Art in rural areas ranges from historical, practical and traditional to edgy and politically provocative, a diversity that was on full display during the first-ever Big Kansas Road Trip, sponsored by the Kansas Sampler Foundation, a small but enterprising foundation that seeks to promote and preserve rural culture by encouraging day trips and small-town tourism.
Held over four days and sprinkled across some of the state’s smallest municipalities in the three counties between Dodge City and Pratt, hundreds of carefully choreographed activities gave visitors a chance to explore rural Kansas at their own pace, through tours, craft and quilt shows, country music concerts, presentations by homegrown authors and artists, and more. Families could ride a restored nine-horse carousel in Wilmore, dine at a 1870s era saloon in Sun City or meet artist Stan Herd, who grew up on a farm near Protection and went on to earn worldwide acclaim as the inspiration behind the idea of turning vast farm fields into canvasses for aerial crop art.
South of Mullinville, Tamina Fromme hosted tours of one of the state’s best kept and most distinctive round barns, built in 1912 by her great-grandfather Henry Fromme, long before the advent of power tools or the arrival of the railroads. The Kansas Sampler Foundation designated it one of the eight architectural wonders of Kansas due to its rarity, quality of construction and beautifully restored condition.
“It was always such an oddity. It looks like an oriental hat from a distance,” Fromme said. “It was used as an aerial landmark during World War II and is still used for that purpose by the military today.”
Built with 16 sides to catch less wind while requiring shorter beams of wood and fewer seams, it had a granary at the center and 14 trapezoidal stalls around the outer ring, which were used to house the family milk cow and 28 draft horses. The two-level haymow reveals beautiful tongue-in-groove woodwork and remnants of an old pulley system used to hoist wagonloads of hay into the upper level.
Every rafter was sawed by hand using a framing square to compute the angles. Fromme still has some of the old tools used by the original builder.
Now a retired teacher, she left the area for many years following a colorful career that took her from a remote Indian reservation to the streets of Las Vegas, before she returned home to build a house on the old family farm. The house, which features lots of repurposed wood salvaged from the local area, is in close proximity to the barn, now owned and managed by the Kiowa County Historical Society.
Although the barn is just over the horizon and hidden from view of passers-by along the highway, a dazzling display of scrap art on the western edge of Mullinville is impossible to miss. It has long confounded locals and passing motorists alike with its strange, intense and often disconcerting imagery.
Big Kansas road-trippers had the chance to learn more about the cranky, temperamental personality behind the artwork, M.T. Liggett, who is today considered royalty in the folk art world.
Fromme’s first cousin once removed, Liggett also left the area to serve in both the Air Force and Navy before eventually returning and crafting a “visual voice” by amassing a burgeoning collection of fabricated signs and scrap metal sculptures.
He filled his property with odd, outlandish figures and larger-than-life totems — often called whirligigs for the many moving parts continually set in motion by the prairie wind — which served as caricatures of prominent political figures, local townsfolk and various women he admired or loved during his lifetime.
What some of the locals dismissively refer to as “junk art” has drawn art aficionados from around the world and earned him an obituary in the New York Times when he died last August at age 86. His strange menagerie is now overseen by four trustees, charged with ensuring it remains intact and true to its original unsettling spirit.
Liggett was widely seen as a political conservative — one popular author described his work as “the gospel according to Rush Limbaugh, rendered in wood and steel” — but he showed equal disdain for leaders of both parties, according to Erika Nelson, who studies outsider art and roadside attractions for a private foundation. She hosted an information table in front of Liggett’s studio as more than 100 visitors came and went throughout the weekend.
“He was an equal opportunity offender. He was just there to poke,” she said. “He started all this before the era of hyper-political awareness we are now in, but it wouldn’t have mattered. He wouldn’t have cared what anyone thought anyway.”
She described his political lampoons and 3-d cartoons as “30 years of curmudgeoning,” starting in the 1980s.
“This was in perpetual flux and ever-changing,” she said of the eccentric array and the brash opinions behind it.
The artist’s long-time neighbor and friend, J.C. Underwood, an old-style saddle maker and leather worker who is a fixture in the town, said the two men had a volatile relationship but came to a point of mutual understanding and respect. He proudly pointed out his own totem within the forest of metal statuary.
“I’m over here by Hillary,” he said, pointing past what appeared to be a large female figure with pumping arms, attempting to outrun a Soviet-style hammer-and-sickle. By comparison, Underwood’s figure was smaller and more subdued, with a faded red beacon on top and Greek symbols that translate as “town talker.”
“There’s actually several versions of Hillary out here,” he added, insisting the messages behind the pieces were often more complex and thoughtful than most observers recognize.
Nelson, who is now based at Lucas, Kansas, is herself an artist and curator of quirky grassroots art.
“Those of us who are fans of outsider art know and love all of these sites,” she said. “It’s inspiration that crosses the full political spectrum. The spark behind the ‘poke’ doesn’t care who you are, or whether you have money or not.”
She recalled visiting Liggett multiple times over the years, getting to know him personally before his passing.
Apparently with rural characters — like rural towns — there’s often more there than first meets the eye.
“I just fell in love with him,” she said. “He was actually a very smart, very sweet man.”