Grassroots Art Center
If you want to see grassroots art -- also called outsider art, visionary art, and other less sympathetic names -- you want to see it in its natural setting. Lucas, Kansas, is that kind of place. Hundreds of miles from the nearest big city, it was the hometown of Sam Dinsmoor, whose controversial Garden of Eden remains America's oldest surviving yard art environment. Dinsmoor died in 1932 but, according to the Grassroots Art Center, Lucas has since spawned five additional outsider artists. That's got to be a record for a town with a population of 400.
Sure, you could look at "visionary art" in a less remote city museum. But as Center director Rosslyn Schultz would say, what fun is that?
The Center occupies three downtown buildings, spills outside into a back lot, and extends to several satellite locations, all within a quick stroll in tiny Lucas. It's a funhouse of outsider artists brought indoors, as well as a gallery and repository for artwork that otherwise would have been thrown away when the artists died (We've documented that before).
Rosslyn showed us the work of the late Ida Kingsbury of Texas, who spent 17 years in her yard, painting on junk. "Nobody in Texas wanted her," said Rosslyn, amazed by the rejection. "I know she's smiling down on us. 'Thank you very much; somebody cared!'"
Even Rosslyn can't say why formerly ordinary people such as Ida -- who had been a "prim and proper" maid and housewife -- flip a switch and become visionary artists. "You just never know why they start, but that's okay," Rosslyn said. "The more yard they have, the more they have to fill it."
There's Herman Divers, who made art with aluminum can pull-tabs in the 1970s. The Center has several examples, including a full-size car made from maybe a half-million of the tiny metal rings. "He did it until he couldn't get any more pull-tabs," said Rosslyn. A quote from Herman hangs next to the car: "Just to know I got something that somebody else don't have, that's one thing that makes me feel good."
There's Betty Milliken, "the used chewing gum lady," who shaped the sticky wads into hundreds of tiny human faces. "You had to chew it, of course," said Rosslyn. "She had a rule."
Inez Marshall, a truck driver and auto mechanic, used her strong hands to cut sculptures out of solid rock for 51 years, including a unique tribute to a then-recently-dead John F. Kennedy. Rosslyn said that Inez sent a photo of her JFK memorial to the Kennedys -- and they never responded. "It was the heart-wrenching story of her life," said Rosslyn. "She just really was disappointed."
Rosslyn has tales about each artist and their work, frequently punctuated with exhortations of glee; this one is "wonderful," that one is "phenomenal." She clearly loves her job, and acts as confessor for visitors who meekly admit they're outsider artists themselves. "They'll ask, 'Can I show you what I do?' And I'll say, 'Please do. That's what we're here for.'"
We walked two blocks from the Center to the home of the late Florence Deeble, who filled her backyard with colored concrete replicas of places she'd visited on vacation, including a unique mini-Mount-Rushmore. The inside of her house has been transformed into "The Garden of Isis" by outsider artist Mri-Pilar, who came to Lucas with a vague proposal and was bravely given the green light. The result is a 21st century home makeover from another planet. Walls and ceilings are covered with silver foil and mylar; each room is filled with dolls, Slinkys, computer motherboards, and other landfill castoffs, all turned into otherworldly art -- Alien meets Barbarella -- most of it nailed to the walls. "It's just hard to tell people what this is," admitted Rosslyn.
We ended our tour with a visit to Bowl Plaza, Lucas's toilet-shaped public restroom, built by the citizens of Lucas and designed as if it was the work of grassroots artists, which in a sense it was.
The Center, open since 1995 -- and all of Lucas, really -- is a welcome relief from the fear that someone with odd stuff in their yard is a potential maniac with a chainsaw. "If a yard has interesting things, don't be afraid," said Rosslyn. "Go up and knock on the door and ask, 'What the heck are you doing here?' You won't have any fun otherwise."
Or you could just play it safe and see it at the Grassroots Art Center.