Tom Benaka, president of the Chesney Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, tells a group about the newest mural on the Great Mural Wall of Topeka on Saturday afternoon during a ceremony at the site, near S.W. 20th and Western. Looking on are mural artists Ashley Laird, left, and K.T. Walsh.
By Phil Anderson
Shirley Anstaett doesn't live in the Chesney Park neighborhood, but that hasn't stopped her from taking pride in one of the community's crown jewels — the Great Mural Wall of Topeka. "It just really makes me proud," Anstaett said of the project. "It brings such beauty to the community." Anstaett was one of about 50 people who gathered Saturday afternoon for the unveiling of the latest mural of the project, an artwork with an endangered creatures theme.
The mural, which was sponsored by the Chords and Oil artist collective, was started in late June and completed a week ago on the south side of what had been a city water reservoir near S.W. 20th and Western. It shows a variety of animals that have existed through the years in the Topeka area, some by water, others on land and still others in air. Some of the animals on the new mural, like the woolly mammoth, haven't been seen for centuries. Others, like the red-bellied snake and whooping crane, continue to make their home along the muddy, frequently polluted waters of the nearby Shunganunga Creek.
The latest mural joins others with Topeka themes that already have been completed on the side of the former water reservoir, which has 900 feet of wall space. To date, more than 450 feet of the gigantic white wall space has been covered with colorful murals. The project was started in 2007 and was initiated by the Chesney Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, which wanted to instill pride in the Central Topeka community while at the same time beautifying the area and curtailing graffiti.
The project now has reached the halfway point. Space exists for about six more murals, which will be painted as funds become available.The goal is for the project to be completed by 2012. Artist K.T. Walsh, who has been involved in painting the murals, said ideas are solicited from the community before a group of artists comes up with a plan for a mural. Groups of volunteers then paint the murals, often sitting on scaffolding in blazing summertime heat. Walsh said some ideas for future murals are the city's Oakland neighborhood, "remarkable women" and the Latino tradition of Topeka.
Funding has come from a variety of sources, including the Security Benefit Group and Kansas Arts Commission, whose contributions were key to the completion of the most recent mural. "This year, they were very important for us," said Chesney Park Neighborhood Improvement Association president Tom Benaka. "We really appreciate them." The first murals were completed in the 1900 block of S.W. Western, just west across the street from the Kansas Expocentre. New ones are being painted around the corner on S.W. 20th, just west of S.W. Western. Future ones will wrap around the corner to the north in the 1900 block of S.W. Western, then along S.W. 19th just west of S.W. Western.
Previously finished murals depicted Topeka neighborhoods and community leaders. All of the murals will have Topeka themes, celebrating the city's history and culture. The project has been overseen by nationally known mural artist Dave Loewenstein, of Lawrence. When completed, the mural will be the largest of its kind in Kansas and second-largest in the United States, organizers said.
Zach Snethen, 30, accompanied by his wife, Erin, 29, and son Oliver, 10 months, took an up-close look at the newest mural on Saturday afternoon.
"To take a blank wall like this and put art on it that represents the community is pretty amazing," he said. "You can drive by it, but it's really good to stop and study it, because they really do have aspects of the entire community on the wall."
Phil Anderson can be reached at (785) 295-1195 or firstname.lastname@example.org.