Wichitan Gary Pendergrass has made the big time in grassroots art.
The retired home remodeler turned grassroots artist now has an exhibit featuring 25 sculptures at the Grassroots Art Center in Lucas. Two of the sculptures were so big, said center director Rossalyn Schultz, that they had to be placed outdoors in the center’s courtyard – which is a very good thing.
After all, Lucas and its 407 residents are home to the “Garden of Eden,” which features the peculiar work of S.P. Dinsmoor. At the turn of the 20th century, Dinsmoor was a retired schoolteacher and Civil War veteran who sculpted 113 tons of concrete into various religious and political figures in his backyard.
In 2008, town residents banded together because there was a need for a public restroom. It took them four years to raise money and design the facility, which is in the shape of a toilet.
And now, Pendergrass can be added to the list of Kansas grassroots artists.
The Pendergrass exhibit opened Saturday and will be among the featured exhibits in Lucas until Oct. 10.
“His work is extra special,” Schultz said on Sunday. “He is overcome by this steampunk art, and he told us ‘punk’ meant ‘attitude.’ His skills from all those years in construction gives him the right touch for putting pieces together. It is extremely well-made, and he always adds a deeper meaning to his art.”
Pendergrass, 71, whose steampunk-style artwork is prominently featured in the 3800 block of West 17th Street in Wichita, creates quirky art out of other people’s throwaway items.
Dragons, Abe Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty, an intergalactic marshal, a bird of hope, steam engines and more decorate his Wichita property, where his Victorian-towered garage dominates the south side of the street.
In the past four years, he has created more than 100 pieces of artwork – some made to stay indoors, others to weather gracefully outdoors.
Grassroots artists usually work within a variety of genres and mediums.
The artists – many with no formal training – work intuitively and at their own pace.
Throughout much of his career, Pendergrass remodeled homes. When he retired, he came across a steampunk hat created by Jack Kellogg of Hatman Jack’s, and something resonated with him.
He tells people to look up steampunk on the internet. It’s science-fiction fantasy evoking the 19th-century Victorian era.
Until a few years ago, he’d never heard of grassroots art.
But four years ago, he began using pieces of throwaway items and shaping them into quirky pieces of art. His media are wood, sheet metal, Styrofoam, plastic, nuts, bolts, ladders and paint – anything that is handy.
He fits the perfect description, Schultz said, of a grassroots artist.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Kansas Grassroots Art Association was headquartered in Lawrence, and members then helped document Kansas as one of the top three states for yard art ornamentation.
By the time the association disbanded in the 1990s, the members – after lengthy research of art in other states – had named Kansas one of the top three places in the nation for the unique artwork, after California and Wisconsin.
“Gary’s creations are fantastical creatures, machines, and vehicles created of metal, wood, laminated Styrofoam and plastic, donated by neighbors, found at garage sales or in dumpsters,” Schultz said in a news release from the Grassroots Art Center.
Schultz said Pendergrass is now one of more than 108 documented grassroots artists in Kansas.
Some of the most famous include Dinsmoor and his “Garden of Eden” and the whirligigs and signs created by M.T. Liggett in Mullinville.
“When I added sheet metal to my medium, I went to doing things outside,” Pendergrass said. “I keep busy.”
On slow days, maybe one or two people will stop by his workshop on West 17th Street. Other days, the pace picks up to five or seven groups. He invites people to stop by.
The artwork “has become my thing,” he said. “I really enjoy the creativity and working from inspiration and – at this point – my wife is OK with it.”
He said on Sunday he is excited Lucas is featuring his art.
“I want to promote their effort,” he said. “That town has tremendous possibilities.”