Tag Archives: grassroots art

Garden of Eden/Grassroots art – Lucas, Kansas

Here’s a story I wrote about the Grassroots art Capital of Kansas for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Midwest Traveler: Kansas boasts quirky ‘grass-roots art’ capital

Small-town Lucas attracts artists from way, way off the beaten path.

“Thanks for being interested,” he said. “I’ve got to go to work now.” Off he drove, onto the empty blacktop and into open ranch land.

It was a fitting start to my latest exploration in and around the town of Lucas, pop. about 400, the state’s capital of “grass-roots art.” Also known as “outsider art,” this is the creative outpouring of self-taught artists located far from the mainstream art world (geographically, commercially, aesthetically), using unconventional materials and techniques.

They are often retired farmers, mechanics, newspaper editors, funeral home directors (you name it) making stuff with whatever’s around — car bumpers, light bulbs, barbed wire, gum, horseshoes, tree trunks (you name it). Prolific (some might say compulsive), they might not call themselves artists or even seek viewers for their work, which is typically found on their property.

In Lucas, it all started with Samuel Perry “S.P.” Dinsmoor, an eccentric Civil War veteran, farmer and teacher who in the early 1900s, at age 64, began building a fantastical sculpture garden in the backyard of his cabin home, located on an otherwise ordinary small-town residential block — which is part of its charm and shock value. The sculpture garden took 22 years, 113 tons of cement and many tons of native rust-stained golden limestone.

Now known as the Garden of Eden, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it includes the unique cabin — also made by Dinsmoor, out of limestone “logs” — and the garden, with sculptures representing biblical figures (most notably Adam and Eve) and populist themes (most memorably, labor being crucified by the lawyer, doctor, preacher and banker).

A macabre highlight is the 40-foot ziggurat-shaped mausoleum that Dinsmoor built, also with limestone. Inside, as Dinsmoor wished, visitors on a tour can see what remains of his face — he died in 1932 at age 89 — through a glass-lidded coffin. Nearby, unseen, is his first wife. At age 81, Dinsmoor married his second wife — his 20-year-old housekeeper. They had two children.

Since Dinsmoor’s day, locals and transplants — including grass-roots artists and aficionados — have helped cement Lucas’ claim to fame. It now attracts more than 10,000 visitors a year. I’ve visited several times since the late 1980s and each time, I’ve found more to see in an area that still feels refreshingly off-the-beaten-path, making it a perfect outsider art outpost.

Post Rock Country

Returning this spring with my Kansas-born husband, eight years after our last visit, we found more art dotting the highways, near where the art was made, offering fresh views and insights.

In addition to Jim Dickerman’s metal and bones work found along Hwy. 14 (mile markers 181 and 182), California artist and retired dentist Fred Whitman’s facial portraits of local residents are carved into limestone posts along Hwy. 232 (mile markers 12 and 13, east side; 14 and 15, west side; and 16 and 17, east side).

In Lucas, along the sleepy, two-block downtown bordered by a water tower and a grain elevator, we found a spectacular public bathroom/art installation. Opened in 2012, “Bowl Plaza” is shaped like a giant toilet tank with a raised lid and adorned with mosaics made with repurposed bottles, license plates, pottery and more. (Don’t miss the toy cars in the men’s room.)

Joining several others on a guided tour of the Grassroots Art Center, opened in 1995, we marveled at painstaking work of Kansans, including Herman Divers’ full-size car made from vintage soda can pulltabs and John Woods’ elaborate collages made from toys, keys and even handguns found in the muck of a drained lake.

In the outdoor courtyard, an exhibit opened in 2002 showcases the region’s “post rock” limestone masonry. Lucas is Post Rock Country, where stone masons during the turn of the 20th century made fence posts — and many buildings — out of the limestone because the treeless prairie ruled out wooden posts.

As for the Garden of Eden, it looks better than ever, thanks to a major 2012 restoration of the garden and cabin supported by the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation. Sculptures once darkened by age are now cement-colored, with dabs of pink that even some tour guides didn’t know were there.

Getting there

From the Twin Cities, Lucas, Kan., is 672 miles southwest, via Interstates 35 and 70 to Exit 206 and Kansas Hwy. 232.

Other attractions

Florence Deeble Rock Garden/The Garden of Isis: The rock garden is the handiwork of a Lucas teacher, inspired by S.P. Dinsmoor to create her own backyard masterwork in the 1930s, using colored concrete to fashion “postcard scenes” from her travels. In 2002, Lucas artist Mri-Pilar transformed the 1906 Deeble House into a recycled art installation, lining the walls with foil, salvaged dolls and toy slinkys.

Roy and Clara Miller’s Park: Relocated beside the Garden of Eden, this mid-1900s creation is a miniature town built with rocks, minerals and shells by a local couple in their yard.

