Kansas roadside artist M.T. Liggett dies at 86

M.T. Liggett for making totems out of scrap metal since 1989 and posting them along his fence on U.S. 400 near Mullinville. Liggett died Thursday.
M.T. Liggett for making totems out of scrap metal since 1989 and posting them along his fence on U.S. 400 near Mullinville. Liggett died Thursday. The Wichita Eagle

One of Kansas’ best and most prolific grassroots artists has died.

M.T. Liggett, known for his quirky, metal art that clustered along the fence lines of his pasture along the outskirts of Mullinville in Kiowa County, died Thursday. He was 86.

“He was an icon,” said Rosalyn Schultz, director of the Grassroots Art Center in Lucas. “He was politically outspoken and not too many people are as visual in their statements as he was about local, county, state and national elections.”

Mr. Liggett’s welded metal signs and whirligig artwork began showing up on his land in the late 1980s.

“He once said that politicians can’t help themselves,” Schultz said. “They put their foot in their mouth all the time.”

Mr. Liggett was born Dec. 28, 1930. He grew up on his family’s farm near Mullinville. He was a graduate of Mullinville High School, attended Dodge City Community College and the University of Texas, majoring in political science. He wanted to study law, according to biographical records of Mr. Liggett at the Grassroots Art Center.

He 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.

In recent years, Mr. Liggett’s health had declined and he had, for a time, lived at Fort Dodge Veterans’ Home, Schultz said.

“He would not have been a happy camper to have lingered much longer,” Schultz said.

Mr. Liggett called his work and what he did “Disco Art Works, Manufacturer of Political Statement Totem Poles.”

His pieces offered commentary on politicians, local shenanigans and other events. Mr. Liggett’s signs featured seven languages and references to Shakespeare and the conquering of the Aztecs.

When it came to his political signs, Mr. Liggett leaned more toward being conservative. Government intrusion into almost every aspect of American life forced him to become conservative, he told an Eagle reporter in 1994.

In 2001, The Eagle reported that as many as 100 vehicles a day pulled onto the paved shoulder of either U.S. 400 or U.S. 54 to gawk and take pictures of his artwork, and that concerned local and state officials. After reviewing traffic patterns next to Mr. Liggett’s land, the Kansas Department of Transportation decided to install “emergency parking only” signs there.

He could be a curmudgeon, feisty and independent. Folks in Mullinville, a town with less than 300 people, would at times roll their eyes at Mr. Liggett. He was barred from the local cafe more than once because managers found his antics irritating, The Eagle reported in 2001.

But his artwork — eclectic though it was — was considered inspired, gaining him and Kansas fame in the art world.

The Grassroots Art Center in Lucas has nearly 40 pieces of his work, Schultz said. And a trust has been created to make sure the artwork is preserved.

“He was of the same nature as S.P. Dinsmore,” Schultz said of the famed-grassroots artist in Lucas who created the “Garden of Eden” sculptures from concrete.

In fall of 2013, Mr. Liggett was featured on the History Channel’s “American Pickers.”

M.T. Liggett told The Eagle he acted like himself when TV cameras came rolling into Mullinville.

“I'm sure there are going to be a lot of bleeps,” he said.

And there were.

The show billed him as an American folk artist and the show’s team, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, called it one of their best.

According to the channel’s website, “Mike and Frank meet an octogenarian artist whose collection includes a shrine to each of his six ex-wives and every other woman he’s ever been with. Picking a fellow picker, the guys visit a sprawling junkyard that’s packed with rusty gold.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner