is only 15 minutes from highway I-70, which cuts through the middle of the state, but unless you are driving from Denver to Kansas City, Lucas is most likely near nowhere you were planning to be. The closest “big” city is Wichita, KS, which is about 150 miles away. But in a way it doesn’t matter where in the United States you live, Lucas is not technically that far away. Lucas is located only about 60 miles from the geographical center of the contiguous United States (not counting Alaska and Hawaii). Meaning if you cut out a map of America and tried putting a pin in the middle so it balanced perfectly, the pin would just about be in Lucas.

It takes a bit of work to get here, but as Lucas is such a fascinating small town, it is well worth your efforts. For fans of art environments this is an absolute must see.

So, with that being said here is a travel guide to the wonders of Lucas.

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The Garden of Eden – 305 East Second Street – Lucas Kansas

You can’t talk about Lucas without starting with this site. Built by S.P. Dinsmoor (1843 – 1932) over two decades starting in 1907, the Garden of Eden is arguably the oldest surviving art environment in the United States. The Garden is one of the greatest icons of the old, weird America, built with fervent individualism with a strong point of view, built with skill and imagination. Infusing concrete with a healthy mixture of populist politics, social Darwinist theory, old timey religion and freemasonry, Dinsmoor surrounded his hand-built cabin with hundreds of concrete sculptures.

 

He was not afraid to speak his mind, then build it into a giant sculpture and place it on his property. For example, one of the more prominent sculptures is the one in the photo above, with labor being crucified by the bankers, lawyers, doctors and preachers (a big screw you to the man).

Over the century Lucas residents have taken great pride in this site. Dinsmoor’s creation inspired several of his neighbors to start building weird things in their yard, and inspired other artists to move to Lucas.

The Garden of Eden was preserved by the Kohler Foundation in 2011 and is open to the public as a museum. With paid admission you get to go on the property, in the house and also get to venture into the mausoleum where Dinsmoor’s mummified remains rest comfortably to greet curious tourists. Check the website here for hours and admission.

The Grassroots Art Center – 213 S Main st. – Lucas Kansas

Two blocks from the Garden of Eden, on Lucas’ main strip is a fantastic art museum. I don’t know why I am even bothering listing the addresses, this town is only a handful of blocks squared, you won’t get lost.

Lucas has been dubbed the Grassroots art capital of Kansas. Basically, “grassroots art”, is Kansas code for folk, self-taught or outsider art. The term doesn’t carry any of the baggage of those other descriptors. The Center is a terrific folk art museum with pieces by several noted Kansas grassroots artists including Glenn Stark, Ed Root and M.T. Liggett. It is a cornucopia of people thinking outside the box. Admission to the museum gets you a tour of the next two places listed, Florence Deeble’s Rock Garden and The Garden of Isis.

Check out their website for visitor info here.

 

Florence Deeble’s Rock Garden

There are a few sites in Lucas that were directly inspired by SP Dinsmoor. Florence Deeble (1900-1999), built her art environment in her back yard, only a block from the Garden of Eden. She started creating her rock garden in her late 50s and continued till she passed away at almost 100 years old. Many of the sculptures are inspired by her travels or by the history of Kansas, or Lucas.

When she got older, she kept building and started incorporating other store-bought pieces into her sculptures. Deeble’s environment is a tad crude, but utterly charming and full of personality and creativity. Admission to the Grassroots Art Center gets you a tour of her yard.

The Garden of Isis: Inside Florence Deeble’s old house

Artist Mri-Pilar was so inspired by the grassroots art in Lucas that in 2002 she started covering the inside of Florence Deeble’s house with her unique art. The interior walls are sheathed with silver insulation and weird collages often using doll parts. Very creepy and very cool. A tour of the house comes with your admission to the Grassroots Art Center.

Miller’s Park – 2nd Street, next to the Garden of Eden

Ron and Clara Miller created a rock garden art environment/ tourist attraction from the 1920s to the 1960s. They built rock sculptures of places they have visited. The sculptures were all sold off in 1969 and moved to Hays, KS. Forty years later, after being left to decay they were rescued with the help of the almighty Kohler Foundation. They were preserved and then moved back to Lucas in 2013. They are now adjacent to the Garden of Eden and free to check out daily.

World’s Largest Collection of World’s Smallest Versions of World’s Largest Things (WLCoWSVoWLT)- Next to the Garden of Eden

Artist/ educator/ preservationist/ road tripper and fellow art environment obsessive Erika Nelson has created a very cool roving tourist attraction that delights in roadside architecture, namely the “world’s biggest this or that.” Nelson is another transplant from elsewheres drawn to Lucas’ creative soul and super cheap rural housing prices who bought the house next to the Garden of Eden to act as her jumping off point for her travels across America.

