Exploring Grassroots Art in Lucas, Kansas

World’s largest souvenir travel plate made from an old satellite dish

During our stay in Kansas when I talked to people about visiting the town of Lucas, they would always say, “You have to see the bathroom in the public park!” I had never heard of a bathroom being so celebrated before, especially one in a city park which at times can be kind of iffy in quality. Lucas is proud of their public bathroom, but they are also proud of so much more in this tiny town. Known as the “Grassroots Art” town, much space, time and energy has been devoted to displaying art which can be viewed in different places throughout the town. While staying in Salina, I made a day trip alone to Lucas to discover what this town was about.

Garden of Eden house

My main reason to come to Lucas was to see the well-known “Garden of Eden” house. Some years ago I had read about this historic and unusual home and was curious to see it. Samuel Perry Dinsmoor, was a Civil War veteran who began building this home in 1907 when he was 64 years old. For 22 years he used tons of cement and limestone to build not only the house but also create 150 sculptures that surround it. His “log” cabin is actually made of limestone logs, a common rock found in this part of Kansas. When finished, he opened his home to the public giving tours until a few years before he died in 1932. Dinsmoor created the sculptures as his interpretation of society and religion, especially as seen through his populist party ideals. Topics such as war, work/labor and government are explored here.

Front door entry into the house

The guided tour started inside the home and then continued out in the yard. I tried my best to view and understand the sculptures that are supported by cement trees around the property. It was amazing to see this work of one man who only used an assistant to help mix the cement. I liked seeing the house, but was not particularly wowed by it or the sculptures. Perhaps I was just not as inspired as others seem to be.

Adam and Eve sculptures

The craziest part of the tour was when the guide took me into Mr. Dinsmoor’s mausoleum. After his death he wanted to be laid to rest in a glass topped coffin so the public could continue to “visit” him. Photos of his body are not allowed. Upon seeing Mr. Dinsmoor all I could comment was that his face did have some similarity to the photos I had seen. I believe this is the first attraction in my travels where the deceased wanted to be continually viewed after death. It surprises me that someone would want to be seen by the public in this state of decay.

Mr. Dinsmoor’s mausoleum

After my visit with Mr. Dinsmoor I went over to the Grassroots Art Center to see their exhibits. The Center gives this definition for grassroots art: “A term describing art made by people with no formal artistic training using ordinary materials in an extraordinary way.” The Center also reports that Kansas ranks third in the U.S. in the number of grassroot art sites after Wisconsin and California. This was a fun place to visit, especially since the art was so creative and unusual. I was given a guided tour with stories about the artists and an explanation of what I was seeing. One installation was even hands on: The artist created a board with pictures, letters and other items to help you guess the first names of boys and girls. Each square represented a name and when you hit a button, it would light up the correct name on the bottom. It was fun to see how many I could guess.

Female name guess installation

My favorite piece was a car made entirely of pull top tabs from soda cans. These pull tabs are the old fashioned kind from the 1970’s and each had an extension on it that could be bent to secure onto the next tab with no glue or other reinforcement needed. The artist used hundreds of thousands of them to create this full sized vehicle. He also made the motorcycle next to it which took 179,200 pull tabs as well as a couple suits of clothes hanging on a nearby wall.

Car made from soda can pull top tabs

There was great variety in the objects displayed Including wood carvings, mechanical motion machines, carved figures inside narrow necked bottles, yard ornaments, scrap metal totem poles, recycled household items and limestone carvings. Inez Marshall started carving stone in the late 1930’s and created this horse and wagon sculpture in the photo below that weighs 1500 pounds. Among other objects she made was a one-fifth size Ford Model T.

I was surprised to look into a case and see displays of Betty Milliken’s chewing gum portraits. She worked for over 70 years creating hundreds of portraits and liked to use unconventional materials. One of her favorite mediums was using grapefruit rind also displayed here. I doubt I will ever again see art made from chewing gum.

