As I enter Main Street, small-town America greets me with the world’s largest souvenir travel plate, made from what was once a satellite dish. Blue turtles climb up a telephone pole, while a tiger-headed larger-than-life animal uses another as a scratching post. Awash in the light of the summer sun, only a tiny fraction of the landscape is left undecorated. Embellished tiles line the foundations of houses, and mosaic isn’t uncommon. Complex sculptures adorn yards throughout town.
As I was planning what became my 12 Days of Kansas Road Trip, I mentioned to friends about traveling to the European-inspired towns of Lindsborg, known for its Swedish heritage, and Wilson, the Czech Capital of Kansas. “You have to go about 20 miles north and explore the quirky town of Lucas with all of their art!” they encouraged. “It’s not out of the way at all,” they assured me.
Lucas, located at the crossroads of K-18 and K232 highways, snuggles into Kansas’ Smoky Hills region, in the center of Post Rock Country. On your way to Lucas from Wilson, you’ll take a road trip via the Post Rock Scenic Byway.
Thank you to Lucas for hosting my visit.
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The Grassroots Art Center
Waiting for my tour guide at the Grass Roots Art Center, the excitement was palpable as Roz Schultz, Director of the Grass Roots Art Center, emerged from the back room. She spoke softly to her assistant with a wide smile. I knew something was up, but what?
So, I found myself touring this small artistic town of 392 people, with the Director of the Grassroots Art Center, on the day in 2021 when the USA Today Reader’s Choice Awards ranked them the #4 Best Small Town Art Scene. Lucas ranked ahead of well-known art scenes like Taos, New Mexico, and Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I couldn’t have been luckier to pick this day to visit.
Kansas is third in the nation in the number of grassroots art sites, just behind California and Wisconsin. Why do you find so many in Kansas? According to Schultz, three reasons contribute to a large number of sites. First, their yards are more extensive, so artists have more room to create, fewer activities to keep people busy, and no covenant neighborhoods restrict what homeowners can put in their yards.
I started my tour of Lucas, the Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas, at the Lucas Grassroots Art Center for an introduction to what Roz termed “ordinary people making extraordinary art.”
What is Grass Roots Art?
A sign printed on brown butcher paper in the Grass Roots Art Center defines the style. “Grass Roots Art is work done by self-taught artists operating outside the traditions of fine art and folk art. These intuitive artists follow a personal vision. They seem to work to please only themselves, following their inner direction or drive. The term refers to personalized environments, exterior or interior composed of many individual pieces of sculpture.”
Other terms you may have heard for Grass Roots Art are:
|Self-taught Art||Trash Art|
|Recycled Art||Contemporary Folk Art|
|Art Singular||Raw Art|
|Naïve Art||Intuitive Art|
|Outsider Art||Neuve Invention|
|Marginal Art||Visionary Art|
The center features temporary and permanent exhibits from almost two dozen self-taught artists throughout the Midwest. Generally, the artists begin to create in their retirement years and continue throughout their lives. The creators use whatever material they can get their hands on, from chewing gum to computer motherboards.
One of my favorite exhibits was Herman Divers creations. Remember back in the 1970s when aluminum beverage cans had pull-tabs that detached from the rest of the can when you opened them. Diver made sculptures from those metal rings, using about a half-million to create a full-size car. The exhibit also includes a full-size motorcycle and a couple of outfits. He continued to create until times changed, and the pull-tabs were no longer detachable. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get pull-tabs at that point, and his sculpture-making also ended. Next to his exhibit, a quote from Diver indicates: “Just to know I got something that somebody else don’t [sic] have, that’s one thing that makes me feel good.”
While you’re there, discover the patio area in the back, where you’ll find the Grassroots Art Center’s Limestone Courtyard.
When I first heard of the award-winning Bowl Plaza, I expected a large rest stop in the median on the interstate. Instead, I found a public restroom on Main Street in a town of fewer than 400 people. I was almost surprised they needed a public toilet, but the town needed a public handicap-accessible restroom for tourists enjoying the local grassroots art scene. I never thought of a public restroom as being award-winning, which piqued my interest. In 2014, the Cintas Company named Bowl Plaza the Second Best Public Restroom in the United States. In 2018, Bowl Plaza won an international award for the Quirkiest Restroom in the World. How fun is that!
