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In Mullinville, Kansas, Artist M.T. Liggett's Work Continues To Spark Debate

Art can inspire, motivate and educate.

It also can lead to — let’s say — a good debate.

That’s certainly the case with M.T. Liggett’s sculptures, which, like the artist himself, inspire widely differing opinions.

Liggett’s collection of metal sculptures line U.S. 400 along the edge of his property, just west of Mullinville. You can see them easily while driving by.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW
Longtime photojournalist Larry Hatteberg became friends with M.T. Liggett over the years. "I think I was kind of an anomaly," he says.

But if you pull over and look closely, it’s evident that Liggett had opinions about things — and they weren’t always complimentary.

Larry Hatteberg, a retired photojournalist and former anchor at KAKE-TV, became one of the trustees of Liggett’s estate when Liggett died in 2017.

Hatteberg says Liggett disliked a lot of people, but there were several he held in high esteem. Hatteberg, it seems, was one of them.

He interviewed Liggett several times for his series, "Hatteberg's People," and, over the years, they became friends.

"I think I was kind of an anomaly," Hatteberg said, "because you either liked M.T. Liggett, or you didn’t. And he was the same way: If he liked you, you were gold, and if he didn’t, you weren’t."

Credit Courtesy Larry Hatteberg
M.T. Liggett in his workshop.

Myron Thomas Liggett — known throughout his life as "M.T." — had a fascinating life, according to Hatteberg. Liggett joined the Navy in 1947, the Air Force in 1957 and also earned a law degree, Hatteberg said.

And Liggett had thoughts on the world and the people in charge of it. When he returned to the property in Mullinville in the mid-1980s, he began turning those thoughts into art.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW
The sculptures, or "totems," depict politicians, figures from Greek mythology, opera figures and pop culture.

As you walk along the row of sculptures — or totems, as they’re called — it’s easy to see the people Liggett didn’t like: politicians, judges, the town of Mullinville itself, with which he had a long-standing feud.

Hillary Clinton is there, along with Laura Bush — both portrayed with swastikas — and George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves and the Kansas State Board of Education.

Hatteberg says Liggett didn’t align with either side, politically.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW

"I mean, he wasn’t a Republican, he wasn’t a Democrat because he went after both of them," he said. "So it’s hard to put his art in a political arena because many times he just didn’t like any party."

Hatteberg is part of an effort to preserve Liggett’s legacy and make his artwork available for future generations. The trustees contacted the Kohler Foundation, an organization that supports the arts and education, about preserving the estate.

Terri Yoho is the preservation director for the Kohler Foundation, based in Kohler, Wisconsin.

"The Foundation has focused on artist-built environments and the work of self-taught artists since the '70s," she said. "It’s important to save this kind of work — sometimes whimsical, colorful; sometimes provocative. This is the kind of art that tends to inspire and motivate."

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW
A sculpture depicts journalist Larry Hatteberg as a "noozhound."

Not all of the pieces carry an acerbic message. There are totems of opera figures, Greek mythology and pop culture. There’s one of Hatteberg portrayed as a "newshound."

Some of the totems have moving parts — whirligigs that spin in the prairie breeze. Others incorporate road signs or bright glass bottles. Many are unnamed.

Hatteberg says Liggett never went into detail about his art.

"His life, in many ways, is a mystery," Hatteberg said. "We will never know exactly what he thought about. And that’s too bad."

While we may never know what was behind all of Liggett’s artwork, the collection will be preserved. The Kohler Foundation is creating the M. T. Liggett Art Environment on the property, an ambitious conservation project that will include a visitor’s center, nature paths across the rolling prairie, and perhaps an artist’s residence with workshops.

"We’re very pleased it can be preserved where he built it," said Yolo. "It’s always the goal to preserve in situ.

Credit Lu Anne Stephens / KMUW
A visitor's center is being built on the property, part of the future "M.T. Liggett Art Environment."

"The art will be stabilized and restored. There are pieces in other locations that will be brought to the main property to make it easier for people to see the collection."

Once completed — perhaps by the end of the year — the Kohler Foundation will gift the M.T. Liggett Art Environment to the 5-4-7 Arts Center in Greensburg, which will be the steward of the site.

Hatteberg is pleased with the project.

"In many cases, an artist’s work like M.T.’s is never saved cause there’s no interest in saving it, there’s no money to save it," he said.

"But now, this folk art is going to be saved. And I think that is the best thing of all. To have someone from Kansas who did this unique, totem pole-like art, and left it for everybody to see, I think that’s great."

Hidden Kansas is a part of KMUW's weekly show, The Range