Lawrence Muralist Dave Loewenstein On Bringing Art Out Of The Studio And Into Communities

Jul 21, 2017

At a crossroads in his life, Kansas artist Dave Loewenstein was haunted by the words of an organic farmer.

"If we can't sell it to working class people," the farmer had asked about his produce, "what are we doing?"

Dave wondered the same thing of his art. He had a hard time seeing the point in his landscape paintings, even in a best-case scenario.

"I started thinking about, well, who really sees these paintings? What happens to them after they're out of a studio. If you're lucky, they go into a gallery, if you're luckier, somebody who has the money can purchase them," he says. "In the end, it wasn't enough for me."

So he started looking for another way to be an artist. 

Which was no small thing. He'd started painting landscapes as an undergraduate in college in Iowa, and he was on his way to earning a Masters of Fine Arts degree in painting from the University of Kansas. He'd invested a lot of time and passion in pursuing this path.

At his wit's end, he stumbled on a book in the library. It was called "Toward a People's Art: The Community Mural Movement." 

This is where it gets weird.

He starts flipping through the book, feeling inspired, and then he comes upon this one page. "It was some kids painting a mural with a teacher," he recalls, "and I was overwhelmed with a sense of deja-vu, looking at this photo, in a way that I couldn't explain."

That is, until he read the caption. "It said 'Children in Ruth Felton Miller Middle School mural, 1975, Evanston, Illinois.' I was in 4th grade in 1975. I went to Miller Middle School. I was in the photo."

He saw it as a sign.

Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

At around that time, a new bar opened in Lawrence, Kansas. And he'd heard, from a friend, that they wanted a mural for their beer garden. So Dave volunteered, having never painted anything as big as a mural, and certainly not on a wall. He'd always worked on canvas. The owners agreed to give him a shot, offering lunch as a form of payment.

"It was fantastic," he says, still beaming all these years later. "It was so much fun."

So he dropped out of the MFA program and hit the streets. He's been doing it ever since.

Of course, in some ways, without realizing it, he'd been preparing for a career as a muralist all his life. He grew up in Chicago, in a family of artists (including a father who designed sets for PBS), but his informal training began with baseball.

"I was extremely shy, somebody who kept to himself, mostly, and I had to find ways of being in public where I felt like I was occupied in order to interact with the outside world," he recalls. "So I would go to the elementary school and throw a ball against the wall, pretending that I was somebody, some player on the team."

That technique of busily doing things out in the world in hopes that he might luck into meeting someone while he was at it stayed with him in college.

"When I moved to Iowa and I started painting these landscapes out in the countryside, it was the same thing. Instead of going up to a farmer's house or talking to somebody straight on, I would be this painter. And maybe someone would come and say hi to me."

It was also the elementary school in Chicago and the farmers in Iowa that "radicalized" him, as he puts it, politically. 

"When I was going into 5th grade, Miller School was closed, downsized or whatever, and I remember going to meetings with my mom to fight to keep it open, and being absolutely astounded when even though all these people had protested to keep it open, they closed it. That was sort of my first moment of radicalization."

In Iowa, the plight of the farmers he observed while painting his landscapes is part of what made him think his art needed to serve a larger purpose. This was the 1980s, the era of the farm crisis, considered the worst economic downturn for farmers since the Great Depression. And that conflict started permeating his landscapes. It also inspired a sense that there were things he going on around him that required him to take some kind of action. 

Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

Loewenstein's approach to murals makes him equal parts community organizer and painter. He's working in a community mural-making tradition that he says dates back to the Civil Rights movement. 

"There was a group of artists out of Chicago ... who decided they were going to create murals not to celebrate famous people or well known events, but to celebrate their own stories that hadn't been told yet and they were done not only by professional artists but by neighborhood residents, by shop keepers and so on," he explains.

Loewenstein's painted murals in small towns all over the Midwest. He works with both government officials and local residents, including kids, to make something that will galvanize people and give voice to ordinary citizens, often in communities that have fallen on hard times, like Joplin, Missouri, after a tornado nearly obliterated the town in 2011.

These days, Loewenstein's spending a lot of time rehabbing murals he painted as long as 20 or 25 years ago. But he's also got something new on the horizon: fatherhood. Loewenstein's just welcomed a baby boy into the world, weighing in at 7 pounds 3 ounces. And that's changing how he sees everything, including his Kansas home.

"For many years I saw myself as sort of an itinerant artist who could live anywhere and move at any moment, and now I know we're gonna stay in Lawrence, for a while at least. And that's a really reassuring and wonderful thing to know."

Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.

Gina Kaufmann is the host of Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter.