Psychiatric Museum Exhibit Builds Momentum For The Comeback Of Kansas City Artist Arthur Kraft
The posthumous resurgence of interest in Kansas City artist Arthur Kraft, who died in 1977, continues to gain momentum.
In the past 20 years, two major retrospectives were launched at the Carter Art Center and the Albrecht-Kemper of Art, his murals have been rediscovered and a scholarship was established in his name. This year, fans of Kraft's work have new reasons to celebrate with the opening of an exhibit exploring a dark time in Kraft's life and a major mural restoration.
For the next six months, the The Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph commemorates Kraft, who once spent five weeks in the alcoholic ward of the St. Joseph State Hospital.
“Obviously Arthur Kraft was a fantastic artist and the five weeks he spent at the hospital in St. Joseph made a huge impression on him,” says Kathy Reno, the director of marketing and public relations at the St. Joseph Museums.
“He also was one of the few people who made a record of a patient’s experiences here. He sketched, he wrote little poems and stories about the people he met.”
The show, which opened on Jan. 16, is called "Sounds of Fury." It features five paintings on loan from the The Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, large-scale pages from Kraft's book by the same name and paintings on loan from area collectors.
The exhibit fills a temporary space in the museum, which records the 145-year history of the state hospital and centuries of mental health treatment in St. Joseph. Across the hall from educational displays on treatments such as lobotomies and electroshock therapy are Kraft's large-scale figure drawings and paintings in opulent jewel tones.
During his stay in 1971, Kraft compiled his observations and drawings of fellow patients into "Sounds of Fury," a limited-edition book published in 1971. For the exhibit, the fanciful sketches and handwritten descriptions of the patients he met there have been enlarged to life-size. On the walls are vivid works, some of which he painted on weekends during his stay.
Reno says Kraft's book provides an important record from the perspective of the patient.
People noticed Kraft's talent for drawing when he was just a boy during the Saturday-morning art classes he took at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. By the age of 13, he was selling work at the Plaza Art Fair. Kraft went on to Yale University's School of Fine Arts, but his studies were interrupted by the Second World War. He served in the Army before returning to Yale to finish his degree.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Kraft received numerous national awards and was commissioned to create many high-profile public art projects including whimsical sculptures, murals and stained-glass windows. His best known work in Kansas City might be "Court of the Penguins," a series of three, five-foot bronze sculptures displayed on Kansas City's Country Club Plaza.
“His lines are always alive," says Megan Wyeth, who curated the works included in the Glore exhibit and has included several from her personal collection.
"Some of his lines are electric and some look like barbed wire. Some are smooth and some are curved and although some look really loose, they are intentional and they are very powerful.”
Wyeth's father, Allen Schreiber, was a longtime friend and supporter of Kraft's work. In 1971, he encouraged Kraft to seek treatment and offered the use of his farm in Andrew County, just north of St. Joseph, as a place to paint during weekend breaks away from the state hospital. Kraft took the opportunity to paint vivid versions of the things he saw there: a thistle, corn, hay and a sunflower.
Wyeth discovered a copy of Kraft's book about his hospital stay in an old box of her father's things. The artist's descriptions of patients are poignant and powerful, she says.
"When I first found it in an old box in my parent’s house, it was jaw dropping," Wyeth says. "I had never seen anything like it before. The quotes inside the book are amazing — not just the stories he wrote, but Arthur’s thoughts."
Wyeth says the idea for Kraft's book was inspired by a desire to help the patients he met during his stay.
“The experience there really affected him deeply and he felt that the people there really needed help," Wyeth says. "He was not only a great artist but he was a compassionate person and he wanted to use his sketches and his art to show other people that there were people suffering."
Kristina Nicholson, who works in the communications and graphic design department at Glore, read the book several times during the process of photographing the sketches and stories Kraft wrote.
"My favorite character is Nettie," Nicholson says. "There is something about her stance and the way he described her. Her face gives you the sense that she is lost and she doesn’t know what she is supposed to be doing but she knows that she is very classy."
I first encountered her on the elevator. She talked nervously about high fashion... Her name was Nettie and she originally came from Eudora, Oklahoma. She was a lost soul, but she managed to give the appearance of a little style with a red blanket that she clutched as if her life depended upon it. I learned much from her about the other people who were there. Dear Nettie, I wonder where she is now. —Arthur Kraft, Sounds of Fury, 1971
In addition to the exhibit in St. Joseph, a rediscovered mural by Kraft is in the process of being restored in a storage building at Zahner's Kansas City headquarters.
The oil on canvas depicting downtown Kansas City and the Missouri River was discovered back in 1983, beneath a layer of drywall during a renovation of the old Ambassador Hotel. It was restored in the 1980s but was in danger of being thrown away when the hotel underwent major renovations in 2014.
The developers called Peggy Van Witt, of Van Witt Fine Art Conservation, who carefully removed the thin canvas from the wall. The mural spent several years rolled up in her studio before she found time to tackle the daunting 25-foot by 3 1/2-foot painting.
“That’s what we do," Van Witt says. "I love preserving art. If it’s in my studio, it's going to get repaired. I just can’t not do it.”
Late last year, Van Witt partnered with Zahner to build an aluminum core lining to stabilize the large work. Then Van Witt began the painstaking task of carefully cleaning and restoring the mural. She says the mural shows Kraft's command of the medium and is worth saving.
"I think he had some personal problems with the alcohol, but gosh, he was an absolute genius," she says. "There’s no struggle in any of this. This was knocked out in a day or two. And that’s how you can tell a great artist. Are they struggling with the little lines or are there big arm movements? He laid it down and it's done. That’s what I love about him because it’s so freeing."
"Sounds of Fury," Arthur Kraft's paintings, through July 16 at the Glore Psychiatric Museum, 3406 Frederick Ave., St. Joseph, Missouri.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.