Art exhibit quietly maps the achievements of Kansas women who ‘lived good lives’

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence artist Liza MacKinnon works in her home studio in central Lawrence. At right and on the wall behind MacKinnon are some of the dresses she's made out of maps in honor of a variety of Kansas women. At left is a figurine of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

From a distance the exhibit wall of the Lawrence Public Library looks like a display wall in a Laura Ashley store — with its neat row of children’s dresses in an array of pastel and floral fabrics.

But get closer and you see that the dresses — meant to honor Kansas women — are made of something far more prosaic: paper maps.

The dress patterns aren’t blossoms and leaves and vines, but interstates, rivers and city streets.

The “paper masquerading as fabric” is an effect that Lawrence artist Liza MacKinnon loves — not just for the “oh, wow” response it elicits in viewers but also for the artistry of it.

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence artist Liza MacKinnon’s dresses made of maps are displayed at the Lawrence Public Library. The show runs through June.

“It’s really hard because paper just will not drape, and trying to make it look like a soft gathering instead of really hard creases, that is a challenge I love,” she says.

The maps are primarily of Kansas, MacKinnon says, featuring the state and its main metropolitan areas — maps that you can buy at just about any gas station. But some have a more microscopic focus, such as the streets of Old West Lawrence depicted in decades-old prints.

“I think they might be from the 1970s or ’80s,” MacKinnon says, “like hand-drawn neighborhood maps for neighborhood planning purposes.”

Why does she use maps?

“Because they’re the most beautiful utilitarian artwork out there,” MacKinnon says, noting that she majored in geography in college and has retained an artist’s appreciation — one senses an adventurer’s too — for the cartographer’s craft.

And why the small size if these dresses are meant to honor women?

First off, “the appeal” of small things, MacKinnon says. But more importantly, an adult-size dress “just wouldn’t work as well” for both practical and aesthetic reasons.

“We’re really fortunate that the state of Kansas is a rectangle — so when I use a map I get to show off all of Kansas. If I had to do a full adult size, I would be using multiple maps, and so then there would be seams … and there’s just a beauty in having it be the same scale as the actual map.”

photo by: Mike Yoder

A dress in Lawrence artist Liza MacKinnon’s exhibit at the Lawrence Public Library is titled “Springtime for Mary” in honor of Mary Patterson Langston, the grandmother of writer Langston Hughes.

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence artist Liza MacKinnon’s dress “Springtime for Mary” features a map of the eastern portions of Lawrence, where Mary Patterson Langston lived with her grandson Langston Hughes.

Each dress in the exhibit, titled “A Kansas Childhood,” honors a Kansas woman, including early suffragists, writers and civil rights pioneers. There’s Hattie Anderson Elliott, an abolitionist and one of Lawrence’s founders who saw Kansas transition from territory to state; Lucy Hobbs Taylor, a suffragist and the first woman to graduate from dental school; Sara Robinson, a writer and Kansas’ first first lady; Susan Shelby Magoffin, one of the first women to travel the Santa Fe Trail; Mary J. “Mamie” Dillard, a teacher who influenced the young Langston Hughes; and many more.

Notably absent are some of Kansas’ most famous women: Amelia Earhart, Hattie McDaniel, Nancy Landon Kassebaum. The omission was intentional, says MacKinnon, who chose to focus less on people who are already well-known and more on people who should be better known — “the quieter people,” as she puts it, “who lived good lives and who in the long run affected our lives.”

Most of the women, from various parts of the state, are from the 19th century, but at least one is alive and well and living in Lawrence: Meg Heriford, owner of Ladybird Diner. MacKinnon chose to honor Heriford after the downtown restaurant owner began offering free bagged lunches to anyone in need, even while her own business was forced to close down during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of MacKinnon’s favorite pieces in the exhibit is an homage to Eva Jessye, an African American choral conductor from Coffeyville who gained prominence during the Harlem Renaissance and who served as the choral trainer for George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”

The Jessye dress was the last one she made before the exhibit opened earlier this spring, and she labored to get the details just right.

“I spent 20 to 25 hours embroidering it,” she says.

Each map dress has various embellishments — painted details, collage work, embroidered hemlines or bodices, a velvet ribbon here and there. Jessye’s dress is fittingly adorned with a panel of colorful songbirds.

The success of the show — a second installment was just added Tuesday after brisk sales of the first — has been a pleasant surprise for MacKinnon.

“People are really connecting,” she says. “They love that (the artwork) is attached to a specific person and they have some kind of connection with that person. And then also they love that it’s maps.” Because the dresses are child-sized and so nostalgia-inducing, a lot of people tell MacKinnon “this is what I wore” or “this is what I put my children in.”

Shawn Reaves, who purchased a dress titled “Midwestern Childhood,” says she bought it for her partner’s birthday as a kind of tribute to the Kansas upbringing both women had. Her partner is a fan of old-time paper dolls, and the diminutive dresses brought that aesthetic to mind. Reaves was touched, she says, by the repurposed map’s instant familiarity, the way it resonated with a feeling of time — and a very special place.

The show “A Kansas Childhood” runs through the end of June at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St. MacKinnon’s art can also be viewed on her website,


photo by: Mike Yoder

In addition to dresses that are designed to be hung on a wall, Lawrence artist Liza MacKinnon is working on a series of free-standing dresses made with maps, photographs and other pieces of paper. Pictured at center in her home studio is one based on the life and legacy of Lucy Hobbs Taylor, the first American woman to earn a doctorate in dental surgery. At right is one that will join the current Lawrence Public Library exhibit.

More about Liza MacKinnon:

The small dresses are an offshoot of MacKinnon’s main work, which is creating three-dimensional costumes representing historic women like Frida Kahlo, Marie Antoinette and Marie Curie — made from maps of Mexico, tax forms and X-ray films, respectively.

Her current day job is at the library, in the interlibrary loan department, but she spends her free time in her studio making art. While the clothing sculptures have been her passion for the past few years, she has been an artist all her life and has worked in various media, including sculpture, jewelry, ceramics, textiles, book-binding and graphic design. Her work has been shown at venues across the country.

MacKinnon grew up in Boulder, Colo., attended the University of Colorado, then spent 20 years in Seattle before heading back east in 2007 to settle in Lawrence, where she has family. In addition to creating her own art, she has spent many years teaching various art classes at the library and at the Lawrence Arts Center.

“It has been a big part of my artistic aesthetic,” she says, “to pass along skills and help people get in touch with their inherent creativity.”


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