Kansas Art Students Turn Into Filmmakers, Find Surprises In Midwestern Mural Projects

Feb 26, 2016

When Amber Hansen and Nicholas Ward got jobs with Lawrence painter Dave Loewenstein’s six-state public mural project, they were supposed to be assistants. They ended up becoming filmmakers, documenting an experience they found profoundly moving.

Hansen and Ward came to Lawrence from South Dakota in 2007 for graduate studies in the University of Kansas' MFA program in drawing and painting. They were finishing up their programs in May 2010 when they got a call from Loewenstein, who was about to begin his years-long Mid-America Mural Project.

Amber Hansen and Nicholas Ward in the editing bay they created with a sheet in the living room of their Lawrence apartment.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

They knew how to paint, how to frame a picture, how to tell a visual story. What they didn’t know how to do was work with a whole community to create a building-sized work of art.

“Our academic training in painting rarely if at all touched upon the idea or the importance of community-based art,” Hansen says. “After having six or seven years of academic training in art, this was something we had no idea how to approach.”

Life in a new place

Loewenstein’s process involves gathering a design team in each community and spending months meeting with people to create a mural reflecting each town’s unique history, values, hopes and dreams. That sometimes required Hansen and Ward to live in the places where they were working.

First, they moved to Tonkawa, Oklahoma, for three months. They bought cameras, and after long days of meeting with people and drawing pictures or painting, they’d have some fun posting small video vignettes to a blog about the project.

Dave Loewenstein was the lead artist on the Mid-America Mural Project.
Credit Courtesy Queen Alidore Films

“We were really naively jumping into this world,” Hansen says. “At night we’d take all the imagery we had collected on our computers, piece them together, post them to the blog, play the ukulele to add music. It was very hodge-podge.”

Based on the response to the videos, and their own immersion in the Tonkawa community, it didn’t take long before Hansen and Ward realized they wanted to tell a bigger story.

“We realized what a significant experience we were having and wanted to take on a more serious narrative,” Ward says.

“Not only about the process,” Hansen adds, “but the amazing people we were meeting, and the interesting histories that exist in these places that we don’t often hear or talk about.”

As it turns out, when a bunch of people get together to conceive and create a public mural, other important things happen.

Sometimes that’s an artful spin-off, such as in Newton, Kansas, where the Mennonite Church pastor choreographed a community dance to go along with the mural.

In Newton, Kansas, a Mennonite pastor named Sara Dick choreographed a community dance in response to the mural.
Credit Courtesy Queen Alidore Films

Other times the process eases a difficult conversation, such as in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, where black and white residents had to work through the city’s history of race relations to determine the color of people depicted in the mural.

Or it can be healing, as it was in Joplin, where Loewenstein had been scheduled to start that city’s mural in the summer of 2011 – just after the catastrophic tornado of May 22. The design team decided to go forward with the project, and Hansen and Ward’s film shows much discussion about whether, and how, to depict the tornado in the mural.

Becoming documentarians

Hansen and Ward were not trained filmmakers. They didn’t even have the proper equipment, much less the money to make a movie.

At one point, Ward bartered at a pawn shop to use an audio recorder for a month, but the recorder’s sound quality rendered it worthless. The couple persisted, figuring out what they needed. The Mid-America Arts Alliance came through with some funding, and they later launched a Kickstarter to keep the project going. Eventually, people in the communities started contributing, too.

The resulting movie, Called to Walls, tells a story that’s unique, Ward says.

Greg Abello, owner of Jim's Barber Shop in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, cuts hair while telling stories in 'Called to Walls.'
Credit Courtesy Queen Alidore Films

“We couldn’t find a film or any kind of narrative that existed that was telling a story like this in this way, especially in the Midwest,” he says.

“I’ve lived in Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, and because of this project lived in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arkansas for a bit. It’s been incredible to see the wonderful subtleties of the Midwest that you can only know if you’ve experienced that place for significant amount of time,” Hansen adds.

The film forefronts those subtleties, Hansen says. Ward says it also challenges an all-too-common refrain about art.

“As artists, we’re often hearing about this need for arts to generate economic development, and how that works with developers, how you get ‘heads in beds’ and how it promotes the convention and visitors’ bureau,” Ward says. “All of that bypasses the notion that arts are inherently worth something on their own, and the experiences they create are valuable.”

It’s not as if the mural projects brought new businesses to any of these towns. But Called to Walls shows how the Mid-America Mural Project accomplished something else.

“So often the art world just speaks to a small group of people,” Hansen says, but this film could spark a bigger conversation. “We have a collection of a variety of different people, histories and stories that reflect the places we were living in.”

Called to Walls movie trailer from Queen Alidore on Vimeo.

“We found all these beautiful relationships and experiences that were readily available in tiny, and mid-sized places,” Ward adds. “One of the components of the film is to evoke that sense of value and worth, that the smallest town can start doing really interesting things."

When they started out, Ward says, they would have been “terrified” if they’d have known everything they’d have to do to make the film a reality.

“We’re new to filmmaking and learning,” he says. “This whole thing has been a huge and significant education in terms of what the potential for art is – and history, U.S. history, and a million different things.”

Their hope is to spread that new knowledge around. After its debut on Saturday, the couple plans to start submitting the movie to film festivals.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

Called to Walls premieres for one night only at 7 p.m. on Saturday, February 27 at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachussetts St. Lawrence, Kansas 66044, 785-749-1972.