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Mural at the Mill

Young subjects show pride in huge art project


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A mural masterpiece was still weeks from completion when it began brightening the smiles of five young girls.
Most were regular visitors to an old grain elevator attached to the historic Lee Mill on the northern fringes of downtown Salina.
Magic was happening as hundreds or more looked on, and the spirited kids were emerging as ambassadors of kindness in this mid-American town.
During one summer night in particular, 8-year-old Sophia Cates, among the girls wonderfully embroiled in the attraction, unknowingly captured the hearts of locals Dick and Joyce Brown.
The couple had made a habit of daily drives to fawn at the work — unfolding ever so slowly — by the genius of Australian artist Guido van Helten, with helper and fellow countryman Ian McCallum.
“A lot of people would go down there and look at it,” Dick remembered. “We pulled up by the old depot (across Santa Fe Avenue), and another car pulled up next to us.”
A woman exited the car, accompanied by Sophia.
“She had on a dance uniform, and was just all bubbly, jumping up and down, making small conversation,” the couple said, almost in unison.
“She said ‘That’s me! That’s me! He’s painting my picture on the elevator.’ ”
The Browns, he’s 89 and she’s 91, listened as Sophia, a second grader at Heusner Elementary School in Salina, and her mother Amy Bennett, explained their excitement and how it came to be — five girls ranging from elementary to middle school age — depicted on the concrete canvas.
They are shown on the three-sided mural playing “Ring Around the Rosie,” an ancient game and song that has taken on many meanings through the ages.
Connections were forged on that night, and one of countless impressions that are hoped to bring lasting goodness to the north-central Kansas regional center. Maybe beyond.
It’s the aim of van Helten’s huge mural, one of dozens planned by the Salina Kanvas Project, said co-founder Travis Young.
“This is about the future. Not the present. Not the past,” he said. “It will remain relevant 20, 30, 40 years from now. It’s the future of our community, and everything that goes along with it.”
More celebration is in the works when the artist makes a return trip to Salina — as yet unscheduled — and the girls are officially recognized.
“The Salina Kanvas Project is a way of bringing in world-renowned talent, to install art in a public setting and is privately funded,” said Young, of Salina, CEO of Vortex Companies.
John and Kim Vanier, of Salina, covered the mural project’s $260,000 cost, that includes other improvements.
The big structure’s transformation began when van Helten visited MADD Camp at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in Salina last year, while researching what should appear on the mural.
He visited other community events as well, to snare an understanding of Salina.
MADD stands for Music, Art, Dance and Drama, said the Rev. Dorian Alston, youth minister at St. John’s Missionary Baptist.
The artist found a number of children enjoying life at the church camp, and photographed them at play. Out of those images, he conceived of the mural that’s enjoyed today in downtown Salina.
It includes images of Sophia, Monica Fontenot Patterson, Nora Seay and Anadelia Jimenez, all of Salina, and Joyful Pugh, of Liberal (Monica’s cousin).
“We were all playing ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ with somebody in the middle. I was in the middle when someone took a picture,” said Anadelia, 11, a sixth grader at Lakewood Middle School. Friends call her Nelia.
For van Helten, it’s important to represent the communities where the murals appear, said Margot Strasburger, his artistic adviser.
“Guido likes to embed himself in the communities and get to know them,” she said.
Being out of the country at this writing, van Helten could not be reached for comment.
Strasburger expressed fondness for the mural that shows movement, similar to French artist Henri Matisse.
“It’s reminiscent of some Matisse paintings,” she said. “I really love it. It’s definitely a visual inspiration because the kids are moving around 360 degrees.”
A “rough idea” for van Helten’s mammoth project is to complete “one big silo work in each state,” Strasburger said. “We were approached by a number of other towns and places in Kansas. When Travis presented us with that beautiful heritage building, it was like obvious. ‘He has to do this one.’ It’s a great canvas, a special one.”
The parents and their daughters had no idea what was happening until Rev. Alston asked them to sign releases for the children’s images to grace the mural.
Crowds were commonplace as the concrete elevator embraced the paint that captures those precious moments.
Collections of cylindrical concrete tanks that dot the plains, can be taken for granted in these parts.
But the elevator that once served the historic Lee mill (owned by jeans maker Henry David “HD” Lee, later by J.J