Kenny Winkenwader and Waterville Mural Featured in Spring 2007 Issue
As Eyesight Dims, Waterville Muralist Turns to Home
A painter leaves something of himself in each painting, embedded clues that if deciphered reveal an intimate biography. It can be a particular shade of color, the way light dances on softly-rounded hills, the casual fold of a skirt, the scampering of a rabbit, dark clouds building in the distance, or an expression caught between now and an uncertain future. The trick for the admirer is to ferret out the clues, to discover the artist within the art.
I’ve long been a fan, and a friend, of Kenny Winkenwader, an artist who lives a few miles north of Waterville. Though he’s painted hundreds of smaller paintings, he’s best known around Marshall County for his larger-than-life murals. And in each of them I’ve found something that explains a facet of his experiences.
The Franklin’s gulls aloft in the mural spanning the entire circumference of the United Methodist Church basement in Waterville tell of his love for nature, as well as his eye for detail in local fauna. The young boy fishing with a cane pole on the mural on the Blue Rapids town square harkens back to a boyhood spent with rod and reel on the banks of the Little Blue. But the new mural he just completed on the opposite side of the square has me stumped.
The centerpiece is a string of covered wagons being pulled by oxen though a long narrow valley. To the left a horseback Native American lopes to intersect their path, while another chases a herd of bison off the high ground. High above them a bald eagle soars in a sky dotted with summery cumulus clouds. On the right a woman draws water from a pump while her daughter watches the approaching emigrants. I’m about ready to concede defeat when I see the clue.
Unfortunately, it’s at that moment Winkenwader arrives, and his grimace at seeing my camera banishes the thought. “I hate to have my picture taken,” he says. Reluctantly he agrees to a few shots. When we’re done, I put the camera away and reach for a notebook. At this, his expression turns even more dour. “Want to go for a ride?” he asks. “I have to show you something.”
It’s not a request. I remind myself that painters express themselves through a visible medium, that their stories are told through pictures. We climb into his truck and head west.
His family tree is artistically gifted, he admits. Several cousins were artists, including James Bass, a Topeka sculptor, plus an aunt or two. His father was a farmer and historian, his mother both crocheted and sketched. All had a direct influence on him, he says. “But the main influence are those hills out there.” His finger wags toward the low, fire-blackened hills rising above the valley. Those to our left are the northernmost reaches of the Flint Hills, with the ice-carved Glaciated Region to our right. Separating the two is the Little Blue River. In this unmarked borderland we turn off the main highway and bump north down a gravel road.
“I was a victim of the land,” he says. It’s an odd descriptive, conjuring images of a young man being tortured or maimed, but in fairness the dictionary defines the word as one who “perishes or suffers in health, etc., from some enterprise or pursuit voluntarily undertaken.” As good a word for farming as there is.
After high school he spent some time in Topeka. He worked at General Dynamics and dabbled in perfecting his painting, even managed a training course in art. That lasted until his first critique, an event he abruptly terminated. “I don’t mind criticism,” he laughed, “but I’m not going to change. I’m too stubborn.”
The land never stopped calling him. His father farmed an area that was homesteaded by his grandfather in the 1870s, and his ailing health drew his son back. It was a lovely place situated in a slight depression just below the crest of a ridge, a place his mother, after moving 22 times during her life, vowed never to leave. She didn’t.
So he moved back and took up farming and raising cattle, a second love of his life. For 37 years he worked as a field man for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (now the Farm Service Agency), where he saw change as a constant, and not necessarily for the better. Fences, hedgerows, woods, all were sacrificed to what passed as progress. While he understood the necessity of change at times, the pace and scope were too much. He began buying as much land as he could.
It also impacted on his artistic vision. Where before he wanted only to paint landscapes without any human element, now he began to feel called to paint the history of the area. Maybe it was because his father was a historian, that his life had evolved around storytelling. Because stories anchor us to the land as well as to one other.
