Museum leaders tout project to honor black Kansas artists

David Loewenstein, a local muralist, stands by one of his works at Hobbs Park ballfield in East Lawrence. Loewenstein and leaders of the Spencer Museum of Art at Kansas University hope the city will approve a downtown mural project to honor black artists from Kansas, such as Langston Hughes and Gordon Parks.

When it comes to celebrating Harlem, downtown Lawrence might be a great place to do it, according to a group of local art leaders.

Noted Lawrence artist Dave Loewenstein and leaders of the Spencer Museum of Art at Kansas University are working to win city approval for a downtown mural project that would honor several black artists with strong Kansas ties who went on to have famed careers as part of the Harlem art scene.

The mural will be part of a national exhibition sponsored by the Spencer on the work of Aaron Douglas, a Topeka native who became one of the more influential artists in the 1920s and 1930s as part of the Harlem Renaissance art movement. But the mural also likely will include references to Langston Hughes, a Harlem Renaissance poet who was raised in Lawrence, and Gordon Parks, a black photographer, author and film director who was born and raised in Fort Scott.

Loewenstein said the fact Kansas has such strong ties to a bevy of black artists of international renown is something the state “should tout a little bit more.”

“And there would be nothing like a big mural to make the point,” Loewenstein said.

Exactly where the mural would be located is not yet known, Carolyn Chinn Lewis, assistant director at Spencer, said. She said the group was interested in using the northern wall of the city parking garage near Ninth and New Hampshire streets. But she said organizers also were looking at three other locations in downtown. She said that’s because the vacant lot next to the parking garage may have a building constructed on it in future years, which would block the view of the mural.

“We definitely want it downtown, but we want something that will be visible for more than just a year or so,” Lewis said. “We’re looking for a site that is really visible. Something that you don’t have to search out to see.”

Lewis said she couldn’t yet identify the other three locations because she does not have permission from the property owners to do so.

A design for the mural hasn’t yet been completed. Loewenstein said work on the design would begin in July. Painting would begin in August. The work would need to be completed by Sept. 28, when the museum would host a public opening of the Douglas exhibit and a national symposium on his work.

The exhibit, the first retrospective on Douglas, will open in Lawrence but will include stops in Nashville, Tenn., Washington, D.C., and New York.

The mural is designed to last long after the four-month exhibition at the Spencer is completed. Lewis said she hoped it would become a frequent stop for schoolchildren and adults who are looking to learn more about area’s role in cultivating major artistic talents.

“I think it is important for people to realize that this region really is the root of a lot of creative genius,” Lewis said. “I think the mural can be a history lesson for all of us. People will be able to look at it and say, ‘I didn’t know that.'”

The mural project will need to win approval from the city’s Arts Commission. The commission is scheduled to have a discussion about the project at its 7 p.m. meeting April 11 at Fire Station No. 5, 19th Street and Stewart Avenue.