That the string of small Southwestern Kansas towns chosen to host the Kansas Sampler Foundation’s first-ever Big Kansas Road Trip were able to offer so many examples of artistic inspiration was no surprise to Pat Barnes, a volunteer who was giving tours at the 5.4.7 Arts Center in Greensburg over the weekend.
“There’s a lot of artistic people here in Greensburg,” she said inside the rectangular glass-walled building that was built by architectural students at the University of Kansas and then delivered as a gift to the town.
In fact, several local creative types — including her daughter-in-law Stacy Barnes — have been instrumental in putting a fresh take on what small-town Kansas can be.
Stacy Barnes was working at the community arts center in Lawrence 11 years ago, after completing an arts residency there, when a massive tornado barreled down Greensburg’s Main Street, leveling nearly every structure except for the concrete grain elevator. Her parents were among many who lost their homes. Just as she was feeling the tug to get more involved with the local rebuilding efforts, a job came open that allowed her to move back home and take a full-fledged role in the town’s revival.
“Working in Lawrence was my first taste of a community arts organization and that’s where the idea hatched to someday move back to rural Kansas and provide something similar to that,” she said. “When the tornado happened, that was the catalyst.”
Her first job — as assistant to the city administrator — led to eventually becoming the local tourism director, which includes managing the arts center and the town’s most famous attraction, the world’s largest hand-dug well.
She was also a key organizer who made it possible to bring the Big Kansas Road Trip to the county.
“There’s lot of misconceptions about rural America, and part of the mission with this event was to show people from more populated areas that we do have opportunities you might not expect, including in the arts,” she said.
Today, Greensburg’s population is about half of what it was before the tornado, and Pat Barnes said it skews younger and in some ways more diverse than before.
The environmentally minded, creative and artistic mix in relative harmony with multigenerational farm families, a bit like the layered splashes of color in the collages currently on exhibit by Montana painter Sheila Haskery.
The town’s experiment in re-envisioning itself as a green city has not changed its primarily rural identity, she added.
“This is a farm community. It will always be a farm community,” she said.
But, she added, local farmers have been very supportive of rebuilding with an eye toward making it art and culture-friendly.
“Our biggest supporters are farmers,” she said of the arts center. “The farmers we have around here are progressive. They are visionaries.”
That’s exactly what Stacy Barnes hopes visitors will take away from the road trip: that rural areas are artistic places that offer great quality of life.
“What it all comes down to is our pure love for this place,” she said. “Wilmore, a nearby town with only 50 residents, got great reviews over the weekend. It’s a beautiful little spot, and you could just see their community pride shine through.”
With dozens of sightseeing excursions and special events spread across three counties, it’s difficult to tabulate the full economic impact, but Stacy Barnes puts as much value on things that can’t be quantified, such as word-of-mouth and positive impressions of rural Kansas. The feedback she and other organizers received the first few days after the event were overwhelmingly positive.
“We just wanted people to experience what it’s like to live here, our culture and our attractions, and to bring some extra traffic to local businesses over several days,” she said. “I think it was mission accomplished.”
Next year the Big Kansas Road Trip moves to Wallace, Sherman and Cheyenne counties, where it will feature towns and rural attractions in the northwestern corner of the state.