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Kansas Citians Celebrate The Art That Helped Them Weather The Pandemic

Julie Denesha
Kelly Ludwig is a creative director and designer who lives in Kansas City. She collects the work of self-taught artists and her home is filled with sculptures of angels and devils and wild paintings using unconventional materials.

As our worlds begin to open up and people make plans to head back to the office, one of the pandemic lessons we'll carry with us is that the art we surround ourselves with helps us endure.

When COVID-19 lockdowns were in full swing, the objects in our homes and the artwork on our walls took on new significance. For many, art became the backdrop for video calls. For some Kansas Citians, though, art became a source for solace, healing and humor. Here are some of their stories.

A father's portrait

Musician and composer Robert Castillo was determined to paint a portrait of his father, who grew up in Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula.

For months, Castillo struggled to capture his father's image on the canvas. He knew something was missing.

“What I'm noticing is that a lot of people have been faced with their demons,” Castillo says. "And it was painfully apparent that it was time to address mine.”

Castillo grew up wanting to know more about his Mayan heritage and his father’s childhood in Mexico. But whenever he asked, his father would stonewall him and grow distant.

Kathryn Castillo
Robert Castillo says he struggled to paint a portrait of his father until they were able to have a deeper conversation during the pandemic.

“I knew part of his story,” Castillo remembers. “I knew that he was orphaned in Mexico at the age of 5 and he and his brothers had to fend for themselves with machetes. Some of the things he's seen are just unimaginable.”

When Castillo turned 29, he pushed his father to open up.

“He just told me the most devastating stuff,” says Castillo. “I’m sure I freaked out the neighbors — I was crying so loudly and hugging him. He was crying too and he doesn't do that. You know, you have to be a tough, macho dude.”

Castillo says conversation helped heal his relationship with his father. It also helped him finish the portrait.

Robert Castillo
Castillo finished this portrait of his father in 2020.

“We have had great conversations now,” Castillo says. “We’ve gone on walks and he’s called me just so he can tell me stories about our family. It scares me that those stories might not have been passed on.”

Castillo says seeing the painting now gives him a sense of accomplishment. He says his father has seen the portrait.

“He honestly did not say much about it, but I know that is not how he expresses his love and his pride,” Castillo says. “I know that about him now."

Julie Denesha
Larnell Jones is a third generation family member of the Lawrence A. Jones & Sons Funeral Chapels on East Linwood Boulevard. He works as a licensed funeral director and embalmer.

A focal point

Larnell Jones is a third-generation family member of the Lawrence A. Jones & Sons Funeral Chapels on East Linwood Boulevard. He works as a licensed funeral director and embalmer.

“It has been an interesting year, to say the least,” Jones says. “Obviously, my nine to five is to serve families in an unfortunate time. But in the beginning of all this, we couldn’t have funerals.”

Eventually they were able to hold small graveside services. Families were only allowed only six or seven relatives. Even those limitations presented challenges for him and the people he serves, Jones says.

“Traditionally in the African-American culture, the demographic that we predominantly serve, funeral ceremonies are a ritual and a rite of passage,” he says. “So many symbolic traditions and rituals were just not adhered to the last year or so. Imagine not being able to honor your loved one's life the way you wanted to honor it. There was lots of heartache, lots of pain.”

At home, Jones has covered his walls with work by local African-American artists. After a long day, the colorful paintings remind him of the world outside the apartment he shares with his elderly aunt.

“I’ve always valued art,” Jones says. “I was blessed to grow up with a mother who did her best to expose us to the arts.”

Harold Smith
Jones purchased "Untitled" from Harold Smith's "Vibrant Duo" series back in 2019. He says the mixed-media painting reminded him of the world outside the walls of the apartment he shares with his elderly aunt.

Lately he’s been drawn to one painting in particular. The work by area artist Harold Smith features two jazz musicians. One plays the trumpet. The other plays saxophone.

“I think every room should have a focal point and this just stands out for me,” says Jones. “The color, the theme, the way he created the images and what he created them from. You see there’s newspaper here, there’s paint, there’s fabric in here.”

Jones says the work he collects helps ground him during difficult times.

