Gone to Kansas City, part one

I just got back from a weekend trip to Kansas City, Missouri.
Regular readers and friends of Siros will already
be aware of my connection to that lovely burg 500 miles up the I-35. I went to
college there, and KCAI was having an alumni weekend. I received a postcard a
few weeks back saying that one of my two sculpture prof’s, Jim Leedy, is
retiring after 45 years. So I thought I’d take this chance to get out of town,
see the old man, some old friends, and some old haunts, take the temperature of
a city seemingly on the rise, and check out the new building at the
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art .

kansas_city.jpg

 There were some workshops, and a sculpture symposium, hosted as
part of the weekend schedule. The three panelists on the latter were all KCAI sculpture alums, one each from three different decades, all having studied with the dynamic
duo of Leedy and longtime dept. chair Dale Eldred: Ming Fay (’67),
Valerie Eickmeier (’79), and Shawn Brixey (’85). There was supposed to be some
theme around McCluhan’s notion of the “global village”, but luckily
everyone just ignored that and gave standard artist talks.

Fay began with a
brief autobio, showing pictures from his childhood in Shanghai
and Hong Kong, and even the ship that he sailed
to the states on at age 18. ming.gifHe came to study art, and eventually landed in KC,
lured there after a meeting with Eldred and ceramics legend/longtime KCAI
ceramics professor Ken Ferguson. He’s a
wonderful artist, and an engaging human being. I was somewhat dismayed to note that
there were only 2 or 3 students present for these talks. It should have been mandatory,
and would have been “back in the day.” Maybe this is part of why the sculpture
department is currently a complete disaster, full of aimless messy piles of clueless, crafty, rusted junk. Dale, who used to roll through the department early mornings tossing anything that looked like clutter in the dumpster (including student projects), is surely rolling in his grave.

herron02.jpgEickmeier is dean at the Herron School of Art , University of
Indiana/Purdue. After running through some images of her poetic if fairly
traditional sculptures, she mainly concentrated on her recent, few-years effort
to get a spectacular new arts complex built for the college. 

Next up was Shawn
Brixey. He began with some great stories about studying with and working for
Eldred, who was tragically killed in a studio accident in 1993. eldred_head.jpgHe was a larger
than life figure, a powerhouse whose brashness and apparent arrogance was more than offset by
his humor, talent, generous spirit, and unmistakable gifts as an
educator. His legacy is legendary, and his students are a virtual who’s who of sculpture of the last 40 years. I admire him more every year, as it grows ever more apparent how rare it is to pull off
what he did as teacher, administrator, artist, and human. I know there are legions who feel this way, and miss him like I do.

Brixey is a natural heir to Eldred, a whirlwind of energy intent on marrying
science and art, and totally committed to teaching. Maybe unconciously modeling himself on
Eldred, I occasionally had to shake my head, astonished at the assertions
of his own singular unprecedented brilliance peppering his speech. However, like his mentor, he
seems to have the goods to back it up, and he dazzled the crowd with
discussions of his projects and the ideas fueling them. brixey.gifCompletely bypassing the gallery racket, he independently
raises millions of dollars and spends years developing some new
scientific apparatus and technique in the service of art, poetics, and
beauty, rather than the more typical war, industry, and commerce. It was inspiring,
and at times confounding – as all good art should be. I walk away still digesting the possibilities, the ramifications, the grandness of his vision.

The alumni gathering coincided with “First Friday,” a
tradition there that goes back well before my time in KC, with all the galleries in town
opening on the first Friday of the month. Let me say first that I think Kansas City is one of the most
attractive cities in the country, designed with broad sinuous tree-lined boulevards
snaking through limestone hills, and curious livable little neighborhoods scattered
throughout town. Around every bend there is another sandstone art deco marvel,
and as the tourist board likes to proclaim, there are “more fountains than Rome!”

I was reminded how stunningly friendly people are there,
maybe a social extension of the warm earth energy that seems to emanate out of
the ground itself, nurturing and supporting the city and community. There is a certain soulfulness, that drew me there in the first place and occasionally since, manifest
in its musical and creative history and the open faces of many of its denizens.
Conversely, there is also a lot of crime – I was held up at gunpoint twice
living there, and personally knew many who were robbed, raped, and worse. The
Art Institute ‘hood, with it’s run down mansions and slew of beautiful naïve fearlessly
stoned art students, was just like shooting fish in a barrel for the city’s creeps and
criminals.

That soulful nourishing vibe also has its traps. I
think a lot of people go to school there and never get out. This is an absolute
boon for the city, as many more or less abandon art and instead open the best restaurants, organic
co-ops, French bakeries, coffeeshops, health food cafes, lingerie boutiques, become contractors, what
have you. Many of them also open hole-in-the-wall art galleries, and First
Friday gave me a chance to peek into many.

Kansas City suffers from problems
peculiarly inverse of Dallas’;
our circus-mirror Bizarro reflection. They have the school Dallas needs to matter, drawing talent and
keeping it around, with the community to foster a real scene. They have the
grass roots energy, so fitful and dispersed here, and a sense of churning excitement
about the place. xroads_1015.jpgThese nights of gallery openings draw thousands of people into the
burgeoning Crossroads district , everybody wandering around and having a big ol’
street party scattered for miles around. DJ’s were spinning music on the
street; a pimped-out car with bumping bass was serving espresso out of the
trunk; there was a line out the door of the artisanal chocolate shop for $6 cups of hot
chocolate (worth every penny); and the gourmet pizza joint was packed. Gangs of pegged jean, shaggy-bearded,
asymmetrically hair-styled youths cruised around on vintage ten-speeds with
most gears and the brakes removed (the new fad.) And last but not least, there were galleries piled on
galleries, mostly full of negligible backwards regional hoo-ha.xroads_0988.jpg

If Dallas
has all these sharp white walled galleries opening, importing talent in hopes of capturing the
attention of bourgeois sometime collectors, resident artists often just seem to be biding their
time till they break through and can move to a coast. Kansas
City
on the other hand has militias of artists just trying to keep the art
school party rolling as long as possible, seemingly with nary a glance beyond
the city line. The galleries tend to be in amazing old structures, and to also be dilapidated artist run labors of love. I talked to some really cool hip kids who’ve started a great
little space, and who graduated recently with art history degrees. A
brief chat about the work in their own show revealed that they had never
heard of Donald Judd, Michael Heizer, Takashi Murakami, or Joseph Cornell. Ironically, in the museum across from the school, affectionately just called
the Nelson, the next day I saw works up currently by each of those very artists. Leedy said in one
of those panel discussions that the art history program needed to get up to snuff. No shit.

I ran into a couple of my favorite people from my own days
there, now married with kid: painter Archie Scott Gobber and designer Laura McGrew. I was psyched to hear that Scotty, who works for the best gallery in KC (stalwart Dolphin), has a show here
at Marty Walker in May. In an urban exchange, he can go home afterwards and blog about what’s wrong, and even what’s right, with Dallas.

I’ll talk about the museum next time. There were echoes of
my DAM experience in December, as well as thrilling visitations to some old
faves in the "old" Nelson…also, there are some exciting public art initiatives in KC worth getting
into.

 

 

also by Titus OBrien

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