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Kansas City Artists Turn Historic Northeast Into 'Art Garden,' Hoping Development Won't Force Them Out

Julie Denesha
An elaborate spider made entirely of flowers takes shape on the canvas as Damien Wilson works beneath one of 40 tents set up for artists in the Historic Northeast.

Artists are often the first to move into crumbling neighborhoods and the first to move out when those neighborhoods become trendy and expensive. In one corner of Kansas City, they are trying to disrupt that cycle.

Colorful canopies line Brooklyn Avenue across from PH Coffee in Pendleton Heights. For the past five months about 40 artists have gathered here every Sunday to sell paintings, pottery and jewelry. They call it Art Garden KC, and it’s a weekly pop-up run by a team of volunteer artists like Héctor Casanova, inspired by art markets in Mexico.

“This is an opportunity for artists to just come together and sell their work, show their work, get some experience," Casanova says. "But just as importantly, a great opportunity for artists to meet each other and connect and network. And it has been amazing how just on goodwill and just the energy and the culture that is being created every Sunday, people just keep showing up and every week there's more and more people signing up.”

Diamond Harris has set up shop on a folding table. She sells drawings she creates on paper in colored pencil.

Julie Denesha
Painted Pokemon characters decorate shoes on display as Diamond Harris focuses her attention on a drawing on paper.

“Anime has been a huge part of my life,” Harris says. “I just fell in love instantly. You know, it was like it clicked, like something clicked. And I've been in love with drawing ever since."

Harris says meeting other people who share her passion for art keeps her coming back every Sunday.

“I've never missed a day,” Harris says. “I’ve always been here like this is today is our Garden Day. This is my full-time job right now, right here. It's always a good time. I don't always sell, but that's not why I come out. You just build on yourself as an artist and it's just really powerful.”

Julie Denesha
Co-founders Margarita Friedman (pictured on the left) and Bethany Alzanadi are growing artists at their new pop-up market, Art Garden KC.

A few feet away, painter Damien Wilson has set up his easel and is working on an elaborate painting of a spider made entirely of flowers.

“I paint with oil,” Wilson says as he brushes the canvas. “Oil all the time.”

Wilson has been painting for the past 25 years

“The atmosphere is what I'm here for,” Wilson says. “Honestly, I could do this every day of the week. I mean, maybe I would take weekends off. But as far as like painting and being amongst artists and talking to people that speak the same language, definitely every day, every day, I wouldn't want nothing else."

Supporting artists

Art Garden KC co-founders Bethany Alzanadi and Margarita Friedman say back in March they started out with four artists, a couple chairs and a table. They say their garden is growing and they want to keep the barriers for emerging artists low.

“We don't charge the artists a booth fee and we never will,” Alzanadi says. “That's what sets us apart from any art fair in Kansas City. And because of that, there's a lot of passion. It's not just about sells, it's about community and passion for the arts and helping each other out.”

Friedman says their goal for artists is to engage with people who come to see art.

“The artist, instead of paying a fee, they have a commitment of engage with people, simply making a conversation, bringing their work to make them curious about what they are doing,” Friedman says.

At the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, President and CEO Bobbi Baker believes artists can transform neighborhoods.

“I see artists coming. I see invitations for more artists to come, and we're seeing the results of artists being here and making this their home,” Baker says. “They see the opportunity to build community through art.”

Zachary_Laman_NKK Mural_Rebecca_Koop.jpg
Rebecca Koop
Artist Zac Laman works day and night on a mural commissioned by the Northeast Chamber of Commerce and the Independence Avenue Community Improvement District.

Baker says artists are pioneers who are often uprooted when a neighborhood is rediscovered. She’s trying to disrupt that cycle. Recently, the Chamber created a gallery and business incubator for artists. It also sponsored a series of 14 murals so emerging painters can hone their craft.

“They are truly developing communities and we need to find a way through proper planning that, as they develop, they can also stay and they don't have to go find a new place,” Baker says.

Another experimental project for artists is taking shape just down the street from the Chamber. Pendleton Arts Block is a 38-unit apartment building with communal studio space and small storefronts for independent galleries. Kansas City Society For Contemporary Photography has been hosting shows here since May. Angie Jennings, the group’s president, says having a home base has been transformative.

“The space is about 300 square feet,” Jennings says. “At first glance, you think it's really small, but I'm finding it to be a really nice space in that artists can use it as a kind of a test gallery if they have a project and they want to see what it looks like up on the walls.”

Now they have a regular place to hold meetings and workshops. On a recent afternoon, volunteers prepped the gallery for a new show of small works. It’s an annual show Jennings calls 4Square.

Julie Denesha
Angie Jennings, president of Kansas City Society For Contemporary Photography, hangs four-inch square prints for 4Square, the group's annual show of small works. Jennings says having a home base has been transformative.

“4Square is an exhibition of four-inch square prints,” Jennings explains. “They are very small prints. It's a way to force viewers to get up close to an image and study it.”

“That is one of the main reasons why we're here, because I know we have excellent talent here in Kansas City, great photographic artists that need to be seen and appreciated,” Jennings says.

Hector Casanova agrees.

“It's such an inclusive, supportive community where if you want to participate, if you want to show your work, if you want to be involved, all you have to do is just show up and roll up your sleeves and everybody is welcome,” Casanova says. “And this is one of the things that I love about Kansas City. It's an amazing place to be an artist.”

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