Politics as folk art: Outsiders no more

October 10, 2021 3:33 am

An S.P. Dinsmoor sculpture is on display at The Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

I remember the first time I drove past M.T. Liggett’s place outside Mullinville in Kiowa County. Like many other motorists in western Kansas over the years, I pulled to the side of U.S. 54 to get a better look at Liggett’s political, primitive and very public art installation.

There were a couple of hundred metal sculptures, fashioned mostly from discarded farm equipment, some with whirling blades driven by the wind, lining his pasture. Current political figures (and a few from mythology) were rendered burlesque in metal and paint, with hand-lettered commentary, and the language was rough. Some figures were labeled whores or procurers. Swastikas drove home the point where words failed. Of all the local and national leaders represented in the roadside pantheon, the harshest scorn was reserved for Hillary Clinton: “Our jack-booted Eva Braun.”

I was confused. What kind of lunatic lives here? How does he have the time to make all of this stuff? What kind of reaction is he going for with the swastikas? But I also had a sense of shame, because whatever response the artist was going for, it had worked on me. I had pulled over for a better look.

Sculptures by M.T. Liggett are on display in Mullinville. (Kohler Foundation)

So many other people did, in fact, that the Kansas Department of Transportation installed “emergency parking only” signs alongside the pasture in 2001. A Wichita Eagle story at the time described the art as “crazy roadside sculptures” and “metal monstrosities.” Liggett,  who began the sculptures in the 1980s, when he was in his 50s, was famously banned from the local cafe for his outspoken opinions.

But when Myron Thomas Liggett died in 2017, aged 86, his death was noted by no less than the Washington Post and The New York Times. By then, he had already received acclaim as a major American folk artist and had an exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Liggett’s obituary in the Times called him a “folk artist and provocateur” and quoted from Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Frank said the art “glitters with anger” and represented “the gospel according to Rush Limbaugh.”

Although Liggett sometimes lampooned Republicans, most of his bile was directed at liberal Democrats. Toward the end of his career, Liggett made the transition from town crank to an artist who used controversy as his calling card. In its obituary, the Wichita Eagle called him one of Kansas’ “best and most prolific grassroots artists,” and described his work as “quirky” instead of crazy.

Now, there’s no need to pull over to the side of the road to view Liggett’s art.

Last Saturday, the M.T. Liggett Visitor’s Center held its grand opening in Mullinville, and visitors can see more than 600 pieces within the “art environment.” The Kohler Foundation preserved the sculptures and the installation is maintained, on its original site, by a handful of local organizations, including the Kansas 5.4.7 Arts Center, Greensburg. The name of the center is for the May 4, 2007, tornado that all but destroyed the town.

I don’t know whether Liggett was gifted or not. Others have a better eye for that. He was expressing his First Amendment right to free speech as he saw fit, and the fact that his art made me uncomfortable might be indicative of its power, or my own low tolerance for swastikas.

Artworks by M.T. Liggett are set along his roadside property. (Kohler Foundation)

What I do know is that his brand of art would be a tougher sell in 2021 than it was 20 years ago because politics has become its own kind of folk art. Swastika whirligigs pale in comparison with a Capitol insurrection featuring real fascists, a party inexplicably fighting mask and vaccine initiatives during a pandemic, and a Kansas legislative leader who called a state trooper “donut boy” after being arrested on DUI charges.

Crazy is sold wholesale these days.

We’re so deep in the stuff that it’s hard to keep track of the new level of political insanity during any given week. Not long ago we learned that our top military leader feared outgoing president Donald Trump would launch a nuclear strike to create a crisis through which he might remain in the White House. This is on top of polling that shows Trump’s big lie about a rigged election is working. A slim majority of Americans, according to a CNN poll, now fear elections don’t reflect the will of the people.

None of this would surprise another Kansan who turned his anger at the government into art — and tourist bucks. Long before the term “outsider art” was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972, S.P. Dinsmoor was busy rendering the world as he saw it in concrete and limestone. Dinsmoor was a Civil War veteran who tried his hand at farming before retiring to Lucas, in the Smoky Hills of north central Kansas, in 1905. There, at age 62, he began constructing “The Garden of Eden.”

