It's a warm, breezy May afternoon, and Alexander Austin is wearing a worn, leather cowboy hat while lingering in the lot on the south end of the Power & Light District.
His white T-shirt is marked with errant brushes of dried paint, and his fingers are spattered, too. He's still strapped into the bright-yellow harness that lets him float 30 feet in the air in a giant hydraulic lift that takes up the corner of the mostly occupied parking lot.
His black boom box is tuned to KPRS 103.3, but there's enough activity in the parking lot that only short strains of Fergie and Ciara cut through the commotion.
A woman in a gray Toyota pulls up and waves a ticket in Austin's direction. She asks, "Hey, is this all I need?"
It's not unusual for Austin to be mistaken for a parking attendant.
But this artist doesn't mind.
A year ago, he was barely hanging on, worrying about where his next paycheck would come from. Now, the Lee's Summit resident is painting the Power & Light District's 18,000-square-foot south walls — the most prominent canvas in town.
Austin landed the job last year when the district's manager, Cordish Company, announced that it wanted something to cover the windowless walls. Someday, a second phase of the project will include condos that will block the south-facing expanse. Until then, Austin's mural of Kansas City history will stand like a gateway into downtown's north side.
Alexander Austin has left his artistic mark on the skeletons of Kansas City architecture for years. A drive along Troost shows a gallery of his past work: striking portraits of a civil-rights leader giving a fiery sermon, a historic recounting of the corridor's American Indian roots, a stark warning to area kids to stay in school or be chained to ignorance.
That's the home turf of Kansas City Councilwoman Sharon Sanders Brooks. Inspired by his work, she floated Austin's name for the Power & Light project. "The people just look like they're about to speak," she says of his larger-than-life paintings.
The night before his first meeting with Cordish last September, Austin stayed up late sketching his own design for the mural, inspired by iconic figures from Kansas City's past. The company didn't go with Austin's vision. Cordish spokesman Jon Stephens says the company wanted a concept based on historical photos and artifacts, so Cordish selected California-based firm Selbert Perkins Design to create the design. Cordish then hired Austin to paint it.
That didn't bother Austin. The design was just his style. It tested all of his abilities, he says. Anatomy, architecture, lettering — it's all up there. He doesn't have much formal art training, so every day involves a little improvisation. "I'm kind of like an escape artist," he says, extending his arms and flashing a Houdini-style smirk.
He's a bit of a perfectionist, too. He has gone back at least 10 times, painting over spots where he wasn't satisfied with his own effort. The hand of the man waving on the mural's west end was a little too long. He's intent on getting the face of Charlie Parker just right, so that's been touched up several times. On the mural's east side, Austin still has to correct the extra punctuation on the "Kansas-City Monarch's" Negro Leagues pennant.
But Austin has the breezy attitude of a guy who has just landed his dream job. He talks with his head cocked slightly to the side, as though he's always about to break into laughter. His speech comes in excited bursts, like a sprinter leaping out of the blocks, and his mouth is never far from a smile.
He's old enough to have a 27-year-old son, but the only evidence of age is a slight hint of gray in the day-old stubble on the sides of his face. He certainly doesn't look his 47 years, with the slim but muscular build that gives him the stamina to work until 2 or 3 a.m., when the towering wall is illuminated only by the streetlights that belly up to Interstate 70.
"I paint as long as I can," he says. "Some nights, I stay until they run me off, like, 'Hey, man, could you, uh, leave?'"
But on this May afternoon, he's at a standstill.
"I'm just waiting for the Miracle Makers," he says with the bright eagnerness of a kid waiting to meet Mickey Mouse.
Tucked away in his little black sketchbook are the schematics for the Selbert Perkins design. But he's missing one key element to finish the oversized athletic pennant — the logo for the Kansas City Monarchs. That's where the Miracle Makers come in. That's what he calls the Cordish staff. One of them will run down from the administrative office and deliver a printout of the needed image.
You might not expect this kind of enthusiasm from a guy who's sweating away on a design that isn't his, on a project that won't do much for his bank account and a mural that might not stay visible to the public for long.
