The Art of Sammy Landers

(This essay originally appeared on the Mid-America Mural Project blog in 2013.

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There is one more story (and one more mural) to share about our project in Arkadelphia. Early during our visit there, while we were still trying to untangle the mysteries of what kudzu covered beasts lurked behind our temporary home, and the many shaded meanings embodied in the common phrase ‘bless your heart,’ we were introduced to the remarkable artwork of Sammy Landers. Jane Lucas, Executive Director of Group Living Inc., took us on a tour of Landers' work displayed downtown, including a quick stop to meet the artist himself and a peek at an archive of his drawings from the last twenty years.

Sammy Landers

Sammy Landers

Sammy, who has autism, has been a client at Group Living and the Arkadelphia Human Development Center for most of his life. He doesn't like to talk much so Mariela Crockett, who works with Sammy, was kind enough to share some of his background. She said that Sammy came to Arkadelphia as a teenager from his home in Hughes, Arkansas. While he still had family there, Sammy would make periodic visits home, returning with incredible drawings that people started to take notice of.

Landers’ best-known works are instantly recognizable, boldly stylized, and beautifully colored drawings that defy easy categorization. Often depicting pairs of fantastic figures with symmetrical features and elaborate outfits, they look at once like cousins to Transformers and iconic figures from an unknown ancient culture. After a 1997 tornado partially destroyed the apartment he was living in, the figures pretty much disappeared and he became focused on highly detailed renderings of buildings.

Made on common sketch-pad paper, his drawings are tightly rendered using drafting tools, colored with carefully applied layers of crayon and then scrapped through to create deep and luminous textures. Viewing dozens of Sammy’s drawings laid out next to each other in the Group Living offices, I started to see the many characters as the cast of a grand costume drama, maybe a fable, where a young boy and girl encounter a series of trials along an epic journey.

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I was inspired by Sammy’s work and I wondered how we might shine a light on it for the broader community to enjoy. During our stay, I talked with Jane and Mariela about how to do this. Sammy had had exhibitions and many people owned his drawings, but there were many more who were unaware of his art. What if we were to reproduce one of his drawings as a small mural outside of his studio on Main Street, I asked. Would he like that? Yes! he would be thrilled, they said.

It was difficult for us to decide which drawing to recreate. There were hundreds, including his characteristic figures, buildings, and even a few landscapes with ‘okra trees’ as they’ve come to be known. In the end, we chose a drawing hanging in the Group Living offices that showed a family of four figures as opposed to his usual pairs, including one with an umbrella that people have come to refer to as Sammy’s “Mary Poppins.” This drawing also had an uncharacteristically well-developed background made from an interlaced pattern of colored shapes – perfect for a mural.

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As the outline of the mural started to go up, we asked Sammy to come out and have a look. He recognized it immediately as his work and said emphatically “Keep it there.” With that clear approval, we went into overdrive to finish it in the day and a half we had left in town.

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Long story short, Arkadelphia has two new murals, one a community-wide project and the other, just down the street, in appreciation of the great Sammy Landers.

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Benefit for the "Celebration of Cultures" mural

It’s been twenty-four years since the “Celebration of Cultures” mural was created in the breezeway between the Antique Mall and Ernst and Sons Hardware, and this summer, we’re going to give it a fresh coat of paint and varnish. You can help by coming by to help paint in July and/or by donating to the “Buy a Block” benefit on-line or this Final Friday at my studio (411 East 9th St.) where each donor of $20 or more will receive a block form the original “Pollinators” mural!

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A hub for who?

The Farmers Market. That’s the answer. It’s the perfect spot at the southern entryway to downtown, across the street from South Park and adjacent to two of our most important civic institutions, the Watkins Museum of History and the Douglas County Courthouse. With the addition of Farmers Market at 11th & Mass., in the space where the old A & P grocery store and Allen Press used to be, we would have a remarkable place at the intersection of local food, history and civic participation. A hub for the whole community.

A & P Grocery store at 11th & Massachusetts

A & P Grocery store at 11th & Massachusetts

I realized that this dream was shared when I visited an open house for Farmers Market held at the Carnegie building last month. Among the displays from area producers was a wall of beautifully rendered architectural views of a new multi-use public space at 11th & Mass. designed with a permanent home for Farmers Market. The solution we hadn’t imagined.

