A major restoration project being funded by the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation will cement M.T. Liggett’s legacy as a significant grassroots artist. But after years of fraught relationships between the unapologetic provocateur and Mullinville residents, it’s the community that might end up winning in the end.
For more than three decades, the artwork on the edges of the small southwest Kansas town of Mullinville has been known for its quirky, zany and sometimes politically incorrect bluntness – just the way its creator, M.T. Liggett, intended.
He was a “poker,” says friend Erika Nelson, independent artist, educator and director of the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things, a mobile museum based in Lucas. But lately she is one of six artists who are part of a restoration crew working to restore the late Liggett’s artwork. He died in 2017 at age 86. The New York Times, in its obituary of Liggett, called him an art provocateur.
“M.T. built up a persona,” Nelson says. “He liked to poke people. If he found something that could make you stop or burst your bubble, he would do it.
“It’s kind of like going to the Home of the Throwed Rolls – you expect at some point to get bread thrown at your head,” says Nelson, referencing the slogan of Lambert’s, a chain of southern restaurants known for the Nolan Ryan-esque bread delivery system employed by servers.
“That’s what you go for. He was a poker and loved to push you out of your comfort zone.”
Now a preservation process will keep Liggett’s work intact to provoke future generations. The process began in April 2019, funded and directed by the Wisconsin based Kohler Foundation.
Yes, it’s the same family whose company is primarily known for its plumbing products. The foundation preserves art environments on a national basis and has already helped preserve two other grassroots art projects in Kansas – both were located in Lucas – Samuel P. Dinsmore’s Garden of Eden and Roy and Clara Miller’s Park, a collection of rocks and shell sculptures embedded in concrete.
The foundation takes a special interest in preserving art environments, folk architecture and collections by self-taught artists and has preserved sites throughout the nation. It purchases the sites, restores them, then gifts them back to the communities.
“They hire some locals, so the restoration knowledge stays in town,” says Nelson, who worked on Kohler’s efforts in Lucas. “Once they gift the property back, there is somebody there who knows what went on and knows how to take care of it.”
The efforts will further cement Liggett’s complicated association with Mullinville, whose residents must now reckon with being a permanent cultural attraction courtesy of a man who could be a thorn in the side.
“M.T. could be a handful, and that’s putting it mildly,” says Mullinville Mayor Andy Kimble. “If you grew up in a small town, there is always that one. And he was that one, times 10.”
Indeed, not everyone agrees that Liggett’s work is even worth preserving, Kimble says.
“There are some that still feel that way and that they are wasting their time doing what they are doing.”
Yet the project represents a huge investment in the community, and sentiments are adapting in some quarters as the work begins to foster new interpretations about Liggett’s legacy.
Being a private family foundation, the Kohler Foundation does not divulge the dollar amount of its restoration work. Representatives from the foundation have not responded to email requests about their latest Kansas project.
“They do not disclose that,” Nelson says. “But these are usually half a million to a million-dollar restorations. Because this is the only thing that the Kohler Foundation does, they have a certain budget they spend every year. This is what they spend it on – these types of sites.”
The Liggett restoration also includes a studio and visitor center. It will provide space for an artist-in-residence as well as visiting artists to create their own artwork as the preservation of Liggett’s totem poles and whirligigs continues.
“We live in Kansas, where we can get 70 mph winds, so you can’t ever know what is going to break next,” Nelson says. “This will be an interpretive center and will feature M.T.’s life.”
Kimble is among those who doesn’t question the value of what Liggett created. But Mullinville gaining fame for being the home of M.T. Liggett isn’t a comfortable proposition for everyone in town.
“Depends on who you talk to,” Kimble says, “there is still some skepticism. There are some who think he was the greatest thing there was. The run-ins I had with him were on a personal and governmental level. I have always said he was an artist, even though a lot of people thought it was junk-on-a-stick. But he could make things I couldn’t dream of making. So yes, he was an artist. But the way he handled himself personally and with the public, I didn’t agree with that.”
Yet Liggett’s parting gift to the community is an opportunity that many communities across rural Kansas would covet – the chance to have a drawing card that could bring tourism dollars to the community. The community’s population has been on a decades-long slide unlikely to be reversed in the latest census.
Liggett’s totem poles and whirligigs represent an asset for the community to leverage to try to ensure its survival.
