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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Muralist Lucky Easterwood wants young people to envision a brighter day in Quindaro — so he paints it

Man wearing a hat and plaid shirt kneeling on ground with woman in black leather jacket squatting beside him. There is a building in background with a mural titled "Brighter Day" behind them. They are father and daughter.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Rodney Easterwood, AKA Lucky, with his daughter Anita in front of the mural he's just finished painting on Parallel Parkway.

Lucky Easterwood has been painting murals in Kansas City, Kansas, since 1996. Each of his paintings are intended as a message of optimism for this specific community: "If it was quick to die, it can be quick to rebuild."

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On Parallel Parkway, winding through Kansas City, Kansas, a squat brick structure stands alone at the bottom of a grassy hill. For drivers heading west from the Missouri side, a big open lot makes it hard to miss the new mural stretching across the wall: a joyful image of two young Black children playing in the sunshine.

The smaller one, a girl in a blue-and-white striped dress, faces us, laughing, not a care in the world. We see her playmate from behind. The sunlight casts two elongated shadows, where the children appear as silhouettes, wearing graduation caps.

"Brighter Day," reads the mural in big black letters.

Often, murals are commissioned by business or property owners who want to attract customers from the street — or appeal to Instagram. But for this particular mural, artist Lucky Easterwood says the image just came to him. So he made calls and pounded the pavement until he got permission to paint this scene on this wall.

"Brighter Day" isn't selling anything you can buy, although it is advertising something, in a sense.

"I learned early in my career that you could read letters all day long and it won't have the same effect," says Easterwood, who got his start hand-painting billboards. "You could be hungry and read a menu, but once you see a picture of hamburger, you start wanting what you see."

Man in tan hat wearing a brown plaid shirt stands to left of photo with arms crossed looking left off camera. Behind him is part of mural showing on girl handing a water bottle to another girl.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The first in a series of 5 murals Easterwood plans to paint in Kansas City, Kansas, in the next year shows "Black kids living."

Easterwood wants the people who pass this mural to walk away craving a future in which they thrive. He wants to make them hungry for the good life — for themselves and this community.

"Just paint a picture, get people started, that's all I'm trying to do," he says.

Easterwood grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, in the 1960s, raised by parents who each worked a trade. His dad was a plumber and his mom was a seamstress, and also just a tad superstitious. That's why she started calling him Lucky, even though the name on his birth certificate is Rodney.

"I was born on Friday the 13th," he explains. "My mother thought it would be a good thing."

Easterwood is still inspired by his childhood memory of the neighborhood around Quindaro Boulevard. He remembers a main corridor dotted with flourishing businesses, and so much foot traffic that a normal day "almost felt like a parade."

When I ask him to tell me more, he closes his eyes and describes not a sight, but a sound: laughter. Especially on summer days at the Parkwood Pool, a vibrant hub of community connection that has since fallen into disrepair — this past summer, it didn't even open.

Easterwood isn't discouraged by how things have changed in this part of Kansas City, Kansas.

"It wasn't that long ago," he says. "And if it was quick to die, it can be quick to rebuild."

Easterwood left Quindaro after high school for a job painting signs in Boston, and then came home to Kansas City with training in both lettering and imagery. At the time, most craftsmen in the industry specialized in one or the other, so his versatility put him in high demand.

Man wearing a tan hat and plaid shirt walks with back to camera. On right of the photo is a building with a mural he painted called "Brighter Day."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Lucky Easterwood paints the future he wants for his community.

Of the many Kansas City billboards that Easterwood painted, he remembers two in particular, both visible from I-70. One advertised a red Corvette, the year it first came out; the other, an ad for whiskey, depicting an Eskimo on a sled being pulled by two huskies. For those, credit went to the companies he worked for, not Easterwood himself.

He didn't mind, though. Back then, Easterwood thought of himself as a tradesman, not an artist.

That changed in 1996. The year that Easterwood painted his first Quindaro mural, created in a moment of hardship.

"I hate to call it out so graphically," he says, "but there were several murders in the neighborhood."

One of the victims was his nephew.

Bombarded by sensationalistic media attention on the rise in violent crime, Easterwood says the neighborhood's sense of itself was shifting fast, which scared him. Grief for both his nephew and his community sent him — almost instinctively — to a wall, with some paint.

Easterword wanted to send a different message to his community than the headlines offered.

The resulting image, painted on a billboard at 7th Street and Quindaro Boulevard, is now a local landmark. Yellow letters pop against a black background: "Something to live for."

Off to the side, six Black children sit grouped together. One older kid holds a basketball while a toddler blows bubbles, staring at a wobbly sphere floating overhead with an expression of wide-eyed wonder.

Detail of a faded mural on a black, brick wall shows children of different ages and genders playing. One young boy sits straddling a basketball, another boy is about to pop a bubble, a young girl reaches to clasp other bubbles.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The kids in the mural "Something to live for" are Lucky Easterwood's now-grown children, who posed for this image 25 years ago. The paint has since faded.

The billboard surprised even those closest to him. "Nobody knew I could paint like that," Easterwood recalls.

Anita Easterwood, now 30, remembers her dad painting this mural — but just barely. She was 5 at the time, and she's one of the kids her dad included in the image. Throughout her childhood, people talked to Anita about the mural. What a landmark it is. How important it is to them.

Now, Anita's an artist, too. She works on a smaller scale, with a preferred medium of charcoal on paper. But in 2020, this father-daughter duo collaborated on a Black Lives Matter mural.

"We're both very stubborn," she admits, "so it wasn't all roses doing it together. It was a lot of 'I think I know better. No, I think I know better.'"

Once they hit their stride, though, they ended up creating an image they both loved: a crouched figure, wearing sneakers and shorts, writing a promise in sidewalk chalk: "I will... inspire, breathe, learn, grow." Their creation was the subject of numerous articles, online videos and television news segments.

Like her dad's first mural, their collaboration in 2020 was a response to a murder: the killing of George Floyd. Anita is proud of that project, but of all the murals her dad has painted in Kansas City, Kansas, the new one on Parallel Parkway is her favorite.

"This mural, 'Brighter Day,' isn't connected to any murder or any political movement, nothing like that. It's simply Black kids living, and that's just as important," she says.

A large mural painted on a brick wall shows the torso of a young Black man flying through the air with the words surrounding him that read, "I will inspire, breathe, grow, learn in different colors. The Black Lives Matter initials are also featured in a black box.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Lucky Easterwood and his daughter Anita worked together on this mural at 18th and Quindaro.

For Easterwood, his vision for a brighter day is simple: "Just people out having fun."

"In 2020, everything was Black," Anita explains. "This is a lifelong commitment for us. Black people are always creating work for everybody. You know, like that's not a trend, that's not something that's only gonna stay in 2020. And so my hope would be that people look at 'Brighter Day' as a new chapter for wherever Kansas City is headed."

Easterwood has already hatched plans for several more murals in Kansas City, Kansas, this year. He sees "Brighter Day" as the first in a series, to be called "Weathering the Storm."

The next installment will be called "Rainy Day." Easterwood isn't ready to say where it will be located, but he tells me that one is his favorite.

"The next one," he says. "Always the next one."

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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