The largest mural in the world on a grain elevator by Horizontes Project
While putting together my list of stops on my venture out on the Final Friday Art Crawl this month, it made me think about a conversation I had with the mayor of Anchorage, Alaska a couple of years ago. I was there for the National Federation of Press Women conference and was sitting at the head table because of my role as Director of Fun. (See why I love this organization?)
As we chatted over a lovely plate of salmon, I disclosed that I was from Wichita. It surprised me to find out that he had been in Wichita just the week before. He came to town to meet with the City of Wichita to learn more about how we’ve developed strong entrepreneurship and art communities! What we’re doing in Wichita to make our city better is reaching all the way to Alaska. If I hadn’t happened to amazingly be at the right place, at the right time, I never would have heard about this. I’m proud of our city and the things that we’ve built together, and love to brag to out of towners about how cool our community is. But this didn’t happen by accident or overnight. It has taken generations of visionaries, bon vivants and dedicated creatives to make this materialize.
I know Wichita has had a thriving art scene for a long time. In 1930, a bunch of Kansas artists from around the state got together in Lindsborg, Kansas to form the in the infamous Prairie Print Makers. One of the founders, Wichitan C. A. Seward, was instrumental in founding the Wichita Art Museum, which has had exhibitions showing the work of these artists since 1937.
While I wasn’t around during that time, I have been a witness to some of Wichita’s art history. A little more underground at the time, the Wichita art scene of the 1990s was a fun place to be. Cooperatives of artists rented crude lofts in nearly abandoned buildings in Delano, Old Town, and Commerce Street for studio space and somewhere to show their work.
One of the first cooperatives that led the way was the Fisch Haus, founded in 1990 by four visual artists: Patrick Duegaw, John Ernatt, Eric Schmidt, and Kent Williams. They got the party started on Commerce Street, still operating out of the same three-story warehouse they’ve been in since 1993. Expanding to take over more of the block and create the Arts District we enjoy today, two of the original founders went on to open other galleries on Commerce Street. Ernatt opened Diver Studio with his wife Connie, a sculptor known for her public works, like the Troll by the Keeper of the Plains exhibit. (You can see one of John’s paintings at the Finishing School.) And Schmidt started another studio down the street with his wife Jamie Tabor, the entrepreneur behind the Simone Chickenbone brand known for the not accurately named ChickenPoop lip balm.
Kent Williams, artist and co-founder of Fisch Haus on October Final Friday
“The Famous Dead Artists,” founded in 1997, was another powerhouse that inspired other artists to pursue their passions. Many are still influential Wichita artists, or have moved on to create art in other cities. You may recognize some of the names of these still very much alive creatives: Christopher Gulick, Curt Clonts, Marc Bosworth, Wade Hampton, Brad Hart, Leigh Leighton-Wallace, Scott Steele, Pam Terry and Jennifer Wallace. (Work by three of these artists, Gulick, Bosworth, and Hampton are hanging at the Finishing School.) And there are so many more groups of artists that have impacted Wichita, like Gallery XXII, ACME Studio, Go Away Garage, Firehouse Studio, and Fiber Studio. All of these dedicated creatives, and their supporters, have paved the way for the vibrant, and apparently world-renown, art scene we have today.
Christopher Guilck, sculptor and co-founder of Famous Dead Artists on October Final Friday
The newest generation of Wichita creatives are continuing the momentum and are doing exciting things to bring more to this arty party. Here are a few suggestions that you really need to check out to truly appreciate what the emerging artists of our city have to offer:
Part of what brought the art scene from underground to the general public, was the launch of the Final Friday art crawl. Started as a way to attract more people to the downtown art galleries, Finishing School Alumni Ann Keefer came up with the idea and started the Q-Line trollies to make it easy for art appreciators to “crawl” to many destinations in one night. Expanded from downtown to all over town, this one night a month brings packed crowds to galleries giving emerging artists the chance to have their work seen, and maybe even sold. Check out more about where to go and how to get there here.
Spearheaded by the Douglas Design District, Art Avenue Days was created to give young designers and artists a way to bring their work into the public eye and beautify the mundane drive down Douglas. Artists are invited to submit their ideas for public art projects, and a panel selects the best ones. Property owners, who want one of these murals on their space, choose which design they want. During a two-day festival, artists paint the murals on properties from Clifton Square to the edge of Old Town. Here’s a map with more information for a self-guided tour.
Launched in 2014 by artist/art educators Kristin Beal, Kate Van Steenhuyse and her husband Ryan Gates, this organization makes a space for visual arts experimentation and community conversation around its creation. Rather than a gallery that sells art for you to buy and take home, Harvester gives people an artistic experience. Always fascinating and on the bleeding edge what’s happening in the creative industry, they sponsor artists from outside Wichita to come here to show and teach us what they do – to give us a different perspective from outside our hometown. Then students and established artists in our community come together to show their interpretation and response to the work. So many fun and interesting events happen here.
Did you know that right now in Wichita, artists are painting the largest mural IN NORTH AMERICA on a grain elevator? A Knight Cities Challenge winner, this is an artist-driven project that connects two communities, the mostly Latino neighborhood of the “Northend” to the traditionally African American neighborhood just to the east, that are separated by these monoliths to Kansas’s wheat supremacy along the industrial corridor. This huge mural isn’t the only one they’re doing. They’re creating other works of public art to connect the neighborhoods, based on the history and stories of the residents they’re collecting by going door-to-door in the neighborhood and recording through audio and portraiture. Here’s more information about the art and the project.
I believe we’re lucky to live in a town that supports the arts. Not only do these events add to our quality of life, they also attract more people to our city for business and vacations and contributes a lot of money to our city. According to the Americans for the Arts study, the arts are big business here. In Wichita, the nonprofit arts and culture industry are a $94.7 million business, supporting 2,841 full-time equivalent jobs, and generating $9.5 million in local and state government revenue. Working as a community, to create and make where we live a more beautiful place is a good investment, and makes it more fun and interesting place to be. I hope you’ll get out to one of these projects, or others that I’ve written about before, and explore what our city has to offer.
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