Uncovering the color of Kansas City, KS, little by little
I’m always looking for the art in everything, even if I have to force it. Never satisfied with the amount of art I’ve got, I always seek more. The last time I was out to eat, my girlfriend, Michaela, laughed at me because I rearranged the salt shakers, utensils and menus into a Frank Lloyd Wright house and called it good. When I walk through mud, I make patterns with my shoes as if I were designing fabric for a premiere runway. In art school, I’m usually reminded that I can find art in a museum but I enjoy looking out for public art.
Michaela and I met in a two-dimensional design class at Kansas City Kansas Community College. Her preferred art medium was acrylic paint and mine was ceramics but other than that, we had everything in common. Namely, we both loved going on pedestrian adventures around our hometowns to discover art on the streets. It’s part of why I love Kansas City, Kan.—it isn’t hard to find unusual little sculptures, alleys filled with street art or stores selling art supplies.
Michaela is better traveled than I am and comes from the Pacific Northwest originally. I’m from Little Rock but I’ve tried to travel as much as possible since moving out to Kansas a few years back. With our backgrounds combined and thousands of miles of America under our belts, we have found that Kansas City, Kan. is the most enchanting place to look for murals.
LIVING HISTORY ON MINNESOTA AVENUE
“Wake up, Susie! Let’s bike down the Avenue of Murals,” Michaela said on one lazy Sunday, grabbing my arm with her paint-stained fingertips. “We’ve been listening to art podcasts all week. It’s about time we took this learning to the streets.” We grabbed our backpacks, hopped on our bicycles and headed over to historic Minnesota Avenue. “Look there!” she exclaimed almost as soon as we got to the area. One of the first things we saw was a mural mounted to the side of a concrete wall. “Wow, what are the odds? The mural I wanted to see most was the first one we found.”
Michaela, whose fascinations beyond art include much about Native American history, informed me with a sweep of her hand that we were standing in front of the Wyandot Echoes mural. I had been to the Wyandotte County DMV, but I never made the connection between the county and the tribe. The first thing I noticed was the profile of a woman facing from right to left at the top of the painting, but my eyes were pulled down to people and animals moving left to right below, as if the whole thing were circular. Michaela said this is a normal, intended reaction. The mural was meant to show the migration of the Wyandot people through the country to Kansas City, KS but also to show their spiritual return to the past.
As we pedaled farther down the avenue, a huge colorful work of art seemed to creep out from between two brick buildings. Vibrantly colorful people and animals appeared to move along the bricks, around the old doors and windows. We took a moment to breathe and Michaela got out her notebook to take a few notes on the unfamiliar animals and bright orange pumpkins. Then she got out her phone and Googled the mural.
She found it’s called Facing the Past, Looking to the Future: A Kansas Hmong Storycloth, a work of cultural preservation honoring the roughly 1,500 Hmong people living in Kansas City, KS who moved there since the Vietnam War. It was like seeing a people’s narrative in motion, moving history, even though we were standing quite still, in awe at the mural before us.
“I’m breathless,” Michaela said as she jotted her thoughts into her little book. “You’re tired already?” “No,” she said with a hearty laugh. “I’m in awe that I’m so impressed by a mural. It’s a treasure along a simple strip of road, and it expresses so much.” “I absolutely agree.” I nodded. And then I wondered, would all the murals impress me so much?
Back on our bikes, in only a few blocks we came across the intricate dance and flow of the El Baile de la Vida (The Dance of Life) mural. Again on brick, it was clearly another tribute to the diverse culture of Kansas City, Kan. This time, the mural depicted a mariachi band, the Virgin of Guadalupe and Mexican-American families. It featured light pinks and dark blues that gave me a content feeling like I had just stepped off the street and into a welcoming home.
There was more to it that I couldn’t pull away from. Skeletons from the Day of the Dead danced around with folklórico dancers of all ages. It felt like I was suspended in the middle of big breath with these colorful people all paused in an energetic dance. I asked Michaela why the artist made the costumes all so different when there could have been just one uniform look.
“They’re not all from the same part of Mexico. They’re from all over, so they’ve got different kinds of dress.” Michaela turned to me with her notebook in hand. “This is a good start. What else can we see?”
FACES AND PLACES
We got distracted, shouting jokes at each other as we rode along. I was about to turn and throw some shade over my shoulder when I saw my favorite mural of all. The Avenue Chronicles Mural, not unlike the others we had seen, was tall and painted on a brick wall. With a giant filmstrip stitching together all its images, it included what appeared to be a tale of industry. I found myself fascinated that none of the people on the mural were depicted making eye contact with the mural’s viewer—instead they all seemed occupied.
A part of me wished I could see the expressions on these faces as if they were portraits and another part was impressed that the artist evoked a feeling of separation, focus and hard work. Michaela was searching rapidly again, noting the mural depicts a century of life along Minnesota Avenue, the onetime retail and commerce center of Kansas City, Kan. She began firing off facts about classism and racism intended to be presented in the mural but I didn’t need the facts this time. I could already feel the heavy tones. Now it was my turn to get out my own notebook from my backpack, not just to take notes on the art but to write about how privileged I feel to see testaments to many other people’s trials and celebrations, all created for anyone to see on the streets of Kansas City, Kan.
I sat on the curb next to Michaela, and it occurred to me that I didn’t need to force the art around here. I saw it everywhere—on the street corners, in the residents, but also even in the palm of Michaela’s hand as she held the notebook full of things she wanted to learn more about. The first time I “met” the murals of Kansas City, Kan. equated with meeting the place for the first time. It’s why I love going out on these short jaunts to see more.
Plus, we haven’t even seen all the murals yet. Not even close.
Guest Blogger: Susan Amberson