A heart-filled art project brings Valentine's Day love to Independence all month long
Heart-shaped messages of love are popping up on light poles along a one-mile stretch between the Englewood neighborhood and Independence Square. The public art project is creating good vibes in the Kansas City suburb to benefit the performing arts.
Every weekend between late January and Valentine's Day, Thad McCullough and Tammy Parsons can be found adding a little pizazz to the streets of Independence.
Armed with a power drill, two metal ladders, and a truck, the duo attach large, red wooden hearts to light poles along a one-mile stretch between the Englewood neighborhood and Independence Square, in Independence, Missouri.
On the signs are messages of love from people in the community.
"Basically, you are renting a space for your message for the year and it hangs the month of February," Parsons says.
Parsons, who’s 59, and McCullough, 44, are full-time stylists and co-founders of the nonprofit West iNd Connection. Their Heart 2 Heart Connection Project is one of the biggest fundraisers of the year.
“They are wooden hearts, and you give us a message," Parsons says. "Thirty characters or less fit really well on the heart."
Parsons and McCullough start taking orders in early November, and they set up shop at B-Vogue Salon. For a $50 donation, the two will paint your message on a heart — between salon clients, of course.
“For us, it's always been about the performing arts," Parsons says. "We raise funds that help us have performing arts all year long.”
Before she moved to the neighborhood 24 years ago, the bungalow on the corner of East Winner Road and Harvard Avenue, wasn't much to look at, Parsons says. The windows were boarded up and the building had been empty for years.
"There was grass up to our waist and the 'for sale' sign was kicked over in the front," Parsons remembers. "We just thought, 'Hey, we could have an opportunity here.'"
Once they were settled in, they started looking for ways to improve the neighborhood. Now, the well-tended building is home to the salon and an art gallery, and a place for Parsons and McCullough to stage their community projects.
“February in the Midwest is typically a pretty cold and dreary month," McCullough says. "It's just a way to add a little pop of color, and fun and warmth and love, you know — inspired by Valentine's Day.”
By late January, the salon’s waiting room is filled with bright red hearts, each one with a custom message.
McCullough is in charge of the design.
“I literally touch every single heart that goes out," McCullough says. "I look at the message they want and I think to myself, 'How can I make this special for them?'”
After McCullough sketches out the design, Parsons paints the message in.
“Thad is really good at giving me lines to go in there and trace on," Parsons says. "He's a far better artist than I, although over the years, I'm starting to get the hang of it.”
Then it’s time to decorate — McCullough’s favorite part.
“It's the zhuzh," McCullough says with a flourish. "I'll add these little starbursts on some of the letters that make them look like they're shining, adding scalloped edges and making it look like a classic Valentine.”
The Heart 2 Heart fundraiser started 10 years ago with 30 hearts. Each year, it gets a little bigger.
McCullough says last year they hung 300 hearts along a one-mile stretch, from Englewood all the way to Independence Square.
“You get to have a sort of personal relationship with these hearts because they're personal messages and they're all different and unique,” McCullough says.
There are no maps to guide people to their hearts once they’re hung, so finding your own is like a scavenger hunt.
“For us, part of the fun is the connection between these two little communities, and we're getting people to go and explore and look for your heart," he says. "Then you get to read all the other messages."
"And honestly, it slows traffic down a little bit," McCullough adds.
When Parsons and McCullough are out hanging hearts, they often run into neighbors like Paula Wheeler, who was out early on Sunday morning walking her dog, Mabel.
Wheeler has requested a special message on a heart for the last five years, ever since she moved to Englewood.
In that time she’s seen big changes in the neighborhood, she says, for the better.
“There's always this hope, for years and years, that this neighborhood would be its best," she says, "and it's happening. It's amazing to watch.”
For Wheeler, the project is a grassroots effort that makes a big difference.
“These are the most amazing neighbors and community advocates that anybody could ever wish for," Wheeler says. "What makes this neighborhood so special are those people right there.”
Though visitors to Independence can tour the hearts all February, you'll have to wait until next year to get your own: Ordering closed this year on Feb. 5.