Lucas Kansas Grassroots Art


| may rahˈ kee |

(adjective) Greek word used to describe doing something with soul, creativity or love. Putting something of yourself into what you are doing.

Our folk art inspired tour of Lucas continued with stops at the Grassroots Art Center and Switchgrass Artist Cooperative. We started at Switchgrass, which is an eclectic space that features the works of grassroots and local artists for sale, as well as art supplies and kits and a small resale shop. We picked up some locally made wares and a small tabletop Christmas tree/advent calendar that looked like a magical object from a Hallmark Christmas movie. We stashed our treasures in the car and wandered next door to the Grassroots Art Center.

The folk artist’s passion shines through their work.

The Grassroots Art Center opened in 1995 and houses a dazzling array of outsider art, primarily from self-taught Midwestern artists. While they have rotating exhibits, the permanent collection features works made from pull tabs, trash, wood scraps, limestone, concrete, metal and even gum. Some are whimsical, some are creepy, but they are all impressively unique. And they all embody the passion and creativity of their makers. Many of the artists spent years on their works, creating an environment which is meant to be viewed as a whole, using whatever materials were at hand. Often these environments are difficult to preserve, especially after the artist dies, so the Grassroots Art Center’s mission is to document, exhibit and preserve this unique art form. 

I was particularly interested in Ed Root’s art, ever since reading the cryptic “Ed Root ‘Neath Lake Wilson” on Lucas’ welcome sign/travel plate. Sure enough, a large collection of his glass and metal encrusted concrete works were on display.

Ed and his wife Lydia raised 10 children on their farm south of Lucas. In 1937, he suffered a broken hip which ended his farming career. For the next 20 years, he spent most of his time transforming his farm into a sculpture garden with hundreds of cast concrete pieces studded with rocks, broken glass, metal, ceramic and jewelry. The durable pieces were designed to last, but as fate would have it, Ed’s farm was slated to be flooded when nearby Lake Wilson was built. Ed was one of the last holdouts, but after he died in 1960, his farm and much of the sculpture garden was covered by the rising waters of Lake Wilson. Time and tide wait for no man, as they say.

Fortunately, Ed’s children were able to save a large number of his works, many of which are now owned by the Grassroots Art Center. What of those that were left behind? I envision the bottom of Lake Wilson, strewn with stone castles and bobbing metal flowers like some giant’s forgotten aquarium. Fanciful? Maybe … when I asked the museum curator if divers ever searched the bottom for any remaining artwork, she said, “No, they’re probably all covered with zebra mussels by now anyway.” So much for my romantic visions.

Every artist’s story was as fascinating as their art. I can’t cover them all, but a few of my favorites included Inez Marshall who started carving Kansas limestone in the late 1920s while recuperating from an accident.

She continued carving intricate dioramas, full-size vehicles, detailed miniature buildings and figures out of solid stone for the next 51 years. If you didn’t know it was carved from stone, you would swear it was sculpted from clay — it’s that detailed. At one point in time, she opened her own museum to house her works, but it is long closed, and I am grateful her works were saved for posterity and are displayed here.

John Wood
John used buried “treasure” from a dredged lake to create intricate sculptures.

John Woods opted for an easier to work with medium — salvaged trash. He came to Kansas from California where he had collected objects found at the bottom of a drained lake in MacArthur Park. The layers of mud yielded trinkets, toys, tools, cosmetics, dice, rings and all manner of objects lost by generations of lakeside revelers. There is a large ship on display created by the found objects — it’s like a three-dimensional seek-and-find game. The more you look, the more you see. 

Herman Divers: Pull Tab Artist

Along the lines of trash-to-treasure art, Herman Divers opted for pull-tab engineering. He built full-size vehicles, clothing and even a bedspread out of pull tabs, working on the chains until one broke, sometimes after an hour, sometimes after two or three hours. What was his motivation? In his own words, “Just to know I got something that somebody else don’t have, that’s one thing that makes me feel good.”

The Art Center’s admission also includes a tour of Florence Deeble’s rock garden and home, which is definitely worth the time. Florence lived right down the street from the Garden of Eden, and created a smaller scale scene in her own backyard. The inside of her house, however, is over the top, transformed into a futuristic dollhouse vision by a more recent artist, Mri-Pilar.

Pilar’s mixed media works fill the average clapboard home from top to bottom, creating what she titled “The Garden of Isis.” I think it’s a feminine power response to the “Garden of Eden” down the street. Pilar’s Garden empowers the female form with more than 1,800 recycled material sculptures in total. They all reside in a foil lined dreamscape, created from computer motherboards, dolls, kitchen utensils, game boards, clock gears, farm machinery, mannequins, toys, metal, plastic remnants and more. Most of the works are also for sale. We picked up a steampunk-inspired post apocalyptic “ReBarb” (for recycled Barbie) who looked like she was ready to audition for the next Mad Max movie.

After absorbing so much unique art, we were ready for something a bit more pastoral. We opted for a quiet drive in the country seeking the hidden works of art that are part of the post rock scenic byway.

The Grassroots Art Center is located  at 213 S Main St., Lucas, KS 67648. Hours and days of operation are somewhat limited so be sure to check before you go. The Switchgrass Artist Cooperative is just down the street.

Published by Village Witch

Because we could all use a little magic.

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