Since 2013, the Pittsburg community has received yearly displays of everything from coal buckets to fiberglass pigs painted to represent the spirit of southeast Kansas. This is in part thanks to the Southeast Kansas Art Festival (SEK Art Fest).
The most recent pieces added were in 2016, but the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts helped unveil the latest art projects Wednesday, July 11. The latest in the long line of fiberglass models of the community’s spirit are benches commissioned by 16 artists.
“It has been such a great addition to the city of Pittsburg,” said Mark Johnson, college of technology professor. “We know the first year with the coal buckets there was more foot traffic downtown in Pittsburg than we’ve ever seen. People would walk downtown, see a bucket, and have a conversation on the streets of Pittsburg. Just never saw that happen before; very cool.”
Johnson has been part of the commission to choose which submissions become pieces since the creation of the SEK Art Fest. This year he had the opportunity to emcee the reveal event. Johnson said he was thankful to be part of this era of arts in Pittsburg
“It’s been phenomenal,” he said. “My family takes a lot of vacations and we’ve been to a lot of communities. It’s amazing when you see a city and a community that admires their art. You go downtown Wichita and there are sculptures downtown. We were in a town in Oregon and they had bears on display downtown. You go to different parts of the country and it’s neat when you come to a community and you can just feel the love of the arts in the area, and just having all these artists share their artwork and share that has been such a great contribution.”
Another member of the commission, Jenna Spencer, wears many hats when it comes to SEK Art Fest and the Pittsburg arts community as a whole. As both office manager and gallery director at Memorial Auditorium, she considers herself lucky for the opportunity to have such a pivotal role in the project. Spencer herself is also an artist and has had a project displayed each year and was once creator of four different projects in one SEK Art Fest.
“Being an artist, I just love this project,” Spencer said. “I love what it does for the community, raising money for artists and other events. I love a little bit of everything. I like doing a lot of thinking and looking. I’ll put a little bit of paint down, and think about it or I’ll be driving in my car thinking about it. I never feel like I’m done. There’s always that part of it where I feel like I could do more. But getting to be here and see the reactions to mine and other people’s artworks and finished projects are great. I love it.”
Many former Pitt State students were also involved this year, including 2016 graduate Megan Peters, who completed her sunflower-inspired bench with her mother.
“My mom really wanted to do it,” Peters said. “We’ve seen all the previous years’ projects and she just got really excited about it this year. She was like, ‘we need to do this together,’ and I was like all right, we’ll do this. I’m sure as a child we probably colored together, but I don’t remember a time when we’ve ever worked on something like this. I appreciate that they’re able to take contributions to this event and put it back into the community. It’s very encouraging to come back and participate again.”
Family was a strong message throughout the benches for the year. While no other submissions were made by family duos, it was a large source of inspiration for many artists, such as 2005 Pitt State graduate Elizabeth Wallsmith.
“The inspiration for my bench is exactly the name of it, which is ‘Celebrating the Arts in Southeast Kansas’,” Wallsmith said. “I would say the overall impact the arts have had on my life and on my son’s life and on my father’s life as an artist are just incredible. The arts have just always been in our family and just the enjoyment of that and celebrating the arts with the facilities that we have here like the Bicknell and the Memorial auditorium. They all do so much to celebrate the arts in the community like music, theatre, and dance. I just wanted to show that … The handprints are there to represent children’s hands and passing on the arts to generations and the enjoyment that children get from painting. It does something for the soul.”
The newly revealed benches are currently on display in Meadowbrook mall and will remain there or at Memorial Auditorium until their auction September 2. The money from benches’ sales will benefit future grants and funds for the arts in the community.