Sometimes you need a good enemy to inspire good art.
Take Ron Lessman. Unlike some other Kansas artists, he gets along with pretty much everybody: the cops, his family, the truck drivers on the way to the gravel pit next door. Contented Ron, however, never made any art. Then he locked horns with the health and zoning officials of Shawnee County, and things began to change.
"I don't try to be nice to the county when they're morons," he tells us, showing us his signature creation, Truckhenge. Ron says that the idea for Truckhenge came partly from Carhenge in Nebraska, partly from Cadillac Ranch in Texas, and mostly from his anger at Shawnee County bureaucrats. England's original Stonehenge had little to do with it. We ask Ron if the trucks can be used as a solar calendar. He thinks for a moment and replies, "Well, the sun does come up here."
The Lessman family has farmed this patch of land on the northeastern edge of Topeka, inside a sharp bend of the Kansas River, for four generations. But that livelihood essentially ended in the mid-1990s, when floods washed several feet of sand over the property. Ron, always resourceful, made a deal with a local mining company to dig out the sand and, in doing so, create a lake on the Lessman property that Ron now stocks with game fish.
Shawnee County, however, wasn't happy with some of the cast-off debris scattered around Ron's acreage, specifically some old trucks and buses. ("Look at my neighborhood! I'm the cleanest one in the whole neighborhood!" Ron counters.) "I believe in recycling, so I recycle everything," he told us, but the bureaucrats didn't care to listen. Several years ago they ordered Ron to haul the trucks away.
"The county said I couldn't have any loose metal out here." Ron says. "They told me to pick my trucks up." Ron makes an ungracious gesture with his fist and arm. "Okay! I picked 'em up!"
Ron upended the vehicles into cockeyed megaliths, turning them into slogan-bearing billboards, and placed them along the road to the gravel pit, the most visible part of his property. "Rise Up" is painted on one; "Freedum Isn't Lost" on another. A school bus is buried nose-down in front of a ragged concrete tombstone for "Truth." Beyond it, a truck sports the message, "If These Trucks Can't Stand Why Do We Fight The Taliban?" On its hood is written, "A Memorial For Liberty. Rome Didn't Kill Jesus Bureaucrats Did." Ron has draped the vehicles in Christmas lights to make the presentation more festive.
Truckhenge did not amuse the health and zoning officials. Ron was ordered to remove it. There was fear, according to Ron's account of the official concern, that another flood might turn the vehicles into deadly torpedoes. Ron saw that as either stupidity or harassment. "I put 42,000 pounds of concrete in each one," he said. "But somehow these trucks are gonna float 300 yards to the river, float 25 miles to Lawrence (a nearby university town), kill everybody in Lawrence, and knock all the bridges out at the same time." He extends his arms in mock exasperation. "And then they fined me 750 bucks. I said, 'Well, Lawrence ain't worth much then, is it.'"
"Just 'cause you tell me an apple's blue," he said, "don't mean I have to believe it."
Ron, however, is too much of a deep-down goof to stay mad for long. Instead, he has turned his frustration into enjoyment by adding sculptures to his private roadside gallery. His work caught the fancy of the Shawnee County Preservation Association, which awarded Truckhenge a Kaw Region Art Park marker in 2006. That slab of respectability seems completely out of place here, and Ron is refreshingly unaffected by it. He enjoys his "Beer Bottle Tree" -- a 20-foot-tall concrete pillar studded with empties -- because it hums when the wind blows. Another sculpture, "The Big Scary Monster That's Gonna Invade Lawrence," features a chair with a broken back in its mouth. Ron sprawls in it, demonstrating what a "laid back" guy he is.
We appreciate Ron's concrete commitment to his cause, an approach that harkens to pre- inflatable days, when roadside attractions weighed multiple tons and were meant to last. Ron, who is only in his mid-fifties, plans to stick around for a while. His two grown kids also live on the property, so Truckhenge seems safe for at least another generation -- and Ron intends to add more trucks to it as they come along.
"These guys act like they're somebody," Ron says, referring to the health and zoning officials of Shawnee County. "Well, they're just politicians. They got no sense of humor at all. Why can't you just have a little fun?"