The sun’s eclipse over Kansas was just ending Monday as M.T. Liggett’s funeral was just beginning.
The Minnis Mortuary in Bucklin was packed as people came from across the nation to pay respects to the prairie artist who gained national acclaim for his quirky metal art clustered near fence lines in Kiowa County. Liggett, 86, died Thursday.
“He lives on through his artwork,” said Larry Meeker, a Kansas City banking regulations specialist who grew up on a farm in western Kansas and now serves as one of four trustees charged with preserving Liggett’s artwork.
“The goal … is to preserve his work. We want to find the best way to preserve his artwork into perpetuity.”
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The trustees include Meeker of Lake Quivira near Kansas City; David Snapp, a Dodge City attorney; Lisa Hood, a Bucklin friend of Liggett, and retired KAKE journalist Larry Hatteberg of Wichita.
Preserving hundreds of totem poles and whirligigs on a 20-acre pasture on the outskirts of Mullinville may pose somewhat of a logistical problem, Meeker acknowledged Monday. But having them in one setting is also what makes them so unique, he said.
Meeker, who is chairman of the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, remembers the feeling he had when he first saw the artwork more than two decades ago along the highway between Dodge City and Mullinville.
“It was several hundred of these sculptures,” he said. “It was early in the morning, and I turned up that gravel road that goes up to his farm and I thought of the Indians and what they must have thought seeing the wagon trains traveling coming across the country. It was that impressive.
“The individual pieces are wonderful, but as a collection it is more than the sum of its parts. There is a synergy there.”
Liggett wasn’t at home the first time Meeker stopped in Mullinville, but Meeker was intrigued by a handmade sign Liggett had created on the property:
“Notice to art lovers and scrap salvagers, keep your butts off this property.”
“I thought there’s an invitation to come back if there ever was one,” Meeker said.
“Next time I was in western Kansas, I stopped by and had a long conversation with him and ultimately bought several large totems that I have clustered together in Lake Quivira.”
Known as a grassroots artist, meaning he had no formal art training, Liggett was born Dec. 28, 1930. He grew up on his family’s farm near Mullinville. He was a graduate of Mullinville High School and attended Dodge City Community College and the University of Texas, majoring in political science.
Liggett joined the Navy in 1948, and then, in 1957, the Air Force. He moved back to his hometown in 1971, then to California before returning again to Mullinville in 1987. Liggett began his artwork in the 1980s.
“There was something about his work that separated him from others,” Meeker said. “There are a lot of people who do decorative things out of parts. But there was something about each of his pieces that had a real punch — something that nagged at you and something that made you go back and think — even if you didn’t agree with it.”
Meeker compared Liggett’s artwork to Shakespeare.
“You can learn all the words in a Shakespearean play, but could you and me write one of those plays?” he asked.
“Some people are wired differently. He had a curious mind. He was smart and had a creative component.”