Drive along U.S. Route 400 in western Kansas, and you’ll see hundreds of metal sculptures on tall poles, some as high as 20 feet. It’s the work of self-taught artist M.T. Liggett, who crafted signs and whirligigs out of scrap metal, tractor parts, and pipe. Whimsical - and politically provocative - art.
Liggett died on August 21 at the age of 86. These outdoor sculptures are now in the care of four trustees, including one based in the Kansas City area.
M.T. Liggett was known for his scrap metal artwork lining his property in Mullinville, Kansas and for having somewhat of a gruff persona.
In the documentary What’s the Matter with Kansas?, based on the book by Thomas Frank, Liggett, wearing his trademark bib overalls, talked about reactions to his provocative roadside art.
"I do get people, I manage to get them kind of anxious with me. And they do hurl things at me, you know, insults," he said. "But you always got to remember one thing: I can't insult you unless you let me. And you know, if I've pissed you off, maybe I'm intending to."
Liggett’s painted metal sculptures poked fun at local politics and presidents, such as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Greek gods and former girlfriends, images of birds, demons, and devils also featured in his work – all adorned with his cheeky block letter text.
And it was really just by chance that he and Larry Meeker met about two decades ago.
Meeker spent a bulk of his career with the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, where he sometimes made calls on member banks across Kansas.
"So I got up early, was driving to Pratt, and went by Mullinville, Kansas," Meeker recalls. "And it was a foggy morning, and saw this long, long line of totems along the road, many with whirligigs. And I was just impressed by the enormity of what was there."
Hundreds of sculptures, several rows deep, ran along Liggett's fence. Meeker says he pulled in to the gravel drive to find out more about the artist.
"But there was a sign on the fence that said something to the effect of notice to art fans and scrap salvagers: 'Keep your butts off this property,'" he says. "And I thought, a great invitation to return another time."
Meeker did return, about a year later, starting a friendship that spanned two decades.
Larry Meeker and his wife, Cindy, are also contemporary art collectors. And a few dozen of Liggett’s works are clustered in the side yard of their Lake Quivira, Kansas, home, including one figure that resembles a court jester.
"This is 'Clyde Angel, the Moon Tosser,'" describes Meeker, "and he’s taking the moon and using it basically as a discus, and challenging us to think a little differently about the moon. And I think much of his art was the same."
There’s a nod to history, mythology, the opera Madame Butterfly, and playful jabs at political figures.
"Well, people took different views of it. I think, for the most part, he made statues of people he liked," says Meeker. "He may have wanted to poke fun at them. He knew they could take it."
A doctor had reportedly advised Liggett to stop welding after he got a pacemaker decades ago.
"And his line was always, 'Well, if I can’t make my art, I'd just as soon be dead,'" says Meeker. "So he would weld, and after a while it would zap him physically. And he'd sit down and rest for a while, come back and weld some more, and paint and do whatever he needed to do with his sculpture.
"He was willing to live with that, and felt like his art was more important than his physical health."
Liggett was diagnosed with a brain tumor about a year ago. Before he died in August, a trust was created to preserve his work. Meeker is one of the four trustees, and he says some of them met for the first time at Liggett’s funeral.
"We are, as the trustees, I think, in charge of sort of re-inventing and turning the page to a new chapter on his life," says Meeker, "and that is the preservation of this work."
For Meeker, it’s essential to keep as much of the Liggett's work on his Mullinville, Kansas, property together as possible — even though the setting, a 20-acre pasture, provides a challenge.
"His art requires maintenance, there’s no two ways about it," says Meeker. "The wind blows constantly in western Kansas. Those windmills, those whirligigs constantly turn."
Meeker says the metal sculptures will need upkeep for wear and tear, greasing and bearings to be replaced. But, he says it’s worth keeping the conversation going, one of the key things, he says, about M.T. Liggett’s work.
"At the end, that’s really what great art is about anyway," says Meeker. "Whether you’re at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art or you’re out in Mullinville, Kansas, it’s about finding something that draws each of our personal stories out, in a way that helps us connect with one another."
An artist residency could be in the works for Liggett's property or creating more of an arts connection to Greensburg, only about 10 miles away.
For now – the trustees are still dealing with legal matters, and taking stock of what Liggett left behind. And then they can start to move forward.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.