When you see a stranger on public transit, what's your usual reaction? Do you make eye contact, even small talk, or studiously ignore them and play Pokémon Go on your phone?
Traveling with Megan Karson's The Stranger on the Train, reactions are a little different. When The Stranger trundles onto the #801 at the Kansas City Streetcar stop at Union Station, passengers stare, then laugh, at the surprising addition to their ride.
"Hey guys, come here!" Lucy, age 3, yells to her siblings, who are scoping out the operator’s controls. "You need to see this!"
The Stranger, a large soft-sculpture monster, has a friendly, outsized grin and wide staring eyes. Each fingernail is painted gold, and its grayish violet fur hosts an array of toothy barnacles. Children pet it, hug it, and wrap up in its four oversized arms; adults chuckle at the sight of it, then whip out their phones to take pictures. (Though some adults feign a blind eye.)
Karson, a Kansas City-based multidisciplinary artist, has created these imaginative multi-eyed, multi-armed, toothy monsters for years, but this is her biggest so far, commissioned for this year's Art in the Loop, a summer series of musical performances and visual art installations designed to present emerging artists in the public art realm.
“I typically try to create monsters that are a mixture of scary and inviting to get a wide range of reactions,” Karson told KCUR in an email. “So often, I feel as though people enter a public environment and don’t interact with the other people that also occupy the space. The Stranger is hoping to momentarily break down that wall and create a little more room for playfulness and imagination.”
Art in the Loop centers its programming along the streetcar line on Main Street, with additional installations and events at the Kansas City Public Library, West Terrace Park and The Box Gallery.
"We want to present these creative opportunities for the people who live, work and play downtown,” says Ann Holliday, Art in the Loop’s program director. Now in its fifth year, the project is a partnership of the Downtown Council, Kansas City Streetcar and the City of Kansas City. This year’s theme is #KCPlays.
“Come out, hear the music, see some art work, let's make this a fun place to live," Holliday said outside the Box Gallery, during the Art in the Loop’s opening reception on June 1.
At 1000 Walnut, the Box Gallery houses a teaser selection of pieces related to the installations positioned throughout downtown, with a wall-sized London Tube-esque map showing where the art is located, including a yellow line that runs out of the gallery, down the corridor and into Softlab, Art in the Loop's first studio residency, featuring quilting artist Olivia Clanton.
Along with enlivening downtown, Art in the Loop serves as an entry point for artists exploring outdoor public art, Holliday said, as well as bringing different artists together to collaborate.
"That's what we like. Meet somebody. Do something different. Test things out," she said.
At the gallery, visitors can interact with some of the projects, such as Sunyoung Cheong's "Wearable Play,” or pick up "KC Word Plays!" game booklets with KC-centric word puzzles, as well as an Art in the Loop Scavenger Hunt BINGO card, a social media-friendly challenge to find the different installations.
For the opening reception, looping cellist Daniel Yung performed in a busy passageway during the lunchtime rush, evoking the iconic busker image from vibrant cities worldwide.
Art in the Loop includes concerts most Wednesdays and some Fridays throughout the series, with performances in West Terrace Park in June and along the streetcar line in July and August.
The musical acts include Afro-Caribbean, Americana folk, Western swing, British rock, jazz and gospel.
Hammerhedd, a trio of brothers ages 16, 14, and 11, went viral two years ago after shredding thrash metal covers on the Plaza; this summer they perform at the 14th Street streetcar stop on July 18. Some of the more mobile acts actually perform on the streetcar.
On August’s First Friday, Art in the Loop partners with the Kansas City Public Library for family friendly events during Arts Starts at the Library, including a performance from Twin Strangers and workshops with Cheong and “Passing Notes” David Alpert, writing notes to leave in library books.
“It’s about vitality, and making downtown the kind of space and attracting the kind of people who are interested in creativity,” Holliday said.
Along with a cadre of new artists, some are returning to the series.
Last year, hip-hop artist They Call Me Sauce performed at the Central Library. August 22, Sauce hits the Streetcar line with his distinctive rhymes and positive message. Visual artist Monica Dixon created "Cloud Canopy" for City Market Park last season, and now her “Celestial Heap” graces the ceiling of the #801.
Even the streetcars themselves feature art. Amy Kligman made the #802 into “Party Car,” adorning its vinyl wrapped exterior with festive imagery of cacophonic streamers, sprinkles and confetti.
Some streetcar shelters host stationary works, such as Stephen Proski’s "Night People" at 19th & Main, Alicen Lundberg and Kriss Young Miller's "KC Word Plays!" word search at 10th & Main, and Daniel Chase’s video installation, "Running Idle," which flashes up on the KCity Post kiosks.
Other events are more performance art, specifically the “Alter: Pop-Up pARTy” at Union Station on August 24, and Stone Lion Puppets performances on July 11 and August 8.
Throughout the series, Art in the Loop is designed to offer something different for commuters and something surprising for tourists.
“Now with the streetcar, there’s retired people who come down here, there’s young children, there’s a much more active community and the art and the music give people a mode … to engage with each other,” said Holliday.
Which brings us back to The Stranger.
Interns Rachael Love and Isaiah Jackson escort The Stranger during its lunchtime Streetcar sojourns and around town. During the ride, little kids poke, prod and high-five the monster, while bemused adults interrogate Love and Jackson.
"It’s a good way to talk to people about the program," Love says as she hands out fliers and BINGO cards.
One passenger rides the streetcar with his niece and nephew, visiting from Arkansas; another is riding with her kids and her father-in-law, in town from Santa Fe, checking out the model trains at Union Station and then lunching at the River Market.
"My goal is to make (The Stranger) a Kansas City icon,” says Love.
One young admirer blows kisses to The Stranger as she gets off the Streetcar. A few stops later, The Stranger and its escorts depart.
"Bye, Stranger" shouts an amused rider.
"Bye!" responds Love, brightly.
"Bye, Stranger!" choruses the rest of the car's occupants as the doors closed, heading down the line.
Art in the Loop runs until September 1. For more information and a calendar of events, visit artintheloop.com.