The idea to use pony beads came to him in 1997, when he saw Serena and Venus Williams on TV. Feeling that these beads somehow informed his identity, Newkirk decided to make beaded curtains using real hair extensions.
Most people who look at Newkirk's curtains -- strung in patterns to look like skylines and landscapes -- see them as paintings. That's all right with him, though he considers himself a sculptor.
One of the cityscapes on display at the Johnson County Community College Gallery of Art is called "Nowhere."
"These are buildings that would be in any city," he says. The inspiration came during his stint as an art teacher in Los Angeles, where he learned that if you ask inner-city teenagers where they're from, the safest answer is nowhere. "If you're from nowhere," he explains, "you have no allegiances to any particular group." Ultimately, he says, the piece expresses "this feeling of taking over the whole city and reclaiming this whole over-urbanness for myself."
Most of the curtains, however, are nature scenes, making no obvious statement other than the cultural one implied by the beads. "By using these beads, I am putting myself -- you know, this black guy -- in all of these spaces," Newkirk says.
In the back room, Afro picks as tall as Newkirk form what would be a crown for a giant head. (To test the idea, Newkirk wore a crown made of normal-sized picks for a day.) And opposite the Afro-pick crown, Newkirk has used pomade to paint two looming police helicopters on the wall. "It's going to smell in here," Newkirk says, warning that the pomade stink should hover in the gallery for at least a week.