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Archive for Sunday, May 25, 2008

Guiding light

Sculpture aims to attract visitors to small museum

Elizabeth Hatchett, organizer of a competition to create a new sculpture at the Wakarusa Valley Heritage Museum site, left, and museum director Martha Parker, right, view a historic windmill in this file photo. Stephen Johnson won the competition and will use the windmill in a new piece of art.

Elizabeth Hatchett, organizer of a competition to create a new sculpture at the Wakarusa Valley Heritage Museum site, left, and museum director Martha Parker, right, view a historic windmill in this file photo. Stephen Johnson won the competition and will use the windmill in a new piece of art.

May 25, 2008

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'Freedom's Light'

A look at the four entries vying to become a permanent sculpture at the Wakarusa Valley Heritage Museum. Enlarge video

Wakarusa Valley Heritage Museum

Hours: 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, or by appointment by calling 748-9836. Additionally, the museum will be open Monday afternoon for Memorial Day.

Directions from Lawrence: Take Sixth Street (North 1600 Road) west to Stull and turn south on East 250 Road, which becomes East 251 Diagonal Road. Turn left at North 851 Diagonal Road, which then becomes East 550 Road. Turn right at North 1190 Road, then follow the signs at Bloomington Park East to the museum.

Dedication event: The museum will be rededicated with an event beginning at 6:30 p.m. June 21. The winner of the sculpture competition will be announced during the rededication.

A few steps away from the Wakarusa Valley Heritage Museum, where deer tromp near the western banks of Clinton Lake, lies a reminder of what once was here.

Stand in just the right spot, and you can see two perfect lines of walnut trees. Between them, nothing is growing.

Decades ago, those trees lined the main street for the town of Bloomington - a town with a rich Underground Railroad heritage, and one that saw its demise when the man-made waters of Clinton Lake flooded the valley in the 1970s.

It's a subtle reminder of what used to be in the Wakarusa River Valley, where 10 small communities once thrived and lived racially integrated decades before the big cities caught up.

The history of this area takes more than a few minutes to explain. That makes it even more difficult to tell that history in a piece of art.

But that was the challenge offered to artists late last year. The prize: a $35,000 commission to build a sculpture near the museum.

The parameters:

¢ The piece had to tell the area's history.

¢ It had to include a 35-foot, 80-year-old frame of a windmill donated by the late Tensie Oldfather, the prolific Lawrence philanthropist.

¢ It had to reflect the idea of light, since candles and the North Star were among the symbols associated with the Underground Railroad. In fact, the name of the project is "Freedom's Light."

"We wanted it to be symbolic of a lot of different things," says Martha Parker, the museum's director who grew up in the area and, because of her dedication to its history, has actually become a part of its history.

"It had to be symbolic of the Underground Railroad. It had to be symbolic of the communities affected by the lake. ... It was all the history of this area."

Proposed works

Those parameters made the project especially challenging for prospective artists.

"When I first heard about it, I passed it up," says John Hachmeister, an associate professor of art at Kansas University. "I didn't apply - it seemed like the parameters were so difficult."

But ultimately, Hachmeister and nine other artists decided to throw their hat in the ring. Those 10 entries were recently narrowed to four finalists.

The finalists were:

¢ Hachmeister, whose design is an obelisk built around the windmill frame. The design is made of galvanized steel with glass panels saying, "Be Safe, Be Strong, Be Kind, Live Free," a phrase he says was inspired by the writings of Langston Hughes. The glass would be illuminated with internal lights at night.

¢ Walt Hull, a Lawrence blacksmith, whose work includes two iron hands reaching up toward the top of the tower, which would reflect light during the day and project it through an LED lamp at night.

"We've got a light which beckons," Hull says. "The obvious thing to do was to put something there to beckon to it, some sort of gestural or postural notion of the human figure."

He says the piece represents escaped slaves reaching for freedom, and he included a piece of chain and broken shackling at its base.

¢ Lawrence artist Stephen Johnson's proposal includes 10 circular hoops interspersed on the lawn around the windmill, to represent the communities that once filled the Wakarusa River Valley.

He notes that he doesn't want to restore or alter the windmill much, leaving it to represent the area's history.

"The open tower represents democracy," he says. "But it's also playful - kids can dive through (the hoops). There's an entertaining feature as well."

¢ Erika Nelson, a Lucas artist known for her traveling "World's Largest Collection of the World's Smallest Version of the World's Largest Things," decided to tell the story in a more literal way. Her proposed structure has a stone base and four sides that tell the story of the valley - the landscape, for American Indian heritage; a log cabin, for pioneer settlers; a larger building, representing civic and religious structures of the area; and a brick structure being covered by water, to represent the lake's creation.

The winning proposal will be announced during an event June 21 at the museum.

Museum's future

The Wakarusa Valley Heritage Museum is housed in an old milk shed in the lake's Bloomington Park. In a small space with rotating exhibits, it attempts to tell the story of the valley - from the American Indians forced to leave, to early settlers and the Underground Railroad, to the black settlers to came later, to the demise of the communities when Clinton Lake was created.

Parker and her board of directors, whose museum is part of the regional Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area, are hoping to raise around $400,000 to build a new 5,000-square-foot museum to display all of the museum's exhibits, many of which are in storage because of the current museum's small space.

The sculpture's location, both near that old Bloomington road and atop of a hill that easily overlooks KU, provides a perfect location to see past and present. Parker is hoping for a telescope a both locations, to see both the light representing the past, and the university representing the area's tomorrow.

And Parker hopes the sculpture, which should be done within a year, will help bring attention to the museum.

"We're hoping a lot of people will be curious - they'll be curious when they see it," Parker says. "And then, they'll want to come into the museum to see it."

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