“I think it will be a good thing for Mullinville,”
Kimble says. “The mayor side of me knows it will bring in traffic and money through gift shop sales. We have a city sales tax that will also generate income from it.”
Who was M.T. Liggett?
At best, Liggett was called an eccentric curmudgeon.
But he was so much more than that, Nelson says. His wardrobe featured an array of overalls and T-shirts. His hands were perpetually smudged. His language was colorful and not always G-rated.
His palette was life. His interests were a smorgasbord. He loved women, several. His muse, as he aged, was a dance partner he called “the honey-haired enchantress.”
“Outsider art, grassroots art sometimes gets sidelined because it is of the people,” Nelson says.
“We forget how special it is. As a neighbor, you forget how special it is until somebody else comes in and says, ‘Holy crap, that’s awesome!’ And you are like, ‘Oh, (in the case of Lucas’ Garden of Eden) that’s just three-story concrete sculptures about the Populist Party politics at the turn of the last century or (with Liggett’s work), ‘Oh, that’s just a mile of whirligigs.’”
A self-taught artist, Liggett expressed his political views in welded whirligig and totem pole art forms, sometimes cartoonish, garish and bombastic.
Does the Kohler restoration make him more respectable?
“I hope not,” Nelson says. “I hope it is just as pokey when we are done as it was when he started. I think it might elevate the status a little bit – but I hope it is never more respectable. I hope it is exactly what it is – a bunch of welded farm machinery transformed into something amazing.”
Liggett was born Dec. 28, 1930, and 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 at the Grassroots Art Center in Lucas, where some 40 pieces of his artwork are also housed.
He joined the Navy in 1948, and then in 1957, the Air Force. He moved back to his hometown in 1971, then moved to California before returning to Mullinville in 1987.
It was then that he began using his pasture along U.S. Highway 400 to display his sculptures
He called his work “Disco Art Works, Manufacturer of Political Statement Totem Poles.”
Folks in Mullinville, a town with fewer than 300 people, would, at times, roll their eyes at Liggett.
His politically charged signs voiced not only his opinions of politicians and local shenanigans but also world views. Some were in seven languages and made references to Shakespeare and the conquering of the Aztecs. In 2001, when more than 100 vehicles a day were pulling onto the shoulder of U.S. 400 to gawk, the Kansas Department of Transportation installed “emergency parking only” signs.
Among his totem poles and whirligigs, Liggett put up an extremely long, yellow arrow with the words “Stew-Dee-Owe” pointing north from the highway to his shop, where visitors could often find him puttering. His dirt floor studio, a shed razed in 2019, was often a tripping hazard filled with thousands of coffee mugs and potential art materials.
Nearly a year after the restoration process of Liggett’s artwork began in Mullinville, a 2,500- square-foot tourism and visitors center has been constructed in the studio’s place to help tell the story of Liggett’s life and art. A grand opening is expected to take place in July 2021, says Ann Dixson, executive director of the 547 Art Center in nearby Greensburg and project director of the M.T. Liggett Exhibit.
Construction of the center and restoration of the artwork continues in Mullinville, despite the pandemic and weather setbacks. Dixson said the next phase of work is obtaining additional funding – through grants and local money – for interactive exhibits and signage. Some money has come via the Kansas Tourism Division and local tourism and chamber grants.
The main emphasis, though, has been the work and guidance of the Kohler Foundation.
“The Kohler Foundation has just been phenomenal,” Dixson says. “They have been working like crazy on preservation of the artwork itself, on the building, and all the things that it encompasses. They are putting rock around the base of the art, establishing area guidelines for a walking trail. It’s going to be a well-rounded, well done exhibit once it is completed.”
What the Kohler Foundation does, Nelson says, is show “that it is not just the artist that is great but that there is a whole artwork community that looks at things and honors and loves them. Kohler can bring in the resources and show this just isn’t a local person affecting things locally – this is a folk artist that is interacting in this giant community and is valued.”
But life with M.T. Liggett could still be complicated.
‘Still Playing the Game’
Hannah Headrick and her family lived next to Liggett for nearly 30 years.
“Before we got our fence up, he would walk straight through our property,” Headrick says. “It was all little things. I feel like he was trying to tick you off. I feel like he would pull names out of the hat for a day or week to see if he could irritate those whose name he pulled out. Our kids are now grown, but when they were young and we were trying to have sleep time, he would drive by honking his horn. It would be whenever he would come home from Dodge City and it would be midnight or one o’clock in the morning. He would be honking his horn and it would start at the end of the block and come all the way by. There would be occasions when he would drive all around our house, three or five laps just because he knew we were home. It was just things like that.”
