25 years of Seeking Grassroots Art 1995-2020
By Rosslyn Schultz, Executive Director
What a wild and fun adventure the last 25 years have been exploring Kansas and the Midwest discovering self-taught, intuitive, visionary artists! The relationships with these people, their art and stories, photos and videos of their environments will remain a cherished possession throughout my lifetime.
The diversity and differences of each artist is evident in this exhibit “Flying Free.” Yet they are all bound together in the fact that, “It’s in their DNA to create!” It has been an honor to document 121 Kansas and 43 Midwest sites. New self-taught artists and art environment will continue to shine in the coming years. As always, we need your help to identify new sites, so join the Grassroots Art Center scout team.
Ron Alexander - Gypsum, Kansas - 1946-
A self-taught archeologist, botanist, and recycled artist, Ron Alexander, Gypsum, uses all things in nature for his art pieces - bone, stone or driftwood, and even roadside trash.
Dan Beck - Wichita, Kansas - 1949-2020
Limestone Yard Environment
Dan Beck was a laid-back individual and better known as "Local Diety" in Wichita. He brought in thousands of pounds of limestone from area quarries and used his artistic skills to cut, carve, and saw his yard environment into place. His love of vibrant colors can also be seen on the outside and inside of his home. Beck saw totem poles in other yards and wanted to make his different. So he started with a telephone pole, added horns and poker chips to represent wins in debating tournaments, window blinds, and a few miscellaneous items, and his totem was very unique. From his love of rocks, he began to cut, saw, and carve limestone, often adding splashes of color through landscape plantings. He loved to carve in jade and was a prolific painter. Beck was a college champion debater and loved working with school kids.
Bowling Ball Art
"I've been called everything from an artist to a crazy old fool," said Chris Barbee. His home in rural Nowata is located in the northeast corner of Oklahoma, about 20 miles from the Kansas border. Barbee's occupations during his working years were oil field worker and at a print shop. He began dabbling in bowling ball art in the early 1990s, when his wife Carol had a garden in their yard. Instead of decorating it with gazing balls -- which could shatter in Oklahoma weather --, the Barbees used old bowling balls.
Then Carol died. As a tribute, he took the balls -- which numbered maybe a dozen -- and started building a decorative fence along the road. He planned to add to it slowly, buying balls at yard sales. "I figured it'd take two, three years," said Barbee. "Then people seen what I was doing, and the balls starting coming in." He received gifts of bowling balls from all across the US and overseas.
The fence grew longer and longer with each donation, and Barbee finally stopped it at 108 balls -- but by then he had hundreds more. So he decided to use his surplus on other projects. Barbee's yard had about 70 of his bowling ball creations, ranging from single-ball versions of ladybugs and pigs to a large American flag (273 balls) and an Egyptian pyramid (1,015 balls), rosary (59 balls), robot (45 balls), and even king-size billiard table with (bowling) balls.
Barbee's bowling ball house (344 bowling balls, 140 pins), shelters his mini-museum of donated bags, trophies, and other bowling paraphernalia. Goofy bowling towels line the inner walls as insulation. He had "special" balls, which he didn't want to leave out in the weather, were displayed inside; elaborately decorated with themes ranging from SpongeBob Squarepants to "Freedom Isn't Free." Barbee also has a nearly complete collection of bowling balls from every state. He confided that his second wife had been gone for 20 years in 2017, "She would not have allowed me to do the bowling ball yard art if she was alive." This environment closed in September 2019 and was dismantled as Barbee wanted to move to live closer to his children.
Lewis Bennett - Sterling, Kansas - 1934-2014
Lewis Bennett created a metal man wearing a welder's helmet for his signature farm mailbox in the 1960s. He was a welder by trade and had a great sense of humor that spilled over into his art. Some sculptures ornamenting the farm near Sterling were welded and others were silhouette cut-out figures that he displayed on various sheds on his property. His favorite sculpture was a banjo player with strings that actually played.
Claude Belshe - Topeka, Kansas - 1965-
Topeka’s Fireplug Garden was inspired by Claude Belshe’s three dogs that kept tearing up his yard, destroying his plans for a manicured urban lawn. The destruction gave Belshe inspiration to create an alternative to the usual urban yard format while at the same time providing his dogs with a paradise and himself with a newfound passion. Belshe has been quoted as saying that his garden is “redneck yard art." When visiting the then-budding garden in 2007, it was fiercely guarded by two aggressive dogs that kept their paradise strictly off-limits to any unauthorized visitors. At that time, the garden had only forty fireplugs on-site, but over the years it has continued to grow. Belshe noted that a real fireplug collector isn’t considered serious by others in this small fraternity until they have at least 100 hydrants in their collection. Belshe, who has been collecting them for the past ten years, is a true lover of the heavyweight plugs and is now poised to turn the corner from being a mere amateur to the big times as his collection nears its one-hundredth plug. The avid and amicable collector will proudly give anyone interested in visiting his collection a personal tour which, besides being a lesson in plug design and function, includes many personal stories and anecdotes of how he came to acquire each of his specimens. To amass the collection, he has purchased fireplugs online, through garage sales and flea markets, and has been the recipient of donations as word of his collection has spread. Two of the plugs came from a gentleman who, when digging around his front porch, kept hitting a hard metallic object, only to discover that two fireplugs had been buried there. Knowing of the garden, he donated both to Belshe who immediately gave them a new home and a custom paint job.
