Building on Your Neighbor's Success: Lucas Turns "Garden" into Art Paradise
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Sit down for a chat with a top Madison Avenue marketing/advertising professional and it’s a good chance you’ll end up talking about image. Or in PR speak – brand image marketing.
In a world where small towns are struggling to survive economically, image can mean the difference between lights out and issuing building permits. At least one small Kansas town is well aware of this and is building an artsy identity that is drawing newcomers.
Lucas is home to a 100-year-old tourist attraction that is the base for its creative community. The Garden of Eden, begun by Samuel P. Dinsmoor in 1907, is a cacophony of concrete sculptures. Dinsmoor gradually built a jungle of 15 40-foot-tall concrete trees, with concrete people dotted throughout. The site includes a concrete mausoleum and many sculptures that sharply point out the artist’s views on politics.
Grassroots Center, Lucas
Many people have wandered into Lucas over the years looking for Dinsmoor’s concrete garden, and the townspeople knew they could build on the site’s popularity.
“Having the Garden of Eden has definitely helped keep Lucas alive,” says Connie Dougherty, director of the Lucas Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve got something to build on. I got to a lot of town meetings and people ask me how we do it. If you don’t have anything to build on, it’s hard to do.”
About 10 years ago, the Grassroots Art Center opened, tying into the creativity Dinsmoor displayed.
Grassroots art is defined by the center as “a term describing art made by people with no formal artistic training (usually of retirement age), using ordinary materials in an extraordinary way and frequently creating a whole artistic environment around themselves, effectively making themselves part of the artwork.” The center was born out of the need for a place to house a limestone sculpture collection by Inez Marshall, a Kansan who carved intricate designs, such as a one-fifth-size limestone Model T. “There were about five of us women on this little Arts & Humanities Commission at the time, and we were just trying to get arts activities and events into the school system,” recalls Rosslyn Schultz, executive director of the center. “The city council says, ‘Well, why don’t you guys run with this.’ We looked at them like you’re out of your mind.”
Obviously not too far gone, though, because those five women pulled the town together–everyone from the city government, to the chamber of commerce, and all the clubs and organizations–and raised funds to buy that collection of around 110 limestone pieces.
“We’re all so proud of ourselves and then the realization hits, okay, now you have to have somewhere to put these,” Schultz recalls, laughing. After examining their options, including a metal building, the group decided to renovate two downtown Lucas post rock limestone buildings that were in bankruptcy proceedings.
Today, the 11-year-old center highlights grassroots art in three limestone buildings and a courtyard. They pull in about 5,000 to 6,000 people per year, with about 60 to 70 percent coming from out of the area.
These two artistic organizations proved to be magnets for more artisans. Take Eric Abraham, for instance, owner of the Flying Pig Studio & Gallery on the Main Street in Lucas. Abraham moved to the community over two years ago and easily admits that his work doesn’t fit the grassroots definition because he has a bachelor of fine arts and a master of fine arts. But he also says that it is different enough that the “fine arts” people don’t really accept him either. He has, however, found acceptance in Lucas. “I realized after I got here–any other little tiny town in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, they would have wondered ‘what’s he really doing here,’ ” Abraham says. “I would have been the square peg in the round hole. But everybody that came in, says ‘oh, you’re an artist, we’re glad you’re here, we need more like you.’”
And more Lucas is getting. There’s artist Erika Nelson’s World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things, a traveling exhibit that is now headquartered in Lucas. This fun site features the World’s Largest Souvenir Plate for, of course, Lucas. It’s actually a former satellite dish that’s been painstakingly painted with Lucas scenes.
Another woman is moving to town when she retires, bringing with her a snow dome collection: yes, the little domes that you shake up to make a blizzard. And you mustn’t forget Florence Deeble’s Rock Garden, a conglomeration of colored concrete scenes built by the retired history and English teacher.
It’s not all about art, either. The town boasts Brant’s Meat Market, which is an old-timey butcher featuring a family recipe for Czechoslovakian bologna, liverwurst and other homemade meats. Tourists love it, Dougherty says.
With a population of just over 420, Lucas still has some of the traditional small-town economic challenges. But Dougherty now has enough sites and activities in town to sell bus tours on a whole day in Lucas. About 60 groups come in, anywhere from 10 women in a “red hat ladies’ group” to busloads of school children, Dougherty says.
Occasionally, the group tries to track how many dollars a group spends in town, just to get an idea of how their marketing is working. In July, a Kansas Explorers Club, about 100 people strong, met in Lucas. After contacting local stores, they figured the group spent about $3,000 in town, Dougherty says.
“We spend about $6,400 a year just on marketing,” she adds. “We are working on doing public art throughout the community. One thing we’ve had in the works for several years that we’re just doing piece by piece is a downtown revitalization project. We want to do new sidewalks and street lights. We’re not going to do the usual downtown revitalization project. We want ours to have the arts look to it. We have our own creations that we’re going to use. Our light poles will be unique. Our sidewalks may have things embedded in them that look like some of the grassroots art. We have a mural that we’re in the process of doing on the side of a business.”
The effort is paying off. Becky and Jonathan Pancost opened the Stone Cottage Farm Bed & Breakfast & Antiques because of the community efforts. Becky had always wanted to own a B&B, but knew it could be tough to make a living. “As far as small towns, they do draw in a lot of tourism because of the Garden of Eden and the Grassroots Art Center,” she says. And no, she added, she’s not sure she could survive without the draw the town provides.
And while people found different adjectives to describe the people being drawn to Lucas – “unusual” being the favorite – it’s always said with kindness and acceptance. Julie Bretz, city clerk, has lived in Lucas her entire life, with the exception of one year spent at school. She knows the town is alive because of its art focus. “We’re kind of holding our own right now,” she says. “We’ve got small towns on either side of us that are dying out, everything’s hurting in this area. But they’re hurting worse than we are.”
In Lucas, art is hope. Hard work and commitment is doing the rest.