His elaborate “log” home is built of limestone quarried nearby, and surrounding the house are cement sculptures representing Bible scenes or allegories from the Populist movement that swept Kansas in the 1890s. One of his more famous sculptures shows Labor having been crucified by a doctor, lawyer, preacher, and capitalist. Dinsmoor was a randy old eccentric and widower who, at age 81, married his 20-year-old Czech housekeeper, Emilie Brozek, and fathered two children.

From the beginning, Dinsmoor made his art to attract tourists who would pay to see it. The work may be crude, but its scale is impressive. Out back Dinsmoor built a pyramid-like mausoleum which became his final resting place when he died, in 1937. He’s still there, and the site — now on the National Register of Historic Places — remains open to the public. It has become the center for a grassroots arts community in Lucas. I’ve toured “The Garden of Eden” several times, and have always paid the few bucks extra to see Dinsmoor reclining behind glass in his concrete coffin, a concrete jug for water nearby in case he’s headed for the bad place.

S.P. Dinsmoor created The Garden of Eden location in Lucas. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

In 2002, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote a piece about the opening of the American Folk Art Museum. He described the “folk” that create such art as “vitiated citizens” at odds with society. “The terms ‘folk’ and ‘outsider’ — never mind the spineless euphemism ‘self-taught’— are hard to use without condescension, affirming a superior knowingness,” Schjeldahl writes. “The stereotypical folk-art fancier is both conservative and patronizing. Folk art can be to art as pets are to the animal kingdom.”

The conventional view, he says, is that folk art differs from fine art “as birdsong does from opera.”

I think of that observation now, as I ponder the work of Dinsmoor and Liggett. If birdsong is spontaneous joy, then joy there is at both Lucas and Mullinville, as well as echoes of Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp. But there is something more. It is a remarkable awareness of political culture, an understanding of the psyche of their fellow Kansans, a sly commentary sparked by newspaper headlines and the nightly news.

While Dinsmoor’s art seems a quaint and creepy footnote to Kansas history, Liggett’s work fairly vibrates with themes that continue to shape the era of Trump. The joy in his  art is apparent in the silly nonsense characters, the mythological themes and autobiographical nods to romance. But there is also the anger that was disturbing and decidedly outsider in the 1990s, and even the most fervent Kansas Republican of decades past would have blanched at portraying Hillary Clinton as a huge swastika.

But now?

The former first lady and failed Democratic presidential nominee was called worse by right-wing extremists who spread lies that Clinton and others were part of a global cabal of pedophiles who abused children in satanic rituals in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. “Pizzagate” was the harbinger of the QAnon movement, which continues to promote the toxic and baseless claim that Trump is fighting a powerful child sex ring of world leaders.

Years ago, I was amused by David Icke, an English soccer star and television personality who had an extraordinarily public psychotic break and began telling his audience that the world was ruled by lizard people from another dimension. These lizard people (whose members included the royal family) were kidnapping ordinary folk, Icke claimed, and abusing them at a secret underground base at Branson, Missouri. The perpetrators included U.S. politicians, Kris Kristofferson and Boxcar Willie. Icke was such an outsider, and his claims so absurd, that he didn’t seem much of a threat. But now I see there’s not much difference between the nonsense Icke was spreading and what QAnon followers believe.

Those days when we felt safe and distanced from crazy ideas, when we could pull to the side of the road and gawk at a homespun display of political anger, are gone. I am no longer amused by eccentric ideas, because the irrational is inherently dangerous, a brute that cannot be dissuaded. I’ve lost my sense of humor. What was once laughable, even absurd, might become the next bit of craziness that propels the next political movement to threaten American democracy.

Back in 2015, when Donald Trump descended that gold escalator and announced his campaign for president, I treated the act with the kind of condescension that Schjeldahl describes as being difficult to avoid in regarding outsider art. But the joke was on those of us who thought Trump’s candidacy was a stunt, an inferior attempt at politics by a self-taught outsider.

I still don’t know what to make of M.T. Liggett’s art. Maybe I never will. Though it disturbed and offended me, at least Liggett channeled his anger into public discourse, however unconventional. I’m sorry, all those years ago, that I didn’t do more than just pull over and look. I should have knocked on his door and asked him to share a cup of coffee at that cafe down the road, and maybe both of us would have been thrown out.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category.