In search of grassroots art? Try Lucas
Take in all the sights with a stroll through the “Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas."
Lucas is a town that thinks differently, which helps explain its quirky art and personalities.
Its two-block downtown is filled with art, from its trash cans to its light posts. Forks sticking in the ground are "fork art."
And in its public restroom, which looks like a giant toilet.
This type of art is known as grassroots art – and it's a thing in Kansas.
Kansas is rated among the top three states in the nation for producing grassroots artists, just behind California and Wisconsin,
Grassroots artists usually work within a variety of genres and media. Called "folk art," "grassroots art," "trash art" and even "raw art," the artwork these people create is often collectible.
And, Lucas – a town of less than 400 people in Russell County -- is the Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas.
"One of the things about art and rural communities is the people who are making it don't often call it art," said Erika Nelson, an artist, educator and outdoor arts preservationist.
Grassroots art is Nelson's passion, and it's what brought her to Lucas.
"When I found Lucas, nobody called it an art town from inside of it," she said. "It just happened to be a place where people make things out of what they have with the skills that they have, without regard for what anybody else thinks of it."
For the past 20 years, she's lived next to the town's best-known attraction: S.P. Dinsmore's Garden of Eden, an over-the-top sculpture display. It is one of Kansas's oldest folk art sites.
In Lucas, art has been made from discarded Barbie Dolls, bubble gum, limestone, Milk of Magnesia bottles and Portland cement.
The town celebrates art made by ordinary people.
"The rules of traditional art-making don't always apply," Nelson said. "For instance, at the Grassroots Art Center, there is one display from the Kansas Grassroots artist Betty Milliken, who made cameo portraits out of bubblegum. It is a common material used in a very uncommon way.
"She kept doing it and doing it until she was really good at it. But … art galleries probably wouldn't show it because … it's gum."
Think about S.P. Dinsmore, the Civil War veteran who created the "Garden of Eden" at the turn of the 20th century out of cement.
"He wasn't calling himself an artist," Nelson said. "He was a populist politician, and he used his artwork as a way to get the word out. So, he created three-story concrete sculptures – some of the first of their kind."
Lately, Nelson has worked for the nationally known Kohler Foundation, which helps preserve and restore outside art throughout the United States. Most recently, she has helped restore some of Dinsmore's Garden of Eden; Roy and Clara Miller's Park in Lucas, a collection of rocks and shells embedded in concrete sculptures, and M.T. Liggett's whirligigs and sculptures in Mullinville.
But beyond the art in Lucas, Nelson said there are also great shops, businesses and galleries to explore.
"Brant's Meat Market is two doors down, which is a fourth-generation traditional Czechoslovakian meat market," Nelson said in describing her hometown. "Right across the street is the Lucas Community Theatre, which shows first-run movies.
"The Grassroots Art Center is on one side of the street and directly opposite I have my own roadside Sideshow Expo that houses the World's Largest Collection of the World's Largest Things all in two blocks."
So, it's no surprise then that town's public restroom project, known as Bowl Plaza, also is as eccentric as the town.
"This is an older town so not every business wanted tourists using their restrooms … so Bowl Plaza is our seven-day-a-week public restroom," Nelson said. "It was decided that it couldn't just be a normal bathroom, it needed to be something that said Lucas inside and out."
The giant bathroom includes elaborate mosaics, sculptures and a little bit of everything else.
In 2014, the Bowl Plaza was selected as one of the finalists in the "Top 10" best restrooms in the nation. In a contest where people could vote for their favorite restroom, the only public restroom in Lucas quickly rose to the top.
How did it fare in a national contest?
"In a bathroom competition, I think it is just as good as being Number One," Nelson said. "We are Number Two."