Past the river, the road narrows and begins to climb. Near an abandoned farmhouse he turns through an open gate and proceeds uphill on a faded two-track. He tells a story about how a friend was near the house one night when the resident vultures got spooked and flew through a glass window; “I thought I was done for,” the friend confided. The path wends by the crumbled stone foundation of a barn, breaks around a stand of cedars and disappears in a wide treeless pasture. Around us the land falls away as if melting under the lukewarm sun, light winking off the river, the grain elevators of Waterville looming in the distance. He stops and puts the truck in park. “This is the best view around,” Winkenwader says. And then, after a pause, “This is me.”
He grew up dirt poor, living off the land, raising his own food, fishing and hunting and trapping, learning the hills and valleys and the river’s temperament. He was born in a time between times, raised in an era between horses and tractors, between the old and the new. A mystical umbilical cord tied him to the land. And for all that, there was a duality that could not be resisted. “I had two different lives,” he says. “One was the farm, the other was painting.”
He just sold his last cow. It was a difficult decision though he denies it. Raising cattle was another passion—he calls it a “love affair”—but his body has been damaged too many times to want to continue. His favorite cow blind-sided him with a hoof a while back and the memory of the blow is imprinted in his bones. Both hips have been replaced thanks to spills from horses, plus the sundry other aches and pains a lifetime of farming rewards a man with. In that respect, maybe he was right to consider himself a victim.
Every inch of these hills reminds him of a story. His grandfather, John Theodore Winkenwader, passed down tales of how the Otoes came off the reservation and encamped in the hills above their stone house. They offered the Indians the second floor for the night, and heard them tossing and turning as they slept on the hard oak boards. They slipped away in the mornings without a sound, like the wind.
The selfsame house came to a bad end, he says. Out of 13 children only two lived, and the accumulated grief absorbed into those stone walls left it damned. There were so many bad memories, his father used to say, that they eventually tore it down. The clincher came when Louis, his uncle, appeared one morning.
“You can believe it or not believe it,” Winkenwader says. “When my dad was very young they had a cook stove and old gray tomcat. Dad was reading a book sitting by the old cook stove and this Louis, who had died a couple three years before, came out of the upstairs room where Louis used to sleep, and he walked across the room and out the door. And dad said one thing he remembered was the old gray tomcat’s hair stood on end.”
We drive on.
“I’ve driven these roads thousands of times,” he says. I’ve lost track of the cardinal directions and have no idea where we are until suddenly the road dips at an alarming angle and we’re descending into the valley. He points to a gully and says he lost a load of potatoes there once. The wagon tongue broke sending the wagon cascading down the slope in a fairly straight path until it veered off into the ditch and exploded in splinters and spuds. There were a lot of potatoes to fetch.
He tells stories of an old farmhouse half-seen through the trees, of a suicide that probably wasn’t (“no powder burns”), of his mother at thirteen being forced to run the lower farm by herself. Every inch of the land holds a part of him, and a tale. And then we’re climbing to the high ground and I can see his house in the distance.
The old farm is still there, little changed since the early 1900s. He and his wife, Pat, live in a newer house off to the side, where the view to the south is stunning. The entrance to the farm is announced by a steel shed faced with a mural of his grandfather greeting the Otoe Indians. It’s an incongruous sight, a detailed, colorful rendering in the middle of nowhere on a dusty road few people travel.
There’s more. A small garage near the house is painted to resemble a scene from his childhood, with his father sitting on the front porch, his mother hoeing in the garden, and his sister fleeing the outhouse where a copperhead lurks. On the side of a whitewashed barn a rough outline of a man stooping over can be seen. It takes me a moment to realize that the entire place is a work in progress. When I mention this he nods. “I’m painting a history of the farm on murals,” he says. “Most of the time I’ve worked for other people. This time I’m doing it for me.” He doesn’t have a timeline, only working when he feels like it. “I’m just going to start it,” he says, “and when it ends, it ends.”