It's the kind of optimism uncharacteristic of a guy who has been homeless, who has seen his work demolished and declared his artistic career dead on more than one occasion.
But Austin hopes this mural is his miracle maker — the one that gets him off the roller coaster and settles his career and reputation in Kansas City.
Austin's introduction to art was cutting sewing patterns to help his mother, who worked as a cook and took seamstress jobs on the side. She needed the extra money to afford the three-bedroom home in Tallahassee, Florida, where she raised Austin and his 11 brothers and sisters. Everyone in the house helped with the sewing, and Austin cut shapes of hats and dresses.
He could draw, too. Even when the crowded house was a whirlwind of commotion, he sat at the big kitchen table, kept his eyes down and copied images of celebrities.
Austin was in middle school when the family moved into new federal housing. "When they started building the brand-new government projects, we were like, 'This is it, baby! Brand-new toilets that work!'"
The move wasn't entirely happy, though. On December 8, 1972, his sister Ersalyne was in an argument at a bar when a woman pulled out a gun and shot her. Meanwhile, Austin failed the seventh and ninth grades; by high school, he was showing up only for lunch and art class, so he dropped out.
He fell into the family addiction. His father, who left when Austin was 8 years old, was an alcoholic, Austin says. Several of his sisters struggled with alcohol, too, and when Austin was 16 years old, he remembers panhandling outside the liquor store with his friends, gathering enough change to buy fifths of whiskey. He experimented with drugs, including crack. But it was the alcohol that stuck.
Austin got his GED at Lively Technical Center, where he also studied graphic art. He got some experience at Lively painting billboards. When Ron Gallimore — the first African-American gymnast to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team — opened a new center in Tallahassee, Austin painted the lettering and the silhouettes of two performing gymnasts.
When he was 19 years old, his high school sweetheart gave birth to his first child. His drinking habits interfered with some job opportunities, though, and he had a tough time cobbling together enough money from odd work — cleaning the glass on high-rise buildings was one job — to pay child support. By the time he was 21, he had fallen so far behind that a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
His big break came in 1982, when Austin entered his artwork in the North Florida Fair. Painter Alan Pippenger turned a corner and stopped dead in his tracks in front of a drawing of Stevie Wonder that Austin had submitted. "I found myself rooted to the spot I was standing," Pippenger says. "It was a simple drawing, done entirely in pencil, that grabbed me by the throat."
Pippenger put up $1,000 to keep Austin out of jail. Pippenger says he got behind on his own rent, but he didn't ask Austin to pay him back in cash. Austin repaid the favor with artwork. Austin worked for three years with Pippenger, filling in lettering for billboard ads, learning how to use special brushes.
In 1987, Austin's sister Adele got sick. She lived in Kansas City, so the aspiring artist hopped a Greyhound. Knowing Kansas City was the headquarters of Hallmark and big-name advertising agencies, he brought along his portfolio.
His limited education earned him only rejection. He got evicted and was too embarrassed to ask his sister for help. He slept under the steps of the Valentine Shopping Center, in the stoops of buildings downtown and even in Dunn Park, across the street from his sister's house on the Paseo.
After a couple of weeks on the streets, he took up residence at the City Union Mission. One morning while heading out to look for a job, Austin spotted a man on a ladder, working on a small sign. Hank Bloomquist was living in abandoned buildings at the time, Austin says, and making a few bucks doing signs for small businesses.
Austin asked if he needed a hand, and the two lived together in an empty, rodent-ridden warehouse on Truman Road for months. Bloomquist was adamant that any co-habitant be completely drug- and alcohol-free. While he lived with Bloomquist, Austin went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and got sober.
One evening, Austin followed the sound of live music to the 18th and Vine district. It was an outdoor concert, and local musician Sonny Kenner was jamming a Bob Marley tune onstage.
With Bloomquist, he had discovered his future canvas: abandoned buildings. In the Jazz District, he put his work on display.
Austin started hanging out at the Mardi Gras Club near 19th Street and Vine. He wasn't drinking then, so he camped out in the corner with a pad and pencil and sketched patrons for $10. Club owner Charles Allen Sr. noticed Austin's ability and asked him if he'd paint the likenesses of jazz legends on the bar's brick wall.
