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An Artist Built A Wall That Blocked Traffic In Kansas City, And People Loved It

Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3
Artist Andy Goldsworthy oversees the final and permanent stage of his 'Walking Wall' at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

A roving work of art has sparked a lot of thought about the nature of walls this year, especially among those who live near the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

"Walking Wall" is a 100-ton art installation that’s been blocking traffic and building friendships as it moved toward the Bloch Building at the museum.

On Wednesday, it goes inside — and stops.

Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist famous for outdoor sculptures with rocks and wood, is the guy behind the “Walking Wall” in Kansas City.  

“It is in all sorts of ways an anti-wall,” says Goldsworthy. “It is errant, a wall gone rogue."

He adds, "It doesn’t follow boundaries, borders. It crosses them. It connects things. It does everything walls normally don’t do.”

Moving one rock at a time

Workers started building the first stretch of this limestone wall in March in an open, grassy lot across from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Then, they began tearing it down, back to front, and moving it stone-by-stone — right across Rockhill Road.

“It was, and it is, inconvenient,” says Goldsworthy. “And it’s been in the nature of this wall not to behave.”

By mid-summer, the wall hopped another stall and squiggled up to block a museum entrance, and Goldsworthy says hot, summer days are when he really got a reaction.

“And people walked across here, aiming for the air conditioning of the Nelson-Atkins," he says, "and there’s this wall, and the anger!”

But mostly love 

Laurel Hughes, a Kansas City painter, says she visits the wall every morning.

“I love the wall. I love the energy," she says. "I love the whole project. I love touching the stones."

Hughes pats the flat rocks on top. “They all make different sounds. They all have different characters, different colors,” she says. 

Credit Frank Morris
Kansas City artist Laurel Hughes has been visiting the wall each day it's under construction and many days when it's not. She likes playing the flat stones on top.

"Walking Wall" attracts people from all over. On Monday morning, visitors from Texas, New Jersey and Alaska milled around looking at it.

Tempe Elsberry, a former Kansas City Ballet dancer, happens by. She is dressed to the nines, carrying her infant son.

“You know, when he was a baby, we’d come and visit and see how it’s progressing. And it kind of paralleled how he’s progressing,” says Elsberry. “You know, he’s sitting, and now, he’s standing on the wall. And (he) actually put a stone in the wall.”

She adds, “And they’re so sweet, they encourage it.”

In fact, a micro-community has sprouted around the wall — and Goldsworthy.

Rick Krupco, a mail carrier, stops by daily. He leans on the wall chatting with Kansas City Art Institute student Drea DiCarlo about what makes this sculpture-in-progress so great.

“I think the movement is it,” says Krupco. “A wall is a wall. The fact that a wall could actually move, like a slinky, the back of it becomes the front of it. It’s simple but also fascinating.”

“What’s really incredible is just the active labor that it takes and consistency, and precision and craft," says DiCarlo. "It’s really a well-made wall." 

A good ‘waller’

Gordon Wilton, a two-time Dry Stone Walling Association champion, has been building and re-building the wall for nine months. 

“A good waller should never pick a stone up twice,” says Wilton.

The secret, he says, is picking up the right stone in the first place. If you lift up a stone and put it down, you’re wasting time.

Credit Frank Morris
73-year-old Gordon Wilton, a two-time British Champion wall builder, begins the last stage of the 'Walking Wall.'

When Wilton and the other builders do fit stones into this wall, they’re meant to stay — even if the ground shifts. There’s no mortar, so the wall can bend without breaking. It’s fluid that way.

Goldsworthy says the wall will enter the Bloch Building, the building it’s been slithering around for months, and come to a stop.

“When you stand inside you’ll see a small fragment inside the museum, and you know there’s a much bigger story outside,” he says. “That’s the lesson. That’s what I think people should reflect upon.”

Frank Morris is a national NPR correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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