Bowl Plaza is more than a standard functioning public restroom. Designed as an art installation, artists Mri-Pilar and Eric Abraham created it to fit into Lucas aesthetics. Covering the building’s interior and exterior surfaces in mosaic work, the artists, staff, and volunteers used broken pottery, toys, dishes, tiles, colored bottles to create the mosaic.
The ladies’ room showcases shades of pink, green, and florals with accents of whole pieces of ceramic dishware. In contrast, the blue and gray men’s room features a collection of matchbox-sized cars embedded as part of the wall.
The restroom’s exterior features an artistic version of a restroom’s primary offering, the toilet. The spectacular 16-foot oval lid composed of mosaic, featuring repurposed glass bottles, travel plates, quotations, hubcaps, taillights, license plates, and dishes. The curved seating in front of the building creates the bowl. Eric Abraham’s original porcelain sculpture, the six-foot toilet bowl drain, represents swirling water that includes items people have accidentally dropped into a toilet bowl.
Another fun addition to the exterior is the giant roll of toilet paper that unfurls, creating a walkway.
Between the early 1930s and 1960s, Lucas’ residents Roy and Clara Miller traveled throughout the United States. They brought back rocks to build miniature buildings and mountains representing some of their favorite places, like Colorado’s Pikes Peak. The structures are replicas of Lucas’ churches and businesses. After the Millers passed in the late 1960s, their estate sold the sculptures and they were in a field in Hayes, Kansas, for more than 40 years. Then, in late 2012, the Kohler Foundation bought the collection, returned them to Lucas, and restored them. So today, you’ll find the creations east of the Garden of Eden in Miller’s Park.
The Garden of Eden
In 1907, at age 64, Samuel Perry Dinsmore began building the Garden of Eden. He used post-rock limestone, cut into log-like slabs that provide a log cabin feel to the home’s exterior. He worked for 22 years sculpting 113 tons of cement into an 11 room home surrounded by biblical sculptures, some towering 10 feet above the earth.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Garden of Eden includes a stone home and a mausoleum where they buried Mr. Dinsmoor and his first wife.
The attraction includes a guided tour, which also provides access to the mausoleum. Begin your discovery with the video to get an overview of Dinsmore’s life.
The Florence Deeble Rock Garden and Mri-Pilar’s Garden of Isis
Florence Deeble grew up next door to Sam Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden. She was intrigued with his art and, at the age of 50, began her own grassroots art installation in her backyard. Eventually, she filled her yard with concrete replicas of places representing her vacation adventures. She called these landscapes “Postal Card Scenes,” which included native rocks and stones. As a result, you’ll see places like a mini-Mount Rushmore.
After Deeble passed away in 1999, her home received a 21st-century make-over. In 2202, Mri-Pilar, an outside artist, transformed the inside of the Florence Deeble house into “The Garden of Isis” using recycled materials. Today, Deeble wouldn’t recognize her home with its alien-like décor inspired by the Goddess Isis. First, the artist covered the ceilings and walls with Mylar and silver foil to create a blank canvas for her work. Then she uses dolls, computer motherboards, and other castoffs to create a seven-room art installation reminiscent of Alien. On my 12 Days of Kansas road trip, I eventually caught up with Mri-Pilar in the small town of Lindsborg, Kansas, where she was working at the Red Barn Studio as the artist in residence. I found that 20 years later, she’s still recycling dolls and motherboards to create her art.
You can tour the Florence Deeble Rock Garden and Mri-Pilar’s Garden of Isis through the Grass Roots Art Center.
Want more information on things to do in Kansas? Click on Roxie on the Road’s 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die.
Located in Russell County, Lucas, Kansas, is in the Central time zone.
Salina Regional Airport (SLN / KSLN) is the closest airport to fly into, situated 67 miles from Lucas. United Airlines services Salina Regional Airport.
How far is Lucas from these towns?
|Denver, Colorado||400 miles|
|Dallas, Texas||222 miles|
|Kansas City, Kansas||212 miles|
|Lansing, Michigan||750 miles|
|Lincoln, Nebraska||158 miles|
|St. Louis, Missouri||482 miles|
|Wichita, Kansas||115 miles|
If you fly in, you’ll want to rent a car to reach Lucas. However, once you get to Lucas, most attractions are within a few blocks of each other, and the town is walkable.