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Jim Leedy: The Documentary

The Crossroads, a once blighted area in downtown Kansas City, is now a thriving arts district. 

But in the early 1980s, when it was full of rundown warehouses, some called it simply Leedyville, a nod to artist Jim Leedy, who encouraged other artists to set up studios - and businesses to move to the area.

After years of starts and stops, a new film documenting Leedy’s past and present is slated to make its debut.

"Enough of a visionary"

Stephanie Leedy, with blonde bangs and her hair in a twist, sits in the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, the light-filled Crossroads gallery at 2012 Baltimore named for the late ceramic artist Peter Voulkos and her father, Jim Leedy.

"A lot of people would agree if I said he was a visionary, and maybe a little naïve. And I mean that in a good way," says Leedy, also an artist who studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.

"By buying the buildings and just plunging into something, he was enough of a visionary, he could see that there was a future for down here (Crossroads)."

Looking for a space for artists, creating a community

Artist Jim Leedy joined the Kansas City Art Institute's sculpture department in 1966. In the early 1970s, he continued a pattern in Westport that began during an earlier teaching gig in Montana, renting space to show work by students and colleagues - with a studio for himself upstairs.

But when the rent rose from about $500 to $5000 month, he was priced out. Leedy started looking for another location.

"I looked all over town, went to the (West) Bottoms, went by the (City) Market," says Leedy. "Every time I was going through this area near Crown Center, it was blighted, but I thought it’s too close to Crown Center, nothing would be cheap enough. I tried it one day and I bought a building for very, very cheap."

In an area called Leedyville, Freight House District, and more often these days, the Crossroads Arts District, in the early 1980s, Jim Leedy bought more buildings, and established studio spaces for artists, an art gallery, and a community. All while creating his own art: sculptures, prints, paintings, public art - and teaching.

Growth through exploration

It's October 2007, on a cool day inside the sculpture department at the Kansas City Art Institute.

"What we're doing today is critiquing," explains Jim Leedy, wearing a jaunty hat and sipping coffee. "These are seniors and this is their next to final semester."

Sitting in a wheelchair with "LEEDY'S RIDE" in yellow letters on the back, Leedy tempered criticism with  praise for a student's work: white ceramic birds on a nest of vines on a stump. The student describes how she was inspired by a National Geographic photo of "grotesquely beautiful" baby birds.

"This (the ceramic birds) is beautiful. You're carrying out the emotion that you had when you saw that picture. You did an excellent job," says Leedy. Then, he adds, about the other layers: "All this is crap. It means nothing to it except in some sort of conceptual way. It's just an easy solution. And I think it takes away from your piece. I would rather just see it on a white pedestal."

Leedy's advice: to always be conscious of where you've been when heading in a new direction.

"That's what builds you as an artist. It's like stacking bricks, you can't get to the final brick on top, without all the layers that got you there," says Leedy. "So it's all a growth, from piece to piece, the result of everything that's happened in your exploration."

The seeds of creating a film

Artist Kevin McGraw met Jim Leedy in the mid-1980s, when he was a student at the University of Kansas. McGraw says he started to consider the idea of a film after the book, Artist Across Boundaries, about Leedy’s life and work, was released in 2000. He says he knew there were more stories to tell.

"There’s so much work and so much of his heart and soul in the Crossroads," says McGraw. "And I just felt like people needed to see it. I just felt like it needed to be done."

In 2006, McGraw teamed up with Wide Awake Films, a company specializing in history, mostly Civil War documentaries. Matt Hawley was brought on as editor, and Kevin Worley as a writer and producer. Worley describes Leedy as a gentle person with an ornery streak.

"And people are definitely drawn to him, they like to be around him and it’s a part of the documentary that will probably be the most hard to capture," says Worley. "Until you meet him in person, it’s hard to convey the warmth and the charisma that he projects. I don’t even know that he does it on purpose, but it’s there. Maybe it’s because he’s a teacher and an artist."

The crew sifted through old photographs, recorded interviews, and collected footage of crowds at First Fridays. In 2007, a trailer premiered on the public television station, KCPT.

Film stalls, gains momentum again

But then there was the financial and economic crash of 2008. Kevin McGraw says fundraising was tough.

"The bottom dropped out of the economy," recalls McGraw. "I was having fundraising parties and there were no funds getting raised. So that slowed things down."

And things changed. In the spring of 2008, Jim Leedy retired from the Kansas City Art Institute after a 42-year career; Kevin Worley returned to school to earn a master’s to teach, inspired in part by Leedy. In late 2010, McGraw says he started the conversation again with Matt Hawley, the original editor, who was now working on his own, and things started to progress.

McGraw says he was determined not to quit. And set a date in 2012 for the film to premiere.

"I just told Jim: August 31," says McGraw. "And I go, 'Oops, I didn’t ask Matt yet.'" 

Fundraising still remains an issue. Matt Hawley, now director of the film, has been working largely for free. A Kickstarter campaign is in the works to produce a DVD and pay for closed captioning for an expected airing on KCPT in the fall.

McGraw says he’s crossing his fingers, hoping the film shows the impact of Jim Leedy – not only on generations of artists, but also on Kansas City.

A public screening of “Leedy: The Documentary” takes place at 8:30 pm (SOLD OUT) Friday, Aug. 31 at Screenland Crossroads Theater, 1656 Washington Street, Kansas City, Mo. A second showing is also scheduled for 10 pm. A reception follows at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Avenue, Kansas City, Mo. KCPT is expected to air the documentary in the fall (note: a date has not yet been set).

There's also a Kickstarter campaign in progress for "Leedy: The Documentary." Find out more here.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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