The Wall Street Journal recognizes outsider art in Kansas


These Unknown Sculptors Are Outstanding in Their Fields in Kansas

Odd Art Collections Crop Up Along Midwest Highways; Mr. Liggett’s Ladies



MULLINVILLE, Kan.—Some folks keep journals. Others paste scrapbooks. M.T. Liggett records his life in junk.

The lovers he has wooed, the spats he’s fought, the time he cracked wise to the waitress that it must have taken a green chicken to lay eggs as nasty-looking as those in the buffet: It’s all memorialized in towering sculptures along Highway 400.


Mr. Liggett, who is 79 years old, constructs his carnival of memories from tractor gears, bowling balls, glass bottles, road signs, toilet seats, streetlights, coffee cans, wagon wheels and much more. The sculptures, hundreds of them, whirl and glint and rust in the prairie sun.


It is a startling sight to happen upon while driving through this placid three-block town, population 202. But that’s how Kansas is.


The Kansas landscape tends to lull: Fields and farms. Farms and fields. Here, the silhouettes of grazing cattle; there, an irrigation rig. More fields. More farms. And so on.


But then, in the most unexpected places, along rural highways and quiet country roads, an explosion of color and motion pops from the plains.


An enormous metal dragon, green, with ferocious teeth, roars from the prairie near the tiny town of Lincoln Center in central Kansas. An outsized pair of rusted horses strain to plow a field near Augusta, in southeast Kansas. Just outside Howard, population 760, a giant Snoopy snoozes the day away on a giant red metal doghouse.


This wild menagerie, mostly welded from odds and ends, is the work of self-taught artists who create for fun, then plunk their work out by the highway to catch the eye and shake the senses.


“We’re exhibitionists, I suppose,” says Frank Jensen, 76, a former high-school English teacher who has populated a hillside east of Wichita with dozens of sculptures, including a buff and bristly bison.


“I always wanted to make a splash,” says J.R. Dickerman, 50, who calls his metal babies the Open Range Zoo. “Putting stuff along the highway seemed like a good way to do it.”


In a dozen years of prowling the U.S. for off-the-wall art, producers of the public-TV series “Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations” have come to count on Kansas for a steady stream of footage. Of the 46 states they’ve visited, they say Wisconsin and Kansas top the list for eccentric outdoor galleries.


Perhaps it’s the long winters that inspire creativity in Wisconsin. And in Kansas? The show’s co-producer, Michael Murphy, suggests that maybe Kansans “feel small against that big-sky landscape and it drives them to leave something behind—to say, ‘Hey, I was here.’ “


Kansas artist Erika Nelson serves up less romantic theory: “Nobody expects anything out of Kansas. So that gives you a permission slip to do whatever the hell you want.”


In Mr. Liggett’s case, his oeuvre includes sculpted caricatures of political figures, often in tawdry poses—his caustic commentary on Republicans and Democrats alike. He’s particularly fond of a Bill Clinton he crafted with a padlock welded to his pants zipper. His favorite pieces, however, tell his own story.


Three of his former wives are posed out by the highway, and too many girlfriends to count, including “Jen.” Mr. Liggett has portrayed her as a pearl-draped mouse holding an enticing bit of cheese. But look closer; there’s a steel-jawed trap by her tail. “I don’t need to explain that one, do I?” he says, chortling.


Neighbors are not always amused. “You couldn’t print what I think,” sniffs one woman, who refuses to give her name for fear she’ll be pilloried in scrap metal up on Mr. Liggett’s farm.


“It does take a lot of skill to get some of that so well-balanced,” offers Richard Sherman, who lives nearby. “But he could paint it. That might make it look a little better.”


Burly in his bib overalls, Mr. Liggett pays no heed: “I really don’t care what people think.”


As it happens, the art world has taken notice of his sculptures. The American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore just put six of his pieces on display.


For the most part, though, the sculptors of the Kansas roadside want nothing to do with museums or curators—or even sales. They’re not producing work for recognition or for money. Many laugh at the very idea that they’re artists. This is just something they do.


Jerry Hubbell started welding decades ago, in the spare minutes after he’d fed his cattle and before his hired men arrived to help with the soybean crop. “I’d grab a torch and get busy,” he says. “That was my coffee hour.”


A grandson loved dinosaurs, so Mr. Hubbell built him one from old farm equipment. Another liked Batman, so Mr. Hubbell crafted a spooky-looking action hero atop a motorcycle he’d found abandoned in a ditch.


Next thing he knew, he had quite a collection of brightly painted critters—Hubbell’s Rubble, he called them—set out along Highway 99 near the southeast town of Howard.


“It’s just something that happens,” says Mr. Hubbell, who is 74. “I can’t explain it.”


In fact, his experience explains a lot about the proliferation of roadside art in Kansas.


Farmers tend to be jacks-of-all-trades, skilled at dismantling, assembling and improvising. They keep piles of old parts, even entire barns full of old machinery, on the off chance they’ll come in handy some day.


And they are decidedly not good at being idle. So when they retire, they often begin to tinker.


It can be scary at first to set a piece outside in a conservative farm town. Mr. Dickerman snuck the first two metal creatures in his Open Range Zoo to the side of Highway 18 under cover of dark, “so no one would know it was me.” When he sauntered into town later and heard mostly positive reviews, he fessed up.


Now he claims that his whimsical beasts are the top tourist attraction in Lincoln County, population 3,300.


As for Mr. Liggett, he loves to show off his ramshackle studio, decorated with what he claims to be the world’s largest coffee-cup collection—thousands and thousands of them, hanging on nails from every square inch of wall and ceiling. Stepping over buckets of bolts and crumpled road signs, he says, “I’ll turn this all into art if I live long enough.”


Mr. Liggett recalls the story behind every sculpture: Here’s the saucy young woman he romanced on the Eiffel Tower; there’s the waitress who rudely ran a mop over his boots.


He says his doctor has told him he ought to quit; welding is not good for his pacemaker. He snorts. “What the hell am I going to do, sit in a rocking chair all day?”


He sweeps out his arm, the gesture taking in all the junk and the art by the highway. “This stuff out here,” Mr. Liggett says, “this is me.”


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