Arts & Culture

Irritating to some, art to most - Kansas roadside attraction preserved for the future

Two years after his death, M.T. Liggett’s legacy continues to spin, rattle and clink with the Kansas wind in a pasture along Highway 400 on the west end of Mullinville, Kansas.

Since his works began appearing in 1989, Liggett’s artworks have served as a landmark for travelers crossing western Kansas and a source of divisiveness among the locals in Kiowa County, who were often depicted in the “totem” sculptures Liggett welded and bolted together from spare pieces of farm equipment and various scrap metal.

Now, in an attempt to prevent Liggett’s artwork from rusting away in the equally harsh summers and winters of western Kansas, an effort is underway to preserve the sculptures for generations to come. The preservation work will also give visitors passing through a chance to stop and learn more about the art and Liggett himself.

Before his death in August 2017, Liggett formed a trust to oversee the management of his property and artwork. That trust, consisting of four trustees, eventually contacted The Kohler Foundation, a philanthropic organization from Kohler, Wisconsin, that specializes in the preservation of artwork and “art environments.” Earlier this year, the trust handed over the property and artwork to Kohler, which immediately moved in and began the painstaking process of cataloging nearly 1,000 pieces of art and restoring works that have been damaged or heavily weathered.

At least five art restorers working for Kohler have temporarily moved into Kiowa County to work on the project.

It’s not the first time the foundation has worked in Kansas — in 2012 it completed restoration work at the famed Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas.

In addition to the restoration work, the foundation is planning to build a visitors center off of Elm Street in Mullinville, where visitors will have a chance to learn more about the artwork and the gruff old-timer who created it.

“So right now we’re working on stabilizing artwork,” said Terri Yoho, the foundation’s preservation director.

“When this conservation is completed, we are also going to be doing a small visitors center so the story of M.T. Liggett will be told.”

Yoho says the two-story center will essentially be on the footprint of where Liggett had his studio and did his work.

In addition, she said the center would have space for exhibits, programming, workshops and community engagement. A second story could possibly be a living space for an artist in residence.

Tod Alexander, a member of the Mullinville City Council and owner of a local trucking company, is enthusiastic about what the Kohler Foundation plans for the estate.

“I think it’s going to be a positive thing for the community all the way around,” Alexander said.

“We’ll benefit from people being in town.”

Alexander says that some of the hard feelings that had formed in the community over the way individuals were depicted in Liggett’s artwork, along with various political themes, have faded over time.

“He irritated a lot of people,” Alexander said with a laugh.

“When you’re pointing fingers, it can rub people’s feathers the wrong way. But now he’s gone and it’s becoming a little more of an art thing — and people find it a little more humorous and not so much offensive. He had a way of getting his opinion across that was a little, how should I say it… an indirect way of being blunt.”

Yoho made sure those issue were addressed last summer, when she oversaw a July town hall meeting that gave residents of the small farming community a chance to weigh in.

“Locally, it’s been divisive sometimes because of the commentary,” she said.

“But I think what we’re seeing is far more people are in favor of this than are opposed to it.”

“People are very aware that a site like this brings in economic development. People come to see it. When they’re here, they want to eat, they want to shop, they want to stay. So it has a lot of benefit for the local community.”

Yoho said she thinks the visitors center and preservation work will be finished by the end of 2020. When The Kohler Foundation has completed its mission, it will hand the property off to the 5.4.7. Arts Center in Greensburg, which will then manage it and visitors center.

“National, Internationally, this field of art… it’s on the rise in its stature. We don’t want it to simply be a drive-by, or park on the highway,” Yoho said.

“We want people to immerse themselves, and there was a lot of support for that.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect year for Mr. Liggett’s death.

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