“Obviously Kansas City is a great place and 18th and Vine is the hub of the city for Jazz music and African-American culture” Jones says. “So this to me symbolizes so much. It was a connection to the city, a connection to the African experience and also a connection to jazz music as well. It’s absolutely amazing.”

Julie Denesha
Mo Dickens sits beneath a ceramic work by his wife Cary Esser, a ceramic artist and Chair of Ceramics at the Kansas City Art Institute

Art as humor

Mo Dickens works as a gallery associate at The Belger Arts Center in the Crossroads. Before the pandemic, he was gallery hopping four nights a week. When things shut down, he and his wife Cary Esser, who is a ceramic artist and chair of ceramics at the Kansas City Art Institute, were able to enjoy their gallery at home.

“The majority of our time was spent inside and it was like visiting a museum, you know, to see all the stuff that we have accumulated over years,” Dickens says. “So many of Cary's former students have given us stuff over the years.”

As the pandemic continued, Dickens and Esser spent a lot of time on their front porch. “We ate most of our meals on the porch last spring and summer and fall,” Dickens says. “We had some pretty decent weather.

An object there inspired some of the humor that proved to be essential for weathering the times.

"There's one piece in particular that is very special," Dickens says. "Cary got it for me for my 50th birthday.”

Julie Denesha
On the day Dickens turned 50, his wife Cary Esser presented him with a large ceramic, heart-shaped platter covered with blue elephants and cheerleaders by artist Johanna Keefe. In 2020, Dickens says the two shared many meals beneath the work out on their front porch.

It’s a large, heart-shaped ceramic platter by artist Johanna Keefe. It’s festooned with cobalt-blue elephants and dancing cheerleaders. Dickens says it’s the only piece of art that he knows of that came delivered with a recorded cheer. The cheer, Dickens says, is an easy one to remember.

“50 years and nine months ago, your parents had sex. Oh, that's nasty. Oh, that's gross.”

Dickens says, much to Esser’s chagrin, he relishes repeating the cheer for guests who come to the house.

When she created the piece, Keefe was a part of a group of guerrilla cheerleaders from Kansas City Art Institute. They called themselves the Rah Booty cheerleaders and they'd cheer about intimate subjects like relationships and vaginal infections.

“They had the outfits and the pompoms," Dickens remembers. But then the words started coming out of their mouths and it was, you know, in cheer fashion, but they were definitely on a different subject matter."

Julie Denesha
Kelly Ludwig's Kansas City home is filled with vibrant works by self-taught artists.

Art and friendship

Kelly Ludwig, a creative director and designer, collects the work of self-taught artists. Her Kansas City home is filled with sculptures of angels and devils and wild paintings using unconventional materials of all sorts.

Ludwig says, as a designer, her work is guided by a strict set of rules. Self-taught artists create with the freedom that comes with not knowing the rules.

"We as designers, we get very real specific and very tight ...” Ludwig says. “These guys don't care. They don't know there are rules. It's just so much fun to see it."

For Ludwig, one painting in her collection epitomized 2020. It was painted by a friend and it was inspired by a dream Ludwig had 10 years ago, while living in Los Angeles.

“I had this dream that this woman was sitting on a wall with this beautiful dress on and she was shielding her eyes because the sun was coming out," she remembers. "But behind her was this impending doom. In my dream, it was B-52 bombers coming and she just oblivious to this impending doom behind her.”

Ten years later, her friend Bobby Lynch painted his version of her dream and shipped it to her in Kansas City. In Lynch’s painting, the approaching doom is a darkly swirling tornado. Ludwig’s cherished it ever since.

Julie Denesha
"Kelly's Dream" by Ludwig's friend and painter Bobby Lynch depicts a tornado rampaging behind a young woman. Ludwig says the painting took on new meaning for her during the pandemic.

“It’s just been one of my very favorite things because it's gorgeous, and it's from one of my closest and dearest friends,” Ludwig says. “And it kind of reminds me that I have a tendency to not really notice the impending doom behind me as many of us do.”

Now that things are opening up, Ludwig is planning a series of road trips. But the pandemic has taught her, more than ever, to appreciate what waits for her at home.

“I can look into my living, my dining room and then all the way into the kitchen and there's art everywhere,” Ludwig says. “It might be overwhelming to some people, but they're friends."

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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