Mural already becoming new Lecompton landmark
photo by: Elvyn Jones
Over the last month, a new attraction has taken shape on the wall of a building near Lecompton’s Territorial Capital Museum — a 60-foot-wide mural of an eagle, the Kansas River and some local landmarks past and present.
The mural on the wall of an old gymnasium is the work of Rick Wright, a former resident of Lecompton and the current art director of Lawrence arts-based social service agency Van Go. He’s been painting it since April 23, and it’s gotten plenty of traffic so far. Not only is it visible from the main entrance to the city on Woodson Avenue, it’s also right next to the museum and the old three-story high school that is now the activity hub known as the Lecompton Community Pride Building.
“I’ve had a lot of people stop by,” Wright said. “There’s been a lot of interest from locals, of course, but also a lot of out-of-town visitors. I had one couple from Connecticut who were on a trip visiting historic sites.”
Lecompton Community Pride, the same group that helped save the old high school and convert it into the Lecompton Community Pride Building, raised the money to have the mural painted. And the group’s president, Greg Howard, said it was already attracting the kind of attention the group had hoped for even though it wasn’t finished yet.
“It’s funny,” he said. “People are stopping their cars to look at it. It’s very colorful and very striking.
“It’s coming along nicely,” he added. “We knew that was an ideal place for a mural.”
The mural depicts a bald eagle flying over a panoramic view of the Kansas River, with a mid-19th-century version of Lecompton — or Bald Eagle, as the settlement was first known — on a riverbank hillside. The eagle’s talons grip a banner proclaiming “populi voce nata,” Latin for “born by the voice of the people.” The phrase was the Kansas territorial motto and referred to the unprecedented right of the territory’s citizens to approve the state constitution by popular vote, Wright said.
Between the eagle’s wings and the landscape are large depictions of historical Lecompton landmarks, including Constitution Hall, which was built in 1856. It was in that building that a proslavery convention wrote the so-called Lecompton Constitution, which was ultimately rejected, in 1857. The second building prominently depicted on the mural is the long-gone four-story Rowena Hotel, which was one of seven hotels in the busy Lecompton of the pre-Civil War era. Howard said one traveler at the time described it as the “fanciest hotel west of the Mississippi.”
Lecompton Community Pride’s members decided about a year ago to go ahead with the mural project. Howard said they raised $13,500 for the mural entirely through private donations. They also approached Wright about painting it because of his Lecompton roots — he grew up in Lecompton, and his mother and grandmother still live in the community.
The members of Lecompton Community Pride unanimously selected the design Wright is now painting from the three options he submitted to them.
After graduating from Perry-Lecompton High School, Wright went to the University of Kansas to get a degree in art. He now lives in Kansas City, Mo., and commutes to his job in Lawrence. That schedule didn’t give him much time to visit his hometown — at least until he got the commission for the mural.
Wright said he’s grateful to be involved in the project, and that he’d done plenty of research on the mural’s subject matter at the Territorial Capital Museum, Constitution Hall and the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka.
“It means a lot to me to have grown as an artist and to turn around and give back to my hometown in my professional career and highlight some of Lecompton’s rich history,” he said.
To get the mural to its current state, Wright took a two-week vacation from his job at Van Go to work on it. Many viewers might think the mural is finished, he said, but as its creator, he knows it’s not and is eager to complete its finishing touches. The goal is to have it finished for a formal dedication June 12 during the community’s annual Lecompton Territorial Days, he and Howard said.
After the dedication, Wright will complete a painting of the Lecompton Community Pride Building, which will then be displayed in that building along with a smaller painting of the mural, Howard said.