The Allen family would become local heroes for seeing the civic potential of this place and selling the land to the City, and maybe the new Market could carry the Allen name in appreciation of their visionary gift.

Or…

Or, we could get the other HUB, one catering to luxury living only for those who can afford it, a parking nightmare and a blot on our most vibrant and historic civic intersection.

Imagine.

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Tribute to Jack Ozegovic

It was with a heavy heart that I learned of my friend Jack Ozegovic’s (and his wife Ann Carlin Ozegovic’s) passing last month. I was lucky to have known Jack for more than twenty-five years. We met by chance in 1992 at the Lawrence Lithography Workshop, in the space that John Brown’s Underground occupies now. Jack had received a grant to work with Master Printer Mike Sims and I was one of Mike’s slickers (assistants), a work-study job I had while floundering in the MFA program at KU.

Jack in his home studio on Arkansas Street

Jack in his home studio on Arkansas Street

Angled over a chunk of limestone, looking more than a little like Ernest Hemingway, the print he was working on was one in his Great God Automobile series. It was a tightly composed maze of primary colored symbols alluding to our worship of car culture, and was energetic like board game with a twist of social commentary, his take on the idea of human “progress.”  A true modernist, as longtime art writer Leslie Von Holten called him in her remembrance, skilled at re-contextualizing the cultural icons we take for granted, he also made beautiful landscapes, was a hardcore cross-country skier and wrote a sweet book of essays about his earlier life as a professor and winemaker in Michigan.

After that meeting at the lithography shop, Jack and I ran into each other now and then at coffee shops or art openings over the years, until 2009 when I had the thrill of curating a retrospective of his work at the newly opened Percolator. The response was incredible. A packed house for the opening with more visitors and sales than I think the Percolator had ever seen for a show. Jack was blown away. And it was during the run of his show that we started our regular lunch hangouts.

Often we’d meet a La Parilla, where over quesadillas (and occasionally tequila…) we’d talk art and politics. I deeply appreciated his perspective and wisdom. I never told him as much, but he was a true mentor, someone who freely shared his knowledge and experience and didn’t spare his opinions. His faith in art and belief in humor to weaken the powerful helped give me the confidence to double down on the time I spent making radical posters for social movements.

When we talked politics, and in the last six years it was often about the tyranny in Topeka, Jack often referenced his Croatian background and how that had made him a keen watcher and sharp critic of despots, demagogues, and dictators be they human or machine. Jack also walked the talk. He marched, he wrote letters to editor, and once at a mock funeral for the arts at the state Capitol he offered to be the first to get arrested by the police, since he was oldest, he said.

Jack and his wife Ann on the right awaiting the capitol police

Jack and his wife Ann on the right awaiting the capitol police

He was a passionate supporter of our local arts community, participated in countless benefit shows, collaborated with folks like Dave Van Hee on wild creations, was a regular at final Fridays and always went with Ann to see what was new at the Nelson in KC. He was hungry for art and was thrilled when he discovered an artist he didn’t know, especially a young person.

Here’s a quick email he sent to me awhile back, “Have you seen the elementary kids art show at LAC? Some pretty wild things are there.  I was really jolted by it all.  Cheers, Jack O.”

My thoughts go out to Jack and Ann’s friends and family.

Jack at the Percolator

Jack at the Percolator

New Posters available!

There’s still time to get these new posters delivered before Christmas! Find them all in my website shop. Also available as postcards.

“Galaxia y la Culebara” detail, 2018, Iowa City, IA

“Galaxia y la Culebara” detail, 2018, Iowa City, IA

“Return of the Pollinators” detail, 2017, Lawrence, KS

“Return of the Pollinators” detail, 2017, Lawrence, KS

“Justicia Para Las Madres Inmigrantes,” with Connie Fiorella Fitzpatrick, 2018, Wichita, KS

“Justicia Para Las Madres Inmigrantes,” with Connie Fiorella Fitzpatrick, 2018, Wichita, KS

Everything Connects to Everything Else

Thirteen years ago students at Lawrence’s Century School imagined making a mural in the empty lot behind their building. Led by a first year teacher, Tim Holtzclaw, they dove in. They studied Diego Rivera and John Steuart Curry. They visited murals in Lawrence and learned about the technical process. Then they researched, discussed ideas and drew,  eventually landing on the theme “Everything Connects to Everything Else.” In addition to art, this semester long community project took students out of the classroom and into the world of land ownership, liability insurance and eventually civics at the City Commission chambers where they had to fight for permission to paint.

