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Arts & Life

For Earth Day, Artist Reveals Expanded 'Oasis' In Northeast Kansas City

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Anne Kniggendorf
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KCUR 89.3
Rebecca Koop's mosaic building facade is made up of thousands of one-inch tiles.

Rebecca Koop has worked on beautifying her corner of Northeast Kansas City for decades. She'll show off her tile mosaic on April 22.

This Earth Day, artist Rebecca Koop will show off a project she’s worked on for years: rehabbing and beautifying her corner of historic Northeast Kansas City. At a garden party, she’ll debut the 450-square-foot tile mosaic that now covers the façade of her building.

“I’m making an investment. I want an oasis. I want more art in this community. This was my way of doing that,” Koop says.

That goal was set in 1986 when she rented a rundown hardware store in a tiny strip next to a laundromat on St. John Avenue and made it her pottery studio. When the laundromat closed the following year, Koop, who taught at William Jewell University for 19 years and has since worked at the Northeast Chamber of Commerce, purchased the entire building.

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Anne Kniggendorf
Rebecca Koop offers garden plots to her neighbors.

She was just getting started.

Parts of the Northeast are plagued by empty lots and dangerously dilapidated structures. Koop (who pronounces her name Cope) grew up in the area and was familiar with the often challenging landscape.

So, as bits and pieces of the property around her studio became available, she bought them. The empty lot, the land where a double-vaulted warehouse once stood, all are fragments of what she’s transformed into her oasis.

And rather than develop the land, she made it a part of her community by creating a huge community garden in which residents can rent space for flower and vegetable gardens. Years into that endeavor, mature fruit trees border the edge of the property, and she’s built a small stage and firepit for events.

But improving her building ended up being a much bigger enterprise.

“I’d wanted to beautify it since I bought it, but I wasn’t able to do that. It was in 2017, I finally found a contractor that tore off all the old façade and stucco and siding and put a new coat of concrete stucco on it,” Koop says. “At that point, I had a canvas I could actually do something with.”

She’d been collecting recycled tile for the mosaic since 2005, largely for a dollar per square foot at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. That’s also when she made her first concept drawing for the building.

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Anne Kniggendorf
Rebecca Koop carefully planned the mosaic on paper before attempting to execute the design.

“It has kind of a curved roof façade and lent very well for what I imagined as an earth, following that circle and those curves,” Koop says. “I’m a potter, I used clay, that’s earth. There’s a lot of symbolism to that.”

And while she loves and actively catalogues Kansas City's many painted murals, she wanted her creation to feel more permanent than what paint could offer.

Koop thinks hers is the only true tile mosaic — as opposed to a decoratively tiled wall— in Kansas City, since the old Board of Education building’s Arthur Kraft mosaic was mothballed last year prior to the demolition of that structure.

The tiles she’d collected for more than a decade proved to be insufficient; the scope of the project was massive. A volunteer who was helping Koop told her he was trying to calculate how many 1-inch tiles they’d used. She stopped him, saying the information would be frightening.

Koop used her studio’s Facebook page to find neighbors willing to help. A total of about 45 people spent time laying out the tile on numbered squares of mesh. Eventually they climbed onto scaffolding to attach the tiles to the building.

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Rebecca Koop
Rebecca Koop (right) and Beth Keith installing the mosaic.

Beth Keith helped a lot before the pandemic. Keith, a retired graphic design professor, moved to the area four years ago from Waynesville, Missouri, in search of a more urban experience. She loved the diversity and the growing arts community in the Northeast and now lives just around the corner from Koop’s studio.

Keith says she learned how to cut tiles, install the work, apply the grout — everything — and she is looking forward to the Earth Day event.

The mosaic is “a wonderful, positive addition," Keith says. "Her garden has been there for a while," she adds. "Just the fact that she’s looking at a long-term thing, having fruit trees, and providing plots for community members. Those are things that really add to a community and are important.”

For her free event, Koop plans to make a game of locating the various hidden earthy and celestial symbols in her mosaic: whales, a clipper ship, constellations, dolphins — even a flying saucer.

“It’s community building, I believe,” Koop says, “and awareness of what’s here. I’ve noticed now when people drive by, they turn their heads.”

Koop’s Earth Day reveal is on Thursday, April 22 from 5-8 p.m. at 3922 St John Ave. KCMO 64123. Rain date is Saturday, April 24 at the same time. RSVP on Eventbrite.

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