Friday, August 13, 2010

Newton - Monumental Research

For the course of the mural project, Erika, Matt and I are staying at a b&b tucked away on a little gravel road in North Newton. Part of an old farmstead, the house is attached to a grain silo that is now used as a super cool living space by the home's owner and our host Vada Snider. It's a beautiful spot surrounded with lush, well tended gardens, decorated on the inside with many of Vada's charming black and white photographs, and is a welcome retreat from our days spent on scissor lifts in the middle of the Dollar General parking lot.

Erika and Matt battle in the wall priming competition
Now that we're hot on the trail of a mural design, we've been following leads from passersby, professors, and Drubers Donuts patrons to name a few. The suggestions (I'll talk about local cuisine in an upcoming post) have led us to the Harvey County Historical Museum, Bethel College, the Kauffman Museum, the public library, the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Goessel, and the hike / bike trail along Sand Creek where I swear I saw (after Erika pointed it out) the world's largest frog.
Matt and Dave at the Harvey County Historical Museum
We even made a special trip to see, and learn from, the remarkable fresco by Jean Charlot (one of the 20th century's most distinguished muralists and a peer of Diego Rivera) in the Abbey Church at Benedictine College in Atchison.
Erika admiring Jean Charlot's fresco
And we have been searching for signs of how Newton characterizes itself. There is always the Chamber of Commerce and tourist information office to get the town motto and accompanying glossy brochures. This old Newton postcard shows the Interurban crossing the Main Street bridge over Sand Creek.
Since we are in the process of creating a giant public artwork, we also explored how Newton celebrates and remembers as seen in the public monuments it has chosen to build. But using monuments to gauge a community's character has a fundamental problem - their cost limits who can afford to build them. And therefore it's no surprise that those of lesser means are often underrepresented or not represented at all in public art, memorials, named civic institutions and the like. With this understanding we went hunting for Newton’s mega symbolic signifiers.
Cumulus but non-threatening clouds amidst a blue sky are everywhere in Newton. Created or inspired by the artist Phil Epp, all of Newton's public signage is decorated with his characteristic skyscapes. So are the newest town water tower and a couple of impressive tile mosaic murals.
Water tower cloudscape inspired by Phil Epp
Adjacent to the public library there are the requisite cannon and steam engine locomotive. Downtown there are a few murals, the most striking, painted soon after 9-11, is of a saluting soldier in fatigues in front of a building size American flag. Another beautiful mural by Ray and Patrice Olais, that once adorned a local softball field, remembers Hispanic immigrant railroad workers and the softball league they started when told they could not play in the city (white) league.
And then there is the curious statue in Athletic Park. I had a feeling it was something special when we first came upon it. A fifteen foot tall figure carved out of stone stands solemnly atop a salmon colored concrete base.
Surrounding the base, in ceramic mosaic, is a series of four panels that illustrate Kansas Mennonite's emigration from Russia. "The Mennonite Settler" as it is known was created by the artist Max Nixon in 1942 to celebrate Mennonite farmers who brought the famed Turkey Red Wheat to Kansas in the 1870's.
The project was funded in part by the WPA with help from Newton's Junior Chamber and, get this, farmers near and far who sold wheat at market and then donated the proceeds to the creation of the sculpture. A monument to wheat built, in part, by wheat grown in nearby fields. Wow, I can already see how this story alone would make a great mural. Maybe someday...

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