See how these rural murals turn everyday Kansas into art


HAYS, Kan. (HPPR) – Matt Miller slowly walks backwards in the middle of 5th Street in downtown Hays.

The wall in front of him formed the solid, gray side of a local glass store. Now it’s his giant concrete canvas – 13 feet tall by over 18 feet wide – to paint one of the city’s new murals in northwest Kansas.

It’s so big that he has to take a step back every now and then just to get a good look at his progress.

“I have yet to clear up the brightest highlight a bit, but it’s close,” he said. “I could probably get into the dance right now.”

From Hays to Great Bend to Lecompton, small towns across the state are increasingly turning to larger-than-life works of art to inspire residents’ pride and attract tourists. And as more cities open up this artistic path, the economic benefits of murals – and the roadmap to achieving them – are becoming the center of attention.

Hays artist Matt Miller owns a smaller version of the artwork he created for his new mural. He had it glued to the wall to help him translate the painting on a larger scale. (Courtesy: David Condos)

Miller, an artist who has lived and worked in Hays for the past 10 years, is putting the finishing touches on a painting that depicts Native bison dancers from tribes that once used the plains of western Kansas as hunting grounds.

Translating his art on such a large scale was a months-long process that came with many challenges, many of which were overcome as they stood on a scaffolding five feet above the sidewalk.

There’s the math it takes to accurately enlarge his original painting four feet by two feet to fill that wall. Then there are the long days of demanding physical labor to apply paint to a building instead of a canvas.

“It’s just a different animal,” he said, “a different process.”

But around Hays, this type of scene is becoming more and more common.

Miller’s Wall is the second in a series of murals that will be erected on local buildings, from the thrift store to the sushi restaurant, over the next year.

Dubbed Brush the Bricks, the series will culminate with a community art project that invites residents to paint part of the Hays Grain Co-op. And the city has already raised about half of the donations and grants it will need to reach its goal of $ 150,000 to pay for the effort.

Miller said this is not only great news for local artists, but also for everyone who lives in western Kansas.

“It gives you a sense of belonging,” Miller said, “and it’s another way to bring people together.”

The Clay Center’s largest mural, “Bucolic America,” covers this 90-foot-tall grain elevator with a Kansas farm scene. (Courtesy: Robert Moran)

The wall movement

Murals in rural Kansas date back at least 100 years, to companies like Coca-Cola that commissioned artists to hand paint advertisements on brick walls.

But Marci Penner, executive director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, said the idea of ​​outdoor art as a way to improve a small town’s bottom line and avoid population loss has now become popular. fashion.

“The trend of using (murals) as a tool for economic development… to attract people, to improve the quality of life,” she said, “is on the rise.”

And Penner credits Clay Center, a town in north-central Kansas with just under 4,000 residents, with the location that launched a thousand paintbrushes.

When his foundation hosted a recent workshop at the Clay Center to teach other towns in Kansas how to start making their own murals, Penner ended up welcoming participants from 30 different locations across the state – from Burlington to the southeast Kansas to Meade and Norton in western Kansas. .

Shannon Stark, director of the Clay Center chamber of commerce, and other local leaders have written a handbook for cities that want to follow in their footsteps. And they answered logistical questions from visiting cities, like the cost of their murals per square foot, where they found the artists, and how they raised the money to pay for everything.

As someone who grew up in Clay Center, Stark is happy to see more small towns willing to take these kinds of risks in the name of preserving their future.

“The quality of life, the art, the travel and tourism, the marketing of your community,” she said, “all of these things really come down to economic development.”

And more and more cities are starting to think of it this way.

This new 360-degree mural by Australian artist Guido Van Helten covers a grain elevator in Salina. (Courtesy: David Condos)

The Salina Kanvas Project recently raised $ 250,000 to bring artist Guido Van Helten from Australia to cover one of the city’s grain elevators with hyperrealistic depictions of local children.

Leavenworth installed a new mural this summer depicting the history of the city. Hutchinson unveiled a wall of sunflowers and larks at the Kansas State Fair last month.

The Clay Center mural movement is still relatively new, with its first artwork last fall. And Stark said some people in town resisted the idea of ​​investing in murals at first.

But as Clay Center began to attract visitors who came specially to get a glimpse of his paintings, it didn’t take long to rally the community.

“After we finished three murals,” she said, “businesses and building owners… would come to us and say, ‘What do I have to do to get a mural on my wall? “”

This mural from the Clay Center turns one of the city’s buildings into a library. (Courtesy: Shannon Stark, Clay Center Chamber of Commerce)

Clay Center has completed 15 murals so far, most of them privately funded with money the city’s mural committee has raised from donors and local businesses. Each piece typically costs at least $ 5,000 to create.

There is a painting of rescue dogs on the side of the animal shelter and a giant shelf next to the bookcase. The largest mural, a farm scene, covers a grain elevator over 80 feet high.

And the city has plans for at least three more.

Stark said the businesses at Clay Center are already reaping the financial benefits, with more and more new customers coming from out of town and spending their money locally as they walk, cycle or drive around town to see the works of art.

“If you have a strong economy in your community,” she said, “you are going to have a strong community. “

With this mural and more than a dozen others, the Clay Center has sparked a growing trend for smaller towns in Kansas to invest in outdoor artwork. (Courtesy: Shannon Stark, Clay Center Chamber of Commerce)


As early adopters like Clay Center see success, Penner of the Kansas Sampler Foundation isn’t surprised to see more and more cities clamoring to get into the mural game.

“There is a win-win-win,” she said. “It’s a victory for the community, it’s a victory for the artist and I think it’s a victory for the public as well.”

And while rural Kansas may not be able to control the other economic and demographic factors that shape their future, putting up a mural is one positive thing the city has the power to change. .

“You might not be able to bring in this big manufacturing plant,” she said, “but you can start working to change the look of your city and the vibe of your city. “

Penner said that when small towns think big with these art projects, it can also change the way the people who live there and the people who visit see rural Kansas.

And even if a small town mural doesn’t earn a cent in tourism income, the worst-case scenario is that residents are enjoying new art and a renewed sense of pride in where they live. .

“Rural communities are not always seen as fun and colorful,” she said. “There are closed businesses, maybe that sounds a little sad. … Perhaps a well-placed mural can be the trigger to start making a difference.

David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW, and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and how they relate to public policy.

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