Some of the work is being painted on cement board which is then fastened to the buildings with screws. Removing it is easier that way, just in case anyone ever wants to. His two grown kids have no plans on taking over the farm, so when he passes he knows someone else will take it. Someone with no ties to this particular plot of ground, and no history, either. It’s evident the idea troubles him. For a long moment he struggles for the right words, then shrugs and says, “Life is really elusive.”
“How so?” I ask. He shrugs again, and a wide grin splits his face. His hands open and rise as if in supplication, or if to enfold the farm in an embrace. “When you’ve painted all your life, you can’t just stop.” And then he tells me about the glaucoma.
The front part of our eyes is filled with a clear alkaline liquid known as aqueous humor. Produced by the ciliary body, it flows into the eye under pressure at a constant rate of around one teaspoon per day. Besides providing nutrients to those areas of the eye not served by blood vessels, it also helps maintain the correct shape of the eye. The fluid is then drained off through the trabecular meshwork, a spongy tissue near the pupil. When the drainage becomes clogged, pressure builds up and compresses fibers in the optic nerve. The resulting loss of vision is gradual, inexorable, and incurable.
In a way, the decision to switch from paintings to murals has been a reaction to the eye disease; just a way of trying to outflank it.
“I think bigger now because of my eyes,” he says. The diagnosis came several years ago, and he says the pressure on his eyes is stabilized for now. But after painting his first mural, a rambling town scene running the length of a building in Waterville, he found the added spatial dimensions easier to work with. The painting was never completed, though it’s hard at first glance to know what’s absent. Missing details are subtle, such as the lack of spokes on the kid’s bicycle, like a children's game of finding what’s missing in a picture. It wasn’t for lack of trying that it wasn’t completed; it was his aching hips.
“I had to call it quits for a while,” he says. A hip replacement put him back on his feet, and he went on to paint his most ambitious, and certainly his tallest, project: a mural in Blue Rapids showing the old gypsum mine. He estimates more than two hundred hours were involved in the image, though the cost wouldn’t cover a third of the hours spent priming, sketching and laying down the paint. Not that he minds that much. “I don’t paint to make a lot of money,” he says.
One year later he painted the church basement, a multi-wall panorama of biblical scenes and biblical proportions. Several outsized murals adorn the Waterville Depot Museum. Smaller works are occasionally commissioned, and he’s planning on repainting the gypsum mill mural. The projects keep him busy, but more and more he looks toward his farm and the sees a record that only he can bring to life.
“I suppose there’s a sense of urgency to finish,” he says slowly. “When I start sketching, when I get an idea, I want to turn it into something. You put yourself into that position. I get an idea, what I see, what I want, and I have to do it.”
His father, Winkenwader says, could tell you everything that happened in the last fifty years, and yet he can’t remember what he did last week. But the stories, like the hills, are always there, accessible, eternal, fresh, and these he turns to when he wants to start slinging paint.
So yeah, there’s a sense of urgency to finish that story. He’s uncomfortable admitting it but I can see it in his eyes, the way they take in the farm and the encircling hills and the river below, and it’s not merely the shortening span of days that worries him but the thought of a relentless and unyielding dimming of sight. “Whatever is, is,” he says, and his eyes swivel back to mine. For now they’re clear as a summer day. We climb into his truck and head back.
He’s gone before I remember to ask him about the clue I’d found, but now I’m more certain than ever.
In the mural, the young girl clutches her mother’s skirt as she watches the imminent confrontation of the emigrants and the Native Americans. Her mother, stooped in the act of drawing water from a long-handled pump, looks over her shoulder as if startled, staring into the viewers’ own gaze. Caught in a sliver of time, between the known past and the unknowable future, she looks toward that which cannot be seen by the human eye.
What comes next I think I know. Responding to that insistent tug on her skirt, the woman turns and with her daughter looks toward home.