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Johnson County Library Examines Issues Relating To Race In 'Beyond Skin'

Johnson County is the largest and fastest-growing county in Kansas.

And it’s becoming more diverse. But if you take a quick look at the latest census numbers, the population is still more than 80 percent white. It’s also about 7 percent Hispanic or Latino, 5 percent Asian, and 5 percent African-American.

This fall, the library launched a series of programs called Beyond Skin

"There are these assumptions or even stereotypes about Johnson County," says Joseph Keehn, event producer at the Johnson County Public Library.

A group of staffers and community members met at the first of the year to map out programming. Keehn says exploring issues like race and stereotypes — in author talks, community forums, story times and exhibitions — rose to the top.

"We do have a poverty level increase, a rising immigration population," he says. "If you look at Johnson County in terms of looking beyond the skin of Johnson County itself, you’re going to find maybe some of those universals that this county experiences just like every other county."

At the Lackman Neighborhood Library in Lenexa, Kan., it's a no-school day. Just before noon, the library is a popular stop for kids and parents. 

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR
Brothers Aaron (at left), 9, and Leo, 8, Scaletty worked on their self-portraits. Youth Services librarian Chris Koppenhaver (at center) was on hand to assist.

Jill Scaletty sits at a table with her two grade schoolers, Aaron, 9, and Leo, 8. She reads the instructions for this day’s workshop called Beyond Skin – Inner Self-Portraits.

"Ok, here’s some other questions. How many people know these things about you? Which are public, which are private?" she asks.

The boys are quietly hunched over big sheets of paper with stacks of slick book covers, scissors, glue sticks and colored pencils. 

"Really, I think the power of art and the power of creation really taps a whole side that we don’t necessarily engage in day to day," says Scaletty, whose background is in art therapy. "So I think when we do engage that it does unlock a whole other part of ourselves. I think art is just a powerful expression." 

Magazine clippings, writing and drawings sprawl across eight-year-old Jacob Rotz’s self-portrait. 

"I like animals, and I like boats, and I like snakes and frogs," Rotz says with enthusiasm. "I basically like all the animals and the ocean ... and I like climbing on rocks. I like seeing rainbows." 

Youth Services librarian Chris Koppenhaver sits near the door, greeting parents and kids as they walk in. He created a self-portrait of his own, one showing his love of books, his role as a father – but also another side.

"I think part of going beyond your skin, and getting a little deeper, is being able to admit your vulnerabilities," Koppenhaver says. "And the monsters and the worry and things like that, demonstrate that we all have that side of ourselves as well."

Professional artists also have their work on display at a handful of the libraries. Beyond Skin is the title of a group exhibition at the Central Resource Library. There are paintings, prints, photographs, as well as an installation of typewriters. 

Credit courtesy of the artist
courtesy of the artist
Artist A. Bitterman's photograph "Troost Avenue" represents the role of Troost as a racial dividing line.

Shoe Heaven, a painting by children’s book illustrator Shane Evans, includes the words: "in my hood when a man passes we take his sneakers." One of A.Bitterman's photographs is called Troost Avenue. The artist sits on a chair, his body is shaded black on one side, white on the other - physically representing the historic racial divide. 

"So you have this dichotomy of white and black and it's literally on Troost Avenue. And you see Troost Avenue in the foreground," says Keehn.

"We create these demarcations. We create these lines, just like the application of make-up on him. He's applying that make-up. We're presenting this information on ourselves."

In the middle of the gallery are four vintage typewriters from the 1920s to the '60s. Each holds a sheet of paper with a neatly typed prompt.

"One of them is 'Explore your personal definition of diversity,'" reads Keehn. "Another one has 'Write a story about the first time you realized race was an issue in your life.'"

Keehn says the artist, Jordan Ashley Hocker, will soon be activating this artwork called The Typewriter Table — with the help of the community. 

KC+Connect First Friday Group Exhibition, Friday, Nov. 7, 6 - 9 pm, Mid-America Arts Alliance, 2018 Baltimore Ave., Kansas City, Mo. The exhibition includes some of the artists featured at the Johnson County libraries. 

The closing reception for the Beyond Skin exhibition takes place on Saturday, Nov. 8, 12 - 4 pm, Central Resource Library, 9875 W. 87th Street, Overland Park, Kan. 913-826-4600.

Beyond Skin programming continues through the end of November. 

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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