Allen gave him a few buckets of black and white paint, but Austin didn't have any other supplies. Instead of a paintbrush, he used a stick with a rag tied around the end. He dipped the cloth in the paint and created pictures from countless dots. The technique, called stippling, was crude, but in 1989 Austin created the images of musicians such as Charlie Parker and Count Basie.
Soon after, in 1991, his sister moved out of her apartment in Grandview and let Austin stay for the time left on her lease. Every day, he took the bus up from Grandview and passed a graffiti-tagged building at 5753 Troost. "It just dawned on me: Whoa, you could paint something on that," he says. That night, he drew a composition of what it could look like. He sketched the bold face of a child breaking a metal chain with his forehead.
"If I had stayed in school, I could have been one of those brilliant artists. I could have painted like Rembrandt or Picasso," Austin says in an uncharacteristically somber tone that's laced with more disappointment than pride. "So the idea came to me: Break the chains of ignorance."
The next day he went looking for the property owner, Raymond Streeter, who gave Austin permission to paint it — as long as the mural didn't cost him anything. "All I needed was a can of black and a can of white, and it's on," Austin says.
Austin set out a sign asking for donations, and dozens of passers-by tossed him spare change. One of the biggest donors, Austin says, was former NFL player Rosie Greer, who gave the young artist $100 and his business card.
It took three weeks to complete that first mural. Soon after he was scouting the city streets for abandoned buildings. In 1992, inspired by the Spike Lee film released that year, he created a bold rendering of Malcolm X gazing down on citizens from a building near 25th Street and Prospect. The next year, he found a prime canvas near 47th Street and Prospect and, as snow began to fall, started painting images of Martin Luther King Jr.
Austin was still working on that Prospect mural in the summer of 1994 when he met his future wife, Dana, at the Harris House dance club in Westport. Dana bought him some scaffolding so Austin wouldn't have to use old barrels to stand on. The mural took a year to complete.
It didn't last long.
Austin learned that the expansion of Bruce R. Watkins Drive would go straight through the MLK mural. He started a campaign to save it. He wrote the lyrics and music to a song he called "Save the Dream." As I look up to the sky, and I see the others way up high/I thought I would paint a picture and I would sing, to stop the demolition of the dream.
With the help of a youth choir called Tribute, Austin held a rally in front of the mural. The group made a video and recorded the song at Chapman Recording Studio. Local radio station KPRS 103.3 picked it up and played it for weeks.
On the day the mural was demolished, Austin arrived at 6 a.m. and watched as a large backhoe took the wall down slowly. As the mural crumbled, he vowed to the gathered media that he'd paint another King mural before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
By then, he'd started working a variety of jobs to keep a new apartment on Walnut. To pay the bills, he cut paper in the darkroom of a photography business. His free time was spent at the intersection of Linwood Avenue and Troost, where he painted a new black-and-white rendering of Martin Luther King Jr.
He finished the mural in early 1995. That January, he and Dana got married in Las Vegas. A few weeks later, the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime planned an anti-violence march that ended with a rally at Austin's mural. The artist walked at the front of the parade, hundreds of participants trailing behind him. It inspired him to start his own anti-crime initiative: Painting for Peace.
Alvin Brooks, former Kansas City Councilman and then-president of the Ad Hoc Group, says Austin came to him with an idea to paint a mural memorializing homicide victims. Austin transformed the blank side of a building at 27th Street and Prospect with the faces of 100 murder victims and the question "When Will It Stop?" One portrait was his sister Ersalyne. He painted himself on the end, head bowed in grief.
"It became almost like the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem," Brooks says. "People would come out and pray and meet each other."
Beneath the wall, the Ad Hoc Group set up a mock cemetery, with crosses commemorating the dead. Brooks says the mural was well-received by the community, and the scene became a focal point of HBO's controversial 27th and Prospect documentary exploring the inner city's struggle with drugs and violence.
