We drove out to a little community called Sand Springs near Tulsa, Oklahoma this last week to install a series of mobiles in a brand new community center there. We've been working on the pieces for a few weeks and were about to ship them off when we discovered that the whole project could fit into our little silver BioBeetle. In fact, we could have fit five times the amount in if we had them. Preferring any chance to take what most people call a "vacation", we drove instead of shipping the pieces and flying out to meet them. It was the right choice.
We hit the road with the new CD book of short stories, "When You Are Engulfed In Flames" by David Sedaris to keep us laughing as the Kansas corn fields and grain silos blurred by our windows. We took back roads to see a little more of the countryside, finding an incongruous and amazing array of rock formations just off the road to Garden City in the south west of the state. A peculiar geological formation in an otherwise very flat state.
Heading east we wanted to stop by Greensburg after seeing a documentary about the devastation that happened last year from an enormous tornado that literally flattened this historic farming community town. Just before getting there, though, our eyes were caught by a quarter mile of fence line featuring the fantastic art of a local eccentric folk artist. Wind whirligigs made from highway signs spun in the breeze and tall metal totems, each with a name and curious comment posted at it's base stood in long rows along the fence. We both hopped out and started snapping photos which led us down the roadway and around the side street to even more. A tan faced man in a pickup truck was just passing and stopped. He leaned his head out the window and said "How do you like the art?"...."Did you do all this?" I asked gesturing toward the colorful line up extending down the fence. "Yes, sir. I sure did....go over there to my studio and I'll show you more when I get back." We walked down the street scattered with bits and pieces of his artworks and old rusty tractors parked in front of his very full studio entry.
He soon returned to show us around with his morning coffee in hand. Introduced himself proudly as M.T. Liggett and started in on his stories that he has rehearsed probably a thousand times from passing motorists caught up, as we were, in his artful spell. All along the eaves of his studio shed were street signs, lines of coffee mugs....thousands of them, welding equipment, sheets of steel on the floor, tools, drawings, paint cans, hand drawn signs. In a Kansan drawl he started in on his harangue about how his art had upset the town folk and how much they hated it and wanted him to stop. When anyone would complain, he said he would make a totem figure of that person and then put it out on the highway. Many of the caricature figures had rather rude comments written underneath them. The mayor of the town, the council members and the "Self Anointed Bourgeois Elitists" suffered the most. The locals were not the only ones stung by his steel sculptures and barbed wit. There were political themes too with well known figures shot with his arc welder and painted with garish colors. He would curse up a storm over the crimes of George Bush for starting a war worse than Vietnam. He added that his own twenty two year stint in the military took him all over the world and gave him a better perspective than "these ignorant fools". His closing line as we excused ourselves for our trip to Tulsa was "You can't fix stupid!".
We told him we'd stop by on the way back to Boulder for a short visit and maybe purchase one of his works. He went right back to working in his studio shed under the canopy of coffee mugs lining the ceiling. Apparently, his mug collection that stretched along every rafter inside and out consisted of over 11,000 mugs. He was proud of not really knowing how many there were and seemed perturbed at the question.
We drove through the town of Greensburg amazed at the recovery efforts that town has experienced in the last year and a half. New houses were sprouting everywhere along with the green shoots of leaves coming from the broken limbs of the bare trees. The town had decided to rebuild to platinum Leeds standard so there were solar panels and green building everywhere going on in this new boom town.
We arrived in Sand Springs and set to installing the mobiles at the new community center. One area was a stairwell that was filled with scaffolding. Difficult to hang the works that we had designed for the site but we put them up and wove them through the boards layed horizontally in the space. We both felt that the scaffolding was probably more interesting than what we had made for the space.
In two days the job was done and we made our way back to Boulder through Kansas again. We drove through an absolutely beautiful landscape of hills and almost miniaturized valleys, trees and buttes. Not what you would think of for a Kansas landscape. We visited M.T. Liggett's studio again on the way back and picked up a small metal sculpture of Medusa's head. Some of his works borrow heavily on Greek mythology. We had a good visit and wished him luck with his detractors. He gave us a cat head sculpture with our purchase and we gave him a left over "feather" from our project. He seemed pleased and went back to his colorful work.
Driving back we grabbed photos when we could. Going through cattle country we tended to get stuck behind large smelly cattle trucks just after they dropped their bovine passengers off at the Cargil meat processing plant. Squeezed between them we grabbed a dirt road out to a large plume of smoke just off the road. A fire? We pulled up alongside the burning field just as a guy on a four wheel ATV with a large tank and torch pulled up to our car..."It'll cost you $5 if you want to watch the fire".... joking, of course. He said he was burning off the chaff from the field and seemed delighted that we liked watching the flames of his work. It all seemed to fit too well into David Sedaris's book "When You Are Engulfed In Flames".
Ten hours later we arrived in Boulder and hung the Medusa head on our tool shed wall. M.T. said that he puts a bit of himself into his art and likes spreading them around the country. Worried that his work would disappear with his inevitable passing, we looked him up on the Internet when we got home and found many sites and video interviews about him and his works. Long live the passionate artist!