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Arts & Life

The Story So Far In Kansas City: How The Pandemic Put Two Career Artists Back Where They Started

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR.org
Before the pandemic, Lawrence muralist Dave Loewenstein did most of his work in the street, organizing communities to make murals together. Now he spends more time in his studio, a converted service station.

Making a career as an artist is a creative gesture as bold and miraculous as any brushstroke. There's no clear path to success, and even great success does not guarantee economic survival. You can get your book published, your paintings displayed, your name in the credits of a movie, and still find yourself unable to visit a dentist or pay your rent. And the jobs artists take to stay afloat can end up consuming the time and energy needed to clear the hump of mediocrity.

Randy Regier and Dave Loewenstein pulled it off, though. They've been prolific, they've been celebrated, they've been fed. But now the pandemic has set them back to square one.

Turns out, that's not all bad. Of course, it's not all good, either.

This is an artsy installment of The Story So Far, looking at life six months into coronavirus in Kansas City.

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR.org
Randy Regier stands in the engine space of a '71 LeMans. Regier once left the autobody industry to become a fulltime artist; now he's back.

"He asked me, 'What were you before you came here?' and I looked at him and said 'I was an artist and an autobody man.'" — Randy Regier

Randy Regier creates nostalgic-looking mechanical toys that he assembles in darkly humorous scenes that make us question, in really subtle ways, what it is we're so nostalgic for, anyway. These vignettes have earned him acclaim, including a spot in a national exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum featuring work by the most exciting new artists across America.

Regier's craftsmanship is part of why. You don't look at the toys he's manufactured and think, "an artist made this, it's supposed to be a toy car." You think, "this is a toy car."

His training? Years in an autobody shop.

"Walk into any production autobody shop that's worth its salt," he told me in 2014. "What's happening is, let's say you've got a $40,000 car and you hit a deer ... you take it to this shop full of people. You are asking them to turn back time and erase that incident."

Regier considers that vision and craftmanship next-level artistry. That being said, he thought he'd left the autobody shop behind for good decades ago.

Back in March of this year, Regier signed on for a new artistic gig. He put in notice at his old job framing art at a mom-n'-pop shop in Brookside. That was the day before Kansas City went on lockdown.

"The next morning I got up, got ready, and saw I had an email informing me to stay home, everything was put on indefinite hold."

Before he knew it, he was bagging groceries. Then he got a text about an opportunity as a mail carrier. He jumped on it. But mail carrying in 2020 turned out to be not great. Between the piles of junk mail he knew people didn't want and heat indexes hovering around 104, the work gave him an existential crisis.

One day, a veteran mail carrier was sent to check on Regier, who was nowhere near where he should have been on his route. What began as a stern talking-to became a tender heart-to-heart that left Regier sobbing in his mail truck.

"He asked me, 'What were you before you came here?' And I looked at him and said, 'I was an artist and an autobody man.'"

Regier was surprised to hear how he'd answered that question. After all these years, he still saw himself as an autobody man. A lightbulb went on. He had another skill set. Why hadn't he thought to use it? Regier started contacting autobody shops that night. Now he has keys to a shop, tons of autonomy.

Also: He's making more money than he ever did as an artist.

"If I look at it as a timeline, it's really hard, because it's like I took this whole career as an artist and just threw it over a cliff into the abyss," he says. "But if I look at it as just this moment, I'm not in an abyss. I'm doing OK."

"I live next to a golf course and I'm putting money away," he marvels. "What is that?"

As for getting through the uncertainty of it all, Regier has found unexpected solace reading science fiction, though he admits that it's been eerie to put down the books and still find himself in a warped reality.

It reminds him of a line from Waking Life, a 2001 movie about mind-bending stuff like the nature of reality. A character in the movie asks how you know if you're in a dream. The answer, as Regier remembers it, is this: "Reach for a light switch and flip it on and off. If the lights don't change, you're in a dream."

The pandemic, Regier says, feels like that, like reaching for the light switch day after day.

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR.org
Dave Loewenstein stands near the door to his studio where he has displayed his latest message.