But then, things began to change.
“We came to an understanding,” Headrick says. “He was very ill. He called it ‘Jungle Fever.’ It would act up from time to time.”
One of the women at the Mullinville United Methodist Church suggested that he needed meals brought to him.
By then, Liggett had been kicked out of the local café – in fact, had a restraining order against him from entering the premises.
“He was poking at them,” Headrick says. “There were a few water tank trailers he had painted obnoxious, rude things on about the people running the café. That’s just it – he poked at everybody.
“I swallowed my pride and went over and asked him what he needed. I told him I would buy him whatever he wanted from the café. He said to bring him whatever the special was. From then on, we were at least cordial. But when the girls got into high school and were able to go to Europe, he donated money for them to go. He helped fund their trips.
“When he was hospitalized, he called and wanted me to keep an eye on his property. Eventually, we came to be OK with each other.”
Headrick is now on the board of Friends of M.T. And she plans on having a farmers market each week across from the Liggett property.
“He always said he was going to put Mullinville on the map. And, in death, he is,” Headrick says.
“He will roll over in his grave when I have a farmers market across the street and that I am, in turn, making money off of him putting Mullinville on the map.
“That’s what we do, though, we are still playing at the game. … I do miss him from time to time. We had our moments, both good and bad.”
Preservation and Grassroots
Aside from that, grassroots art in Kansas is becoming a thing – and even more so, because of Liggett and others.
Kansas has been rated among the top three states in the nation for producing grassroots artists, just behind California and Wisconsin, according to Rosslyn Schultz, director of the Grassroots Art Center in Lucas. The center has documented more than 108 grassroots artists in Kansas, and more are being added.
Grassroots artists usually work within a variety of genres and media. Called “folk art,” “grassroots art,” “trash art” and even “raw art,” the artwork these people are making is often collectible.
Because of the nature of grassroots art, Schultz says, their artwork is often difficult to preserve and usually dismantled when the artist dies. Her job is to help document their work.
“It is expensive to restore these outdoor environments – with all the freezing and thawing,” Schultz says. “And so, to bring Kohler on board in our small rural communities is wonderful. It is impossible in small communities to restore something like that … unless you have a big granddaddy sitting there. It is a godsend to have Kohler interested. Dollars are hard to come by.”
The artists, usually with no formal training, work intuitively and at their own pace. They are in a sense artist leaders, embodying the idea that anyone can lead, or create art, at any time.
They choose their own genres – working as M.T. Liggett did with scrap metal and a welder; carving limestone with butter knives; expressing their artwork with Barbie Dolls, beer can tabs, gum wrappers or anything else that captures their imagination.
In the case of Liggett, when people began to see what a vast array of artwork he had made, a board of trustees was formed to ensure the nearly 2,000 pieces of whirligig sculptures and other pieces of artwork would be preserved.
Each of the pieces Liggett created and planted on his pasture have been documented.
Without Kohler’s intervention, it’s possible that Liggett’s sculptures would have been lost to the elements or to history. Active preservation went from spring of 2019 until mid-December 2019, when things were halted because of winter weather, Nelson says. The preservation crew began again in earnest in late April.
In a Quonset shed nearby, the most critically-in-need pieces are taken apart, cracks are fixed, broken parts are repaired and then the pieces are touched up for any paint loss.
“We are not bringing it to a new state but to an appropriately aged state,” Nelson says. “We do a coating over the metal and paint so that deterioration will stop where it is, the rust will stop. We are suspending everything in time and putting it back up.”
The majority of work was completed by late fall of 2020.
Stacy Barnes, a former Kiowa County convention and tourism director who’s now the Greensburg city administrator, says her family had long been friends of Liggett’s and often invited him to share Thanksgiving and Easter with them.
“M.T. was proud to be from Mullinville, and I hope this (the visitors center and preservation work) increases the visitation to Mullinville,” she says. “It is a wonderful community. And this is just another attraction and reason to visit.”
- What examples of leadership do you see emerging in this story?
- What is the value of preserving art, which can be subjective?
- What adaptive challenges do you see Mullinville residents facing related to either M.T. Liggitt or their community’s future?
A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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