Charles Berendt - Denver, Colorado - 1932-2014
Charles Berendt of Denver lived a life of creativity in theatre, window display, and home interior design. In his later years, he created stunning visual art pieces of buttons and beads which were featured in interior design magazines and sold across the country. His patterns were inspired by hooked rugs, aboriginal art, sailor's valentines and anything with dots.
Jim Bishop - Rye, Colorado
For nearly 60 years, Jim Bishop has been constructing one of the most impressive monuments to perseverance in Colorado. Bishop Castle is a monumental statue in stone and iron that cries loud testament to the beauty and glory of not only having a dream, but sticking with your dream no matter what, and most importantly, that if you do believe in yourself and strive to maintain that belief, anything can happen! Bishop's Castle is nestled among the pines in the heart of the Rockies. Three full stories of interior rooms complete with a Grand Ballroom, soaring towers and bridges with vistas of a hundred miles, and a Fire-Breathing Dragon make Bishop Castle quite the unforgettable experience! Visitors are always welcome and the castle itself is always open.
Jim Borthwick - Hays, Kansas - 1948-2011
Cloth & Metal
"I can make everything but music," Jim Borthwick said of his animals and yard art out of recycled materials including discarded airplane sail fabric, gas canisters, metal, and wood. Borthwick liked to roam the streets of Hays to rescue the discards of others and fashion them into something new.
Jess Boyce - Phillipsburg, Kansas - 1883-1969
Jess Boyce worked for the Rock Island Railroad as a baggage handler at the train station in Phillipsburg. He created an elaborate miniature village in his yard using bottle caps for shingles and siding on the buildings. The "Boyce Rock Garden" no longer exists, but fortunately was well documented by photographer Bill Clark, who remembers walking past the site as an 8th grader in the late 1930s.
Animated Wood Carvings
Paul Boyer - Belleville, Kansas - 1930-2020
Paul Boyer was a talented, self-taught man residing at Belleville. Boyer loved to tag along with his father while busy at daily tasks. Even at a young age, the boy had a keen interest in watching and trying to figure out just how machines work. Boyer started carving primitive animated figures in junior high school. His "motion machines" are delicate, exquisite, ingenious, animated, playful machines. These mechanical works of art depict everyday life, mainly during the era of the 20th century. The family shows his work at the Boyer Animated Motion Machine Museum at Belleville.
Phil Brinkley - Rose Hill, Kansas
Phil Brinkley grew up as part of an Air Force family, so they moved a lot around the country. When he married Margaret, they eventually planted roots in south-central Kansas. Although working full-time for Boeing Aircraft, Phil's spare time was spent customizing cars and motorcycles for himself and others. Around 1998, he learned to weld from his father-in-law and brother-in-law. That's when the "found art" began. Phil named his yard environment "Jurassic Art." Dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes roam the yard or ride real motorcycles. The focal sculptural scene is a 7-foot-tall knight whose armor was created from shiny chrome car bumpers. The knight wields a sword ready to defend himself against a 20-foot-tall, intricate scaled metal dragon. The yard in Rose Hill is interspersed with life-sized metal creatures from soaring eagles to small scorpions, antique gas pumps, and 5-foot-tall dragonflies.
Concrete Yard Environment
Richard Brown - Hutchinson, Kansas - 1934-2004
The imagination of Richard Brown's "Lost Acre Ranch" is tucked away in the thickets of south-central Kansas. This 19th-century world includes a covered wagon, stagecoach, cement figures, and animals set amidst a barn, log cabin, and blacksmith shop made from demolished buildings and recycled wood. Brown's yard environment evolved over many years and was located on the eastern edge of Hutchinson at a busy intersection. Brown owned and managed rental properties and thus gained many skills that later served him well in creating his environment.
Don Brownlee - Sylvia, Kansas - 1921-1995
House/Yard Organ Pipes
Don Brownlee was a man with a keen architectural sense and was naturally talented. His livelihood was farming. His passions were being a woodcarver, sculptor, musician, inventor, builder, and even fiber artist. Brownlee said, "I have always had a creative urge." After he married Mary Jo in 1957, they moved into his parents' 1912 farmhouse in south-central Kansas near Sylvia. It became his studio and gallery. The yard became a sculpture garden. An 8-foot-tall Greco-Roman limestone cowboy resides in the yard along with abstract sculptures. The Brownlee home is unlike any other in the world. There is a signature Brownlee artwork around every corner and even carved into the woodwork. He brightly painted and decorated over 500 organ pipes that stand vertically in a specifically designed music room, and horizontally on the ceiling in other rooms of the house. Can you just Imagine the surround sound inside and outside his home!