"I’m feeling my sense of time collapse"—Dave Loewenstein

Dave Loewenstein is a key player in the Lawrence art scene. He's the mural guy. His art is woven into the city itself: you can see it all over Lawrence neighborhoods, Lawrence buildings, and Lawrence politics.

His mural commissions take him beyond Lawrence, as well. He visits small towns all over the country for extended residencies, where he organizes communities to tell their own stories.

"My belief is that these projects need to be nurtured and imagined by the folks in the place," Loewenstein says. "I'm there to help, I'm there to lend my skills."

Loewenstein visited Joplin after the devastating 2011 tornado, for example, and got kids to talk about the dreams they'd had since the wreckage. Images from those dreams ended up in the project.

On the one hand, the pandemic has created a scenario where art outdoors, in public, could take on special meaning in people's lives.

On the other hand, gathering lots of people to talk about where they live isn't realistic. At least, not in the way Loewenstein is used to.

He likes assembling people to work through often conflicting versions of the truth of a place's identity. Ideas for murals emerge from conversations across well-worn divisions of class, race and generation.

"You're trying to encourage folks who may not normally get together to try it, to take a little bit of a risk," Loewenstein explains. "Well, those are the risks we're not taking now, you know?"

Loewenstein did complete one mural project this summer. It was for a commission he'd received before the pandemic, to paint the side of an old movie theater in Wayne, Nebraska. What was conceived as a group effort turned into a solo affair.

"They were like, 'you're not having any community meetings and nobody but you can paint this mural,'" Loewenstein recalls. "And I was like, 'Wow, that is totally different.'"

He stayed alone at a Super 8 motel and never broke bread with any locals. He also struggled to get input that felt meaningful because only stakeholders showed up for Zoom meetings. Nobody just wandered by the mural site, which is one way he typically gets less vocal citizens involved. Those who did pass by were wary, due to COVID anxiety, as was Loewenstein.

"Those moments were a little more tentative," he acknowledges.

It's brought back memories of when he was just starting out as an artist, when he had a lot of ideas but not a clue how to make them a reality. Back then, Loewenstein was working at The Merc — a food coop — as a produce manager and "wondering, like, what the hell? Am I interested in making art? What kind of art can I make? And what if it doesn't pan out?"

"I’m feeling my sense of time collapse," he says.

Financially, that's hard. Loewenstein filed for unemployment, which came through — "Thank God," he says. He made a living, pre-COVID, from a combination of revenue streams, including public talks through Humanities Kansas.

"I would give ten or fifteen of those talks a year and it really helped out," he says. "Well, those are all gone, they all dropped out too."

Loewenstein is still meeting, via Zoom, with an expansive network of community-based artists, many of them muralists like himself, all over the world. They're trying to figure out, together, how to rise to the occasion as a group, reflecting people's lives and stories back to them at a time when they need it most, even as funding has evaporated for individual artists, who may be struggling just to get through the week.

He's also doing a project called The Pen Is Mightier Than The Tweet, collecting images of people posing as though filling out ballots, and then wheat-pasting them around Lawrence in what he calls a "non-permission" initiative. "There are other ways to say that," Loewenstein acknowledges matter-of-factly.

As one might imagine, "non-permission" wheat-pasting activities aren't lucrative.

Creatively, though, the disruption of Loewenstein's routine has an upside. He finally has space for the projects he'd put on a back burner. As a father of a 3-year-old boy, he's been dreaming of writing and illustrating children's books. But the paying work he already knew how to do always took precedence.

"This moment has interrupted that flow."

Another thing that's collapsed Loewenstein's sense of time has been spending so much of his time with his young son, and seeing the world in a more childlike way.

"For those, how many months was it? Five, four or five months? There was no preschool. So, you know, it was just he and I hanging out doing all sorts of things," Loewenstein says. "Our relationship deepened and expanded in many ways. Year two to three, the cognitive and emotional thing just jumps, memory starts happening. And so I am grateful to have had that time. I'm lucky to have been able to spend that time."

Do you want to step back and consider how the last six months have changed you? Tell us your "story so far" by answering our questionnaire, and it may end up appearing in a future installment of this series.

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