Some works of art hold mysteries that may never be revealed (the Mona Lisa’s smile will likely remain an enigma forever). But many years after completing public murals in Liberty, Missouri, David McClain is ready to talk about his artwork’s secrets.
These days McClain has a full-time job at Kenmark Scenic Backdrops in Overland Park, which creates backdrops for theater productions. He learned his craft back in the 1980s, painting backdrops at Worlds of Fun. As an independent artist, he’s painted public murals around the metro and overseas — including Kansas City’s exhibit at the 1992 World's Fair in Seville, Spain, where he created 15-foot murals of jazz musicians, oversized copies of works by Thomas Hart Benton, and an image of golfer Tom Watson.
But the work he’s most proud of is on the third floor of the Clay County Administration Building.
In 1993, the Clay County Fine Arts Council commissioned the six colorful murals showing people and places from the county’s history. The artworks include a group of Native Americans making camp, African Americans celebrating their first school and outlaw Jesse James on his horse.
A group of volunteers called the Clay County Mural Committee determined the content, but McClain says he added several features without their permission.
His first act of rebellion was prompted by concerns that his overseers were only interested in the county’s white history.
“So I put a foreshortened outline of Africa in the ground, at the very middle of it, like a silent protest,” says McClain. “I thought they’d make me remove it because I thought they’d see it, but they didn’t. So it’s still there.”
McClain added other features without approval. For example, one of the Native American figures has a scar on his back. McClain knew what this looked like because his own father’s back was badly marked by childhood surgery for a lung infection.
He also connected his own family to Clay County’s diverse history by painting the words “Dedicated to My Mother” into the pages of an open book held by Professor James A. Gay, one of the first principals of the Garrison School for local African-American children.
“Oh no, he never told me that!” says Angie Borgedalen, the former editor of the Liberty Tribune and chair of the mural committee.
Borgedalen was the one who came up with the mural idea, along with a unique way of funding the project that, while not a secret, grows less well-known with each passing year.
When Borgedalen asked McClain how much he would charge to paint the mural, he said he’d do it for $7,500. The Fine Arts Council had agreed to pay only $2,500, so Borgedalen had to come up with the rest.
“I don’t know where I came up with the idea but it was brilliant,” says Borgedalen. “I said, ‘How about if I sell faces?’”
She offered local residents a deal: For $250, they could have their faces painted into the artwork. She figured people might want to be models for a scene showing the old interurban rail line that ran through Liberty from Kansas City to Excelsior Springs until the 1930s.
“I thought, ‘You know, he’s just going to paint generic people in that train,’" Borgedalen remembers. "So I wrote 25 letters to people that I thought might give us some money and I said, ‘We’re doing this mural and your face will only be about the size of a quarter!’ And I got 24 yeses.”
The first person to contact her, Borgedalen says, was the son of a well-known doctor.
“He calls me up and he says, ‘I think this is a great idea and I would like to have my father on there, but do you think he could be bigger?’ And I said, ‘Well, the windows on the train are not very big.' And he said, ‘How about if I give you a thousand dollars?’ and I said, ‘Ok.’”
McClain painted the doctor six inches tall, getting off the train.
Borgedalen says the owner of a bed and breakfast jumped at the chance to immortalize himself, even though she knew he was having money troubles.
“I said, ‘Are you sure you can afford this?’ And he said, ‘I want to be on that mural.’”
And so he is, on the train, just to left of a sailor. People paid to have their pets involved, including a horse and a one-eared cat. Borgedalen even points out a toddler who’s actually her granddaughter.
A quarter of a century after completion, David McClain’s murals inside the Clay County Administration building remain a vivid illustration of the county’s diverse history, the price of vanity of some local residents, and McClain’s ability to keep a secret.
Danny Wood is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.