A small tray of chewing gum portraits

After finishing with the Center, the guide took me a few blocks to the Florence Deeble home. As a young girl, Ms. Deeble watched Mr. Dinsmoor create his yard sculptures and became inspired to create painted concrete sculptures in her backyard garden. These became “postcards” of places she had visited on vacations and included Mount Rushmore, Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and the Arizona desert. The guide explained that this type of yard art made by a woman was unique for the time period. Unfortunately, I did not find the sculptures to be very interesting as they looked worn and colorless, really needing some refurbishing. I didn’t even take photos of them which is unusual, as I take lots and lots of pictures everywhere I go. (About 36,000 so far).

Garden of Isis

Although I found the backyard drab, the inside of the house now owned by the Grassroots Art Center was an explosion of color and activity by a single artist, Mri-Pilar, who calls it the “Garden of Isis.” The Center describes Mri-Pilar as having a vision to transform the Deeble House into a “recycled art installation.” The walls and ceilings are covered in silver insulation and Mylar. Almost every inch of the walls have items she has created from trash heaps, dumpsters and second hand stores. Many of these are old dolls and barbies so one wall has the title, “rebarb.” There are even displays on the floors, including this large figure I am standing next to. I feel rather overdressed and drab compared to her.

This place defies description and was something I had never seen the likes of before. I actually found it more intriguing than the Garden of Eden house. Yes, it was wierd and bizarre but also so quirky and interesting that I really liked it. There was so much to see that I couldn’t look at every piece, it would require return trips. The fact it is done by one woman in her spare time is incredible and how she comes up with these ideas is surprising as well. Since the items are for sale, she continues to make more and bring them over to hang wherever she can find a few more inches of space.

Garden of Isis

After my tour was over I walked to the Bowl Plaza to see the famous bathroom. The building is designed to look like a toilet tank with the seat cover. The curved benches in front are the toilet seat and the winding concrete path is toilet paper leading to a large concrete roll. I had a photo with the roll which is off the side of the building but I didn’t like the way it turned out, so am using this photo instead.

Bowl Plaza

Although the outside is great, the inside is even better. Every wall from the entry way to both men and women’s restrooms is decorated with stones, rocks, shells, gems, jewelry as well as different gadgets added for special effect. For example, one wall in the men’s has a large design of hot wheel cars. Our grandsons who are avid collectors of these cars would love to see this wall!

Hot wheel collage in the men’s restroom

The photo below is a view of the women’s restroom looking towards the outside door

Decorated walls in the women’s restroom

After many hours of work by artists and volunteers, the bathroom was opened in 2012. I read that in 2014, the Cintas Corporation sponsored the best public restroom in the U.S. contest and the Bowl Plaza won 2nd place by popular vote. I have to say that the restroom really was as neat as everyone said and deserves that award!

Post Rock Scenic Byway

Part of my drive to Lucas was on the Post Rock Scenic Byway, a lovely drive through the Smoky Hills with pasture and farmlands fenced in with limestone posts. Pioneers had to use whatever materials were available for fencing and since there were few trees to work with on these plains, they often cut limestone rock for posts. At the Grassroots Art Center I found out about an artist that carved figures from some of these old posts. Looking at a map, I kept an eye out for them on my drive back and found this one which I thought was beautiful. Her name is Chelsea.

I made a couple more stops on my return. The first was a visitor center where you can purchase things made in Kansas. I was surprised how big it was and how many items for sale. I got the tip to come here from the Grassroots Center guide who told me the visitor center regularly made homemade kolaches, a Czechoslovakian pastry. After picking up a few of these I then drove to see the world’s largest Czech egg located in the town of Wilson, the Czech capital of Kansas. The colorful egg is sitting in a park and measures 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide.

Stay tuned for more Kansas exploration!

One thought on “Exploring Grassroots Art in Lucas, Kansas”

  1. Theres the egg! Emma and I were thinking about taking a detour to go see it when we were in Kansas. I didn’t know about all the other art, such interesting and unique items. Makes me want to rummage around in the trash and see what I can make! lol (unfortunately I didn’t get the creative gene). Road trip gems!

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