But Austin was overwhelmed by the project. People called him "The Undertaker Artist." Reliving his sister's slaying confronted him with events that he never dealt with in his childhood. He began drinking again. He gave up the Painting for Peace idea.
"I thought it was over," he says of his artistic career. "I didn't think anyone would support me. I thought my work would be damned forever."
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the courtyard at the Power & Light District is buzzing with roadies in black T-shirts and ball caps unloading amplifiers and soundboards for a Dierks Bentley concert. Despite the frantic activity, Austin is easily spotted. He's sitting in the center of the open-air venue, his shirt and slacks spotless white, his sketchbook and cell phone competing for his attention.
For the past nine months, Austin has been surrounded by a small army of construction crews and business boosters hustling to make Power & Light the most-talked-about district in downtown Kansas City. But elsewhere in the urban core, Austin's past work has fallen into disrepair. His first mural, at 58th and Troost, was recently painted over when the property fell into such decay that it angered neighborhood residents. The Malcolm X mural on Prospect has been gone for nearly a decade. After a few years, the homicide mural and the mock cemetery became the source of neighborhood complaints, and the lot owners painted over the neglected mural.
But Austin has moved on from his days of inner-city controversy. He says he has regained control of his drinking, though he admits to having a few too many beers on occasion. He recently moved to a tidy subdivision in Lee's Summit where all the two-story houses are nearly identical in their architecture, landscaping and shades of beige. The house is owned by Dana's adult son, who moved to Denver. She works as a cook at the upscale Benton's Steak & Chop House atop the Westin Crown Center hotel in downtown Kansas City. When his artwork isn't paying the bills, Austin says, he's lucky to have a supportive wife.
In the 10 years since the murder victims' wall, he has added to his public gallery a painting of the regal Osage Indian at 31st Street and Troost, and a Harry Truman mural in Independence. He's had a few gallery shows and does portrait work for clients such as the Metropolitan Bar Association, but nothing that nets much of a profit.
"This art thing is a struggle," he says. "You're either in or out. I've been on the brink of being homeless again, all the time, for years."
Austin admits he's not much of a businessman. He's done most of his murals for free or for a couple hundred bucks to keep him in groceries. Austin agreed to $44,000 for the massive Power & Light mural thinking that the project would take eight weeks, not eight months. But weather has washed out many work days. Concerts at the Sprint Center have given him little room to operate in the crowded parking lot. If an electrician needs to install lights near the spot Austin is painting, he's told to take the rest of the day off.
And murals that span two city blocks and tower three stories high aren't cheap to produce. Austin estimates he has spent at least $15,000 on paint and brushes alone. He has spent another $3,000 on insurance required by federal authorities in order to use the hydraulic lift. He's already spent $12,000 on that, but in recent weeks Cordish agreed to pick up the $1,800-a-month tab for the rest of the project. But that's been a mixed blessing. On a recent Wednesday morning, after days of rain, Austin's lift was already in use elsewhere in the district. By the time he finishes, Austin doesn't expect to pocket more than a few thousand dollars.
The painting won't have a long public life, either. Stephens, the Cordish spokesman, says he's not sure when the second phase of construction will begin. But when it does, a new set of condos will obscure the mural. Depending on the final design scheme, it may not be visible even from an alleyway.
Still, Austin hopes this opportunity will open new doors. The Cordish company is also paying him for a series of "Wanted" posters depicting famous gangsters. The art, faded to evoke a ghost-town atmosphere, doubles as signage for the PBR Big Sky Bar. He also painted the mural for the Maker's Mark Lounge. On this Wednesday afternoon, he gets a call on his cell phone from a Sprint Center representative interested in displaying some of his work in the arena and possibly having Austin sketch portraits of the celebrities who come through.
He's already looking forward to his next mural project. It's a kind of homecoming, bringing him back to the place he stayed when he was homeless about two decades ago. The City Union Mission recently asked Austin to paint a long wall in their recently expanded men's facility. On one end, Austin will paint guys frustrated and defeated by the stresses of poverty. On the other side, he'll show those same men, steady and successful.
He won't get a dime for his artwork. But to Austin, that mural will mean more than the one in the flashy Power & Light District anyway.
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