These giant pieces of Americana are everywhere. Every state has them, often built to lure in tourists, or as a point of community pride. Some of the more well know ones include the World’s Largest Ketchup Bottle in Illinois, or the World’s largest dinosaur, aka the Cabazon Dinosaur, as seen in the movie Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure. Nelson has built a mini version of these archetypes of Americana and is displaying them in the windows of her art cars and on the side of her house. Incidentally Lucas is located about a 45 minute drive from one of my favorite World’s largest thing, the World’s Largest Ball of Twine (built by more than one person) in Cawker City, KS. Check out her website here.

And more…

Besides all the attractions listed above, there is the Bowl Plaza, a public restroom on Main street, a block down from the Grassroots Arts Center. This is not a normal bathroom, I mean in may ways it is as it relates to hole placement and flushing gadgets, but each restroom has been covered with tons of bric-a-brac –  an homage to the grassroots art that informs the small burg’s sensibilities. There is a tiny park next to the bathrooms that has more grassroots art.

There is also a great 90 plus year old family run Czech meat market named Brant’s right next door, where they sell incredible bologna, beef jerky  and other sausages. Brant’s is located at 125 S Main St, they don’t have their own dedicated website but  here is a good site for more info.

But wait there’s more… all around town and on the roads going to and from Lucas there is more grassroots art. There are M.T. Liggett totems, and J.R. Dickerman’s Open Range Zoo, basically, several grassroots metal sculptures that litter the roads leading into Lucas. You can find a list of Open Range creatures here.

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The World’s Largest Souvenir plate

If you love road trips and art environments then this here is the destination for you. Kansas City or Denver both make great jumping off points as there is a ton of fascinating Americana and grassroots art sites along the way.

So, check out the Kansas map below (Lucas is in about the middle) and then fill up the gas tank, it is a bit of a drive.

 

 

 

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The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Kansas Grassroots Art Environment: Glenn Stark’s Yard

I am going to take a little break from Wisconsin this week because I just found out the fate of a small, relatively unknown environment in Kansas that wifey and I visited in May 2014.

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Glenn Stark’s Yard

Some art environments are better known than others. There are easily less than 50 places that I would call “major” environments. Sites like the Watts Tower, the Heidelberg Project, Salvation Mountain, the Grotto of the Redemption, the Forevertron, the Dickeyville Grotto, S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden, the Orange Show, the Coral Castle and Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens, are mentioned regularly in books, magazines, indie documentaries, news articles and on the web. If you haven’t heard of any of the places I just mentioned that just goes further to show how obscure a topic this is, as those are seriously probably ten of the most well known established American sites. Most of these environments have endured for decades as tourist attractions and are supported with money and some sort of management infrastructure. Plus, they all have really intriguing cool names either given to them by the creator, or visitors. You have strange mountains, towers, castles and esoteric gardens; places where people traditionally go to defeat an evil wizard or fight off the impending goblin horde (thanks Obama!), not look at art. Places with names that make you want to visit them.

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Jesus carved from a tree stump

For every well known art environment, there are tens, if not hundreds of  obscure ones. These are the sites typically located on personal property that may be too new or geographically isolated, thus remaining obscure. They may be ignored or misunderstood by the local community, or may be not aesthetically pleasing enough to receive as much buzz from writers. It is hard to find the history, or latest information, on them. Often, there is not a website and if there is any visitor info, it is certainly not current. I once tried calling the phone number of an obscure Wisconsin art environment that I found in an old travel book. I wanted to see if I could come take photos of the place. A woman answered the phone and not knowing exactly how to phrase my question, I asked her if she had a museum in her front yard. Without hesitation, she said no, there was no museum in her front yard.  She did not take the time to double check. She probably thought it was a set up for a prank call. Is your refrigerator running (better go catch it)? Do you have Prince Albert in Can (better let him out)?  Do you have a museum in your front yard (better develop a collections management policy and clear it with the board of directors)?

Besides two well-known environments (“well-known” is a relative term), the Sign Field and the Stark 5Garden of Eden, Kansas seems to be rock chalk full of obscure environments. In the future, I will write a post or two about art environment mecca Lucas, KS, as well as the Sign Field and the great works of the now defunct Grassroots Art Association. But for now. suffice it to say, like California and Wisconsin, Kansans have a yen to use their lawn as a giant canvas. Today we are dealing with Glenn Stark’s Yard and what becomes of these little-known out of the way places.