World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things: Artist Erika Nelson’s tiny versions of giant things — including Minnesota’s big lutefisk and ball of twine — are on view, by appointment, at 214 S. Main St. Text ahead of arrival (1-785-760-0826; worldslargest­things.com).

Post Rock Scenic Byway: This 18-mile stretch of Kansas Hwy. 232 connects the towns of Lucas and Wilson, running past Wilson Lake and Wilson State Park, with hiking and mountain bike trails, swimming beaches, boating and camping. Also drive Hwy. 18 east from Lucas to Lincoln and Hwy. 14 south from Lincoln to I-70. Take time to admire the imposing limestone buildings in windswept Lincoln and Wilson.

Where to eat and sleep

Brant’s Market on Main Street in Lucas has made bologna and sausages since 1922.

Garden View Lodge (1-785-658-6607; airbnb.com), across from the Garden of Eden, is run by a Garden tour guide and Dinsmoor descendant.

Midland Railroad Hotel (1-785-658-2284; midlandrailroadhotel.com) in Wilson was a film set for the 1973 movie “Paper Moon.” Open for dinner, the 1899 hotel’s Sample Room Tavern serves regional fare including chicken-fried steak.

More information

Garden of Eden: 1-785-525-6395; garden-of-eden-lucas-kansas.com.

Grassroots Art Center1-785-525-6118; grassrootsart.net.

Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog TakeBetsyWithYou.

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garden of Eden and grassroots art everywhere in Lucas,Ks



Grassroots art – eccentric work by self-taught, prolific everyday folks (ranchers, farmers, welders, homemakers) – is everywhere in the out-of–the-way northwestern Kansas town of Lucas. it is actually fitting that art that is so “out there” should be way out here, far from the mainstream of most things, including the art world.

bathroom mosaic

This was probably my 5th trip to Lucas in over 30 years and there is more to see each visit. The main draw is the remarkable Garden of Eden, a bizarre sculpture garden with giant concrete representations of populis themes — my favorite is one of a farmer being crucified by the banker, lawyer and doctor. And then there’s the giant limestone and concrete ziggurat looking mausoleum where you can peer into the coffin of the civil war veteran S.P. Dinsmoor who built the garden. (He is looking moldy these days, which our guide explained was due to a crack in the sheet of glass in front of the coffin, which let air in. it has been fixed but not before substantial damage.)

grassroots art

The garden and house — also a work of oddness, made of limestone logs — sits on an otherwise normal Kansas small town street, which is part of the charm and shock effect. But the garden and its sculptures in particular have never looked better after a recent massive multi-million dollar restoration funded by the Kohler Foundation ( from the Bath works company in Wisconsin).

And even more so, the two block downtown has more to see, including the Grassroots Art Center in an old limestone masons building,where we went on a very informative tour of several rooms and an outdoor courtyard showcasing the odd work of artists primarily from Kansas. ( “Grassroots  art” was likened to “outsider art” but not “folk art.”)

There is also a phenomenal new public bathroom full of bizarre mosaics and the otherwise ordinary wood street lights are art installations. (One has various colorful belts strapped around it. Another has glass sculptures and two legs sticking up from the ground. Could it be the wicked witch of the west?)

We also found artworks in fields on Highway 14 heading to Lincoln and along Highway 18 to Lucas and Highway 232 back to Wilson and the interstate.

One disappointment: Brant’s meat market, which has sold homemade bologna for 90-some years in downtown Lucas, closed in January but the word on the street (literally from two townies sitting on a bench outside the market) is that it will reopen this summer, thanks to a new buyer.

I was glad to see “the Garden View  Airbnb”  now operating across the street from the Garden of Eden (run by our tour guide, who is also a cousin of Dinsmoor ) and the old hotel in Wilson (where the Movie “Paper Moon” was filmed) is still up and running. It also has a restaurant that serves dinner. Otherwise dining options are limited. We ended up about an hour west in Hays at Al’s Chickenette, which has been around since 1947 (and also has a new owner) where we had, yes, fried chicken. Very different than the upscale version we had in KC the night before but good in its own way (except for the mashed potatoes and gravy which were grey and gooey. get the fries. Much better.)

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photos of the eccentric sculptures in Mullinville Kansas!

The folk art sculptor I wrote about yesterday is M.T. Liggett and there’s a great article about him, plus a slide show, in the Wall Street Journal from 2010.

a small sampling of the sculptures along the Highway in Mullinville, Ks.

See: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703630404575053632726040838.html#slide/1 (slide 3 is a photo of M.T.) and http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703894304575047461204497670.html.

Here’s some photos we took yesterday when we passed through Mullinville and

The view from the road in Mullinville Kansas – lots of strange sculptures

met Mr. Liggett.

