Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Great Mural Wall's Final Stretch

The Great Mural Wall of Topeka nearing completion
Funding needed for last 120 feet of project
(story originally published in the Topeka Capital-Journal)

Maty 25, 2015
Nearly a decade after Chesney Park residents started turning the drab wall of a former water reservoir into vibrant art, The Great Mural Wall of Topeka is nearing completion.

Once covered in graffiti, three sides of a building owned by the Topeka Water Division — the walls along S.W. Western, 20th Street and Fillmore — became an community art project when residents in the Chesney Park Neighborhood Improvement Association decided to clean up the spray paint and attract people to the neighborhood. Since about 2006 Tom Benaka, a member of the NIA, has championed the project as a way to combat vandalism and revitalize the neighborhood.

“It feels like this has been my whole life,” he said standing in the grass near where Lawrence-based artist Dave Loewenstein painted Thursday. “I’m very anxious to get it done.” The project needs funding to make that happen, he said. Early on, the Kansas Art Commission granted money to the mural, but when that was dismantled in 2011 funds were hard to come by for several years. Benaka and others involved turned to online fundraising sites, some federal grants and even a $10,000 Hamburger Helper “My Hometown Helper” grant.

Empowerment grants through the city’s community relations department paid for part of the project, including signs that will explain each panel Benaka hopes to have posted later this summer. The first 60 feet cost $12,000 back in the summer of 2007 and each panel of the nine has cost close to the same amount for special long-lasting paint and labor, he said. Last year the corner of 20th Street and Fillmore Avenue was the first painted in nearly three years.

With more than 120 feet left, Benaka isn’t sure where the project will find additional money. They need between $30,000 and $40,000, he said, but few donors have stepped forward. “We’re grasping at straws to get funding,” he said. “Artists deserve to be paid.” Recently he reached out to city council members about using part of the transient guest tax to fund the last of the mural. The city uses a tax imposed on hotel and lodging to fund projects meant to boost tourism. Because the mural is across the street from the Kansas Expocentre, both Benaka and Loewenstein believe it could draw people to the city.

“This is something for people from all over the city and visitors to Topeka to enjoy,” Loewenstein said. Loewenstein, who has done murals in Lawrence, has been the artist on many panels, but other artists including Ashley Jane Laird and KT Walsh have contributed. Panels have been painted with the help of neighborhood children, Topeka High School students and people from all around the city.
The section Loewenstein worked on Thursday depicts the history of Topeka’s name. Other panels focus on Brown v. Board of Education, city and state history and notable residents.

With such a strong focus on history, Benaka had long wanted to have a panel dedicated to Topeka’s railroad history, but now he and Loewenstein would like to do two panels, one that focuses on the city’s youth and a final panel looking at the future. “We really want to promote the future, not just of Chesney Park but the whole city,” he said. When the current panel is finished — hopefully in June depending on the weather — Benaka said they will start gathering community feedback and ideas for the last panels.

“Art is already in the neighborhood and people’s lives,” Loewenstein said. “The mural is a way to celebrate that.”

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