Avenue artists overcome adversity for the sake of public art.

Well Hung 

Avenue artists overcome adversity for the sake of public art.

Public art is not for the faint of heart," cautions Porter Arneill, the director of the Municipal Art Commission. Arneill, a sculptor who took office last August, directs his warning not toward audiences but toward artists. He's spent the past few months advising them how to legally and safely design and install art that hangs above a roadway or stands freely on a concrete staircase in a park.

The 2003 Avenue of the Arts opened May 16 after a flurry of painting, drilling, lifting, bolting, weaving, and, yes, duct-taping. Six outdoor installations are now about a block apart from one another along Central Avenue between 10th Street and the south side of 16th Street.

The brainchild of Jim Calcara of CDFM2, an architecture firm located on the artful thoroughfare, the annual display started in 2000 and has flourished under the joint sponsorship of CDFM2, the Municipal Art Commission of Kansas City and DST Systems. Late last fall, seven judges (including Calcara and Arneill) narrowed a field of about thirty artists who had submitted ideas, awarding $4,000 each to Matt Dehaemers, Johnny Naugahyde, Dylan Mortimer, Cara Walz, the team of Mary Wessel and Russell Ferguson, and the Derek Porter Studio.

Suspended between the CDFM2 office building and DST Systems' parking garage, Dehaemers' 21-foot-long, 8-foot-tall replica of a 1920s Bernie Safety streetcar, titled "Point of Departure," presented the biggest installation challenge. To get the 600-pound rope-and-PVC-pipe sculpture, Dehaemers enlisted the help of engineer John Balling and Baker Smith Contractors. They attached it to a mechanical lift and secured it with thick wire cables anchored to the buildings with steel rings, bars and bolts. Dehaemers also got a hand from his mother, Joyce, who wove nearly half of the white cotton rope panels spread across the side of the cable car's skeleton.

Dehaemers says the trolley's ghostly, rectangular form pays homage to the lively downtown Kansas City of the 1920s through the '50s. "I see the streetcar as playing a role in making that possible -- for all these communities to be filtered downtown," he says. "It's like the veins pumping the blood of the city." This piece serves as a reminder that Kansas City's past may hold the key to its renewal. Although the fringe hanging from the sculpture swings to and fro in the wind, the structure is so tightly attached to its supporting buildings that it's going nowhere -- not unlike Kansas City's efforts for a light-rail system.

Mortimer's "Prayer Booths" on the northwest corner of Barney Allis Plaza posed another installation issue: Part of the sidewalk he wanted to use fell under the jurisdiction of City Hall's Street Department; across a crack in the concrete was Bartle Hall territory. In an effort Mortimer says was a "pain in the neck," he changed his location to the Bartle Hall property because the city approval process for that part of the sidewalk was less complicated. With their bright, blue-and-white signage, the sculptures look like gas-station pay-phone stands, except that inside, viewers will find a set of instructions: "To Operate: Lower the kneeler, rest arms at the base of the enclosure, and knees on the kneeler." Mortimer says he doesn't know if people will actually pray there. "But one way or the other, I think it will get them to question prayer in the public realm."

Walz's 21-foot-by-27-foot black and blue banner titled "Zip" hangs on the west side of the Marriott building. Her large-scale borrowed image depicts an instruction from the cellophane wrapper of a zip-car toy from Arby's. "If I ever did a seminar on public art, the title would be 'Public Art Sucks,'" Walz says. "I know that sounds horrible, but it's a process, and you have to deal with fifty other human beings. Every step of the way, it seems like something's being watered down." The Missouri Department of Transportation vetoed Walz's original idea of attaching her work to Bartle Hall for display over Interstate 670. As it turns out, the best vantage from which to see zip is traveling east on 11th Street -- except that 11th Street is one-way heading west, so the automobile-related irony is lost to drivers in the prime viewing location.

Ferguson and Wessel ran into a different problem. Their three sculptures -- depicting a panopticon, a watchtower and a hunter's blind and titled "Sentinels" -- sit in a secluded old roadbed in the empty lot at 16th Street and Central. It's a favorite late-night hangout, as demonstrated by the bedroll under a nearby tree.

"Ours are rough-hewn structures that suggest the sense of being tenuous in our times," Wessel says. The pieces appear haphazardly constructed of natural and man-made found objects and have been painted one of three Day-Glo colors the artists call Radium Green, Kool-Aid Purple and Hunter's Orange. The sculptures represent tools for spying and documentation, but the week before the Avenue of the Arts opening, no one was keeping watch when someone toppled the gracefully installed hunter's blind. Arneill asked Kansas City police and Bartle Hall security to step up patrols in the area, but the artists have their own methods of protection. "Russell gave somebody a $10 bill to watch, and so far nothing's happened," Wessel says.

Perched partway underneath the pedestrian bridge spanning Central at 14th Street is Naugahyde's "Rainbow House." For approximately forty years, an otherwise inconspicuous house at 87th Street and Ward Parkway was painted an eye-catching array of colors; Naugahyde passed it on his daily commute. On the outside of his windowless, doorless, pink-, yellow- and blue-striped replica, Naugahyde has applied little sentences in reflective, silver vinyl letters. These sentimental, funny or naughty lines describe what he imagines the people who lived in the house must have been like. "It's a little bit about the sad nature of being an eccentric. Some eccentrics are happy-go-lucky, but I think these people were kind of inward," Naugahyde says. "They loved each other, but they were not your typical neighbors in Kansas City."

The Derek Porter Studio's "Dielectric" Screen consists of two towers on the southwest staircase of Barney Allis Plaza. Derek Porter and designers Katrina All and Katie Green spend most of their time working on lighting for architectural projects; these metal structures hold hinged panels made out of a material that simultaneously transmits and refracts light in different wavelengths. "This thing is almost like a time marker," Porter says. "It's always evolving over the course of the day, different seasons, different weather patterns." In the morning, the towers cast blue and pink shadows across rush-hour traffic; in the evening the colors are softer and more poetic.

Unlike a visit to the Kemper or the Nelson, a trip down the Avenue of the Arts is devoid of informational placards (other than two weather-beaten signs left over from the 2001 Avenue of the Arts). The viewing public is left to its own devices. "What's exciting to me is that this is not another city art festival with cows or fish -- not to criticize those, but this goes a step farther," Arneill says. "It allows artists to really explore something and challenge the public."

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