Art installation along Highway 400 as you enter Mullinville, Kansas

Angry art in Mullinville Kansas (yes, those are swastikas

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Meeting the local eccentric scuptor in mullinville kansas

For years, the speck of a town on the map in western Kansas, mullinville, has been a highlight of our nine hour drive from des Moines to wright,Kansas (another speck) thanks to the ever-growing collection of nine foot high whirligigs and metal sculptures lining two-lane highway 400. Many are labeled with familiar names – apparently a commentary on the likes of al gore, Janet Reno, Ted Kennedy, hillary(of course) and even Laura bush (we noticed laura this morning when we parked alongside the near deserted highway to take a closer look and some photos. As we were getting back in the car, a dusty pickup truck came driving towards us and I half expected to need to run for cover. The truck pulled up next to us and an old Guy with a toupee, craggy face, overalls adorned with strange large round plastic buttons and two splotches of blue paint on his knuckles looked at us with piercing eyes and said “you like my stuff?”
He and my husband chatted for a bit – he knew of my husband’s family “good Catholics from Spearville.” He mentioned he was indeed “in a fight with the city council” aka “nazi goose steppers”. Which we we gleaned from one installation along the highway in town which included a toilet bowl (a popular element in his art, several swastikas, and some angry references to things like the Gestapo. (look here for photos tomorrow!)
We did drive down the narrow dirt road lined with more curious sculptures past his studio to see what pissed off the city council and found several homemade private property-keep out signs in the middle of the road, which he appeared to claim as his property. We are guessing that’s the issue – or one of the issues – with the powers that be in mullinville. I wanted to ask him a bit about his politics but conversation didn’t move in that direction. We’re guessing he’s somewhere between a libertarian and an anarchist.

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Kooky Kansas: pt. 2 Lucas

While grassroots art can be found – as it should be – scattered in random rural locations throughout Kansas, there also is  a self-conscious concentration of it in the small Kansas town of Lucas which has a  storefront museum in some old  limestone buildings devoted to grassroots art. This is the art stereotypically practiced by self-taught, iconoclastic loners – like  farmers and ranchers –  but also by  trained artists and savvy hipsters living in remote places  and it ranges from enticing odd to childlike to a little scary.  A relative of folk art, grassroots art sometimes is called visionary art, naïve art, or primitive art.

You’ll see it all in Lucas – not only at the Grassroots Art Center but at a few other locations in town. When we visited a few years ago in December, someone from the museum took me, my husband and two young-teen kids, to a plain little unheated bungalow on a quiet street a few blocks away – and inside was the most astonishing sight. Every single room was covered with Barbies – yes, that Barbie – and other dolls.  There were  Barbies dripping from walls covered in aluminum foil and  piled up in the bathtub, Barbies exotically-decorated and decked out in every which way. If this hadn’t been labeled “art” it might instead be viewed as a  “cry for help.”  We were all a bit spooked walking around this ice cold bungalow of Barbies – including my daughter who was never a huge Barbie fan but played with them occasionally.  Check it out yourself at http://www.kansastravel.org/isis.htm

In the backyard is local Lucas legend Florence Deeble’s  Rock Garden – a rather worn collection of “concrete postcards” – sculptures depicting famous places Florence visited, such as  Mount Rushmore.  A few blocks away, is the real Lucas masterpiece (which inspired young Florence and spawned the Grassroots Art Center) known as The Garden of Eden.  Again, stay tuned.

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Kooky Kansas

A Wall Street Journal reporter seems to be mining the kooky Kansas beat, which I used to fancy as my own.  After writing about the Big Well in Greensburg, Ks., she wrote a piece on the eccentric roadside sculpture in nearby Mullinville, Ks., pop. 202,  which has long been a source of fascination for my family as we drive to and from my in-laws house in western Kansas.   Last December, in addition to slowing down on the not-that-busy state highway to look more closely at the ever-growing line of scrap-metal whirligigs, many of them with political references of an indeterminate nature, we turned north on a country road in town and past the sculptor’s workshop – a shed with heaps of scrap metal and half-finished whirligigs (maybe that’s gigs.)   There must be several hundred by now along the road  – made of junk metal, glass bottles, presumably pilfered road signs, toilet seats, tractor gears, bowling balls, all whirling in the wind.

From the WSJ story, we learned that the sculptor  is 79-year-old farmer named M.T. Liggett, that his subjects include three former wives and many girlfriends including one portrayed as a mouse in pearls holding a piece of cheese, caught in a mousetrap. (Guess that relationship didn’t go so well.) Among his favorites is one of Bill Clinton with a padlock welded to the zipper of his pants. Word  has it that the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore – which I was dismayed to discover was closed on the Monday I visited – is displaying Liggett’s  work.

It’s part of a genre of art by self-taught folks known variously as grassroots art or naive art – and Kansas is full of it. Stay tuned.

For more, see: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052748703894304575047461204497670-lMyQjAxMTAwMDAwOTEwNDkyWj.html

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