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Parents expressed how impactful the project was in a newspaper guest column where they said, "This, more than anything else, is the gift that Century School has given the Lawrence community: children who see themselves as part of, and as connected to, all that surround them."

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Over the years the mural has been the backdrop for a community garden and more recently a small apple apple orchard. It’s been admired by thousands, but won’t be for much longer. Former city commissioner Bob Schumm owns the property just to the north and will break ground on a new apartment building (including a condo for himself on the top floor) that will cover the mural. (UPDATE as of August 1, 2018 - Developer gives up on idea for five-story condo.)

That’s why the mural artists (many in their twenties now) and their teacher Mr. Holtzclaw are having a reunion to celebrate. It’s tomorrow at 5pm at the mural, at 815 Vermont Street. The mural still looks fantastic even without any touch-ups, and the theme couldn’t be more relevant.  Go see for yourself while it’s still there.

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The Percolator turns 10!

It's the tenth anniversary of Lawrence's grass-roots, home-brewed, free-range art space. The Percolator! Whoa, how time flies. I remember the moment Christina Hoxie suggested we were more than an incubator (like the one in Kansas City), we percolated and dubbed our rag-tag crew the Percolator. There is a great show (opening Friday June 29th) and special events to mark the anniversary detailed here. To spark collective memory here are some of the early show posters. The first two, The Ex-Show and Bikes or Art?, are from the very early days when the Perco was still based in my studio. Enjoy!

Creating Counterparts documentary film

During the course of the 1999-2000 school year, two groups of high school students, one from Holcomb, Missouri population 531 and the other from New York City population 10,000,000, worked together to create a mural about their perceptions of one another and the communities they lived in.

With school in session and more than 1000 miles between them, it was impossible for the two groups to work in the same physical space. The students overcame these obstacles guided by an innovative curriculum I developed with Baruch College Education Professor Sandra Stein that harnessed new computer technology to bridge the physical distance between them and make their collaboration possible.

After eight months of work, the completed mural titled “Counterparts” debuted in New York to a huge reception including, by a miracle of grassroots fundraising, all of the mural team members from both schools.

Creating Counterparts follows this story from the first workshops in both Holcomb and New York where students revealed their guarded perceptions of each other from 1000 miles away, to a serious conversation eleven months later about tolerance and faith, that took place, in South Eastern Missouri.

The film celebrates the capacity of art and technology projects to open doorways and challenge our perceptions. It also shows how this particular project was realized in the hope that others will be inspired to envision their own ways of bridging the divides that separate us.

Watch the entire film here.

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Who will speak for the trees?

One of East Lawrence's oldest residents has become the latest victim to gentrification. Yesterday this magnificent tree just north of the Wishing Bench was cut down. (For more about this tree, check out my March 28th post on the "Man!!! Look at This Thing I Saw in a Lawrence, Kansas Alley" Facebook page.)

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This is not the first elder tree to lose out to developers. In 1989, activists fought to protect a stand of cottonwoods where the (failed) Riverfront Mall now stands. And in 2003 there was a heated battle between developers of the Hobbs-Taylor building and a coalition of neighbors and activists about the fate of giant elm near the corner of 8th & Rhode Island.

        "Save the Tree" at 8th & Rhode Island, 2003

        "Save the Tree" at 8th & Rhode Island, 2003

Developers claimed that the tree was dying anyway, was dangerous and would cost too much to save. Sound familiar? Folks hoping to save the tree rallied, made t-shirts, brought in the media and eventually set-up an encampment around the tree to ensure it wouldn't be cut-down by surprise. A mural on the south side of Cottins Hardware by Ardys Ramberg and Missy McCoy memorializes the tree and the fight to save it.

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There are other trees, regular everyday trees that don't have advocates like the elders. They disappear daily at the whim of property owners, utility companies and the occasional big wind. One of these anonymous trees was in the line of sight looking out the window of the Lawrence Percolator in 2009 (before the Marriott). For the exhibition, "Trees I Have Known," I created the "Illuminated Nearby Tree," which functioned as a template for people to recount their memories of trees by writing short stories within the illuminated branches. Before the show was over, the tree it was based on was gone too, a inconvenience to builders of the new apartment building and fitness club.

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