Stark 1Glenn Stark’s house is located in Kingman, KS, a small town of around 3,000 people. In May 2014, my old lady and I were on a Kansas art environment excursion. I had seen photos of Stark’s house on a few websites and it looked interesting, but there was very little information to go on. I had an address plugged into the GPS but it was a bit out of our way and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the risk. A few times I had planned to visit a site and once I got there the owners were not around, or a fence was up and “NO TRESPASSING” signs were placed around the perimeter. The only official website for Stark’s art was built by his stepson years ago and hadn’t been updated since 2006. There were no mentions on Yelp or TripAdvisor. Makes sense this wasn’t a tourist attraction, just some guy’s house. I had tried calling a phone number I found on a Kansas travel site but it was disconnected. All I knew was that Stark was supposedly very friendly and that he was in his late 90s. Was Glenn still alive, were the statues still there, would he mind visitors? If they were still there would I be allowed on the property? (I do realize that the fact that photos from my visit are littering this post kills any suspense for the reader).Stark 6

We arrived at his house on a rainy afternoon. The house and concrete statues that Stark built were still there crowding his front yard. We hesitantly knocked and Glenn’s wife Mary Stark came to the door. I asked if we could take photos of the yard. She was so gracious and nice, she revealed that Glenn was actually in the house, but he was in hospice care. This ended up turning into one of those really unique and special experiences.

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Big Foot

Mary came out to give us a tour. The love and admiration for her husband were readily apparent. She showed us around the yard telling us the story behind several pieces and even insisted we climb on some of the statues for photo ops. Glenn, a retired Baptist preacher, had been crafting his statues for decades for himself and his friends and neighbors. Several of the pieces he made for others ended up back in his yard. Stark had a keen sense of humor and his concrete statues included various people from real life and folklore, totem poles and native and non-native Kansas critters – including  giraffes, a big foot, Hagar the Horrible, a bear chasing a guy up a tree and a dinosaur in the midst of eating a human. Everything was a cartoon character come full size.

One of the true joys of visiting different sites have been the time I’ve met the artist. Mary was such a great woman, a true inspiration, she had so much spirit and verve and was so delighted to share her husband’s work with total strangers. While I never got to meet Glenn, as he was too sick, meeting Mary was a pure joy. At the time, she did not know what was going to happen to her husband’s works when he passed.

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How I last saw the site May 2014

And this is definitely an issue for these less treaded sites. There are only so many art and community organizations able or willing to shell out the money to protect them. Is an art museum going to purchase a house in the middle of nowhere Kansas so the small community and small handful of art environment pilgrims make it out to see them? Sometimes. This is not one of the more prestigious or well-known art environments. To be an obscure version of an obscure artistic medium does not help with conversation issues. Hell, no one ever even took the time to give Stark’s yard a catchy name.

Every month or so after visiting the Stark’s yard I would check online to see if there was any news. Sadly, Glenn did finally pass away in September 2014 at 97 years of age. I still kept checking to see the fate of his statues. I feared for the worse.

Finally, last week I found the answer.

So, the best case scenario is that the yard would be protected and conserved in perpetuity (forever and ever), worst case scenario is that the sculptures were mowed down. What we got was good, not perfect, but good. The majority of sculptures were removed by the city of Kingman and relocated to a park in town. Here visitors can still appreciate them and the statues don’t have to leave the community or get lost in a museum’s storage space.

Here is how they look now in their new home in downtown Kingman.

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Photo by Keith Stokes

Their new placement seems to be a bit haphazard and lacks the charm of the original, but at least they are still around for the community and travelers to appreciate.

How to visit:

Glenn Stark’s statues have been moved to a park at the corner of Main Street and Sherman Street in Kingman, KS at the tail end of the downtown area. It is free and open 24/7. Kingman is not really near any major cities. The closest is Wichita, KS, which is about 45 minutes away. It is over three hours from either Tulsa, Oklahoma City or Kansas City.

Stark Outside KingmanAlso, about a mile east of town on US-400, look out your car window for Stark placed a couple of bison statues on the hillside there.

Things to do in the area:

Although, it is not near any major cities there are still some pretty cool travel opportunities.

It is only 45 minutes southwest from Hutchinson, KS, where you will find the Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center. The Cosmosphere is considered one of the very best space museums in the country and has to win some award, maybe runner up to Crystal Bridges, for most important cultural collection located in the middle of nowhere – suck it D.C. They have a great collection of artifacts detailing the Space Race between us and those dirty Ruskies. They actually have the authentic Apollo 13 command module, the one that Tom Hanks used to fly around in (poorly).

Stark’s statues are a little over one hour drive due east on US 400 from a truly terrific grassroots art environment, M.T. Liggett’s Sign Field. Liggett’s welded signs line the fence outside his home/ studio. They are great, funny and often hostile. Whereas Stark’s concrete statues are silly, light and cartoonish, Liggett’s signs skewer everyone from politicians – federal, state and local – as well as neighbors, friends and people who have done him wrong. One of the reasons I love art environments so much is the because of their variety and you don’t get a much better dichotomy then these two sites.

Start your engines

I want to thank Keith Stokes for giving me permission me to use his photo of the relocated statues. His site, Kansas Travel, was a great resource that I used for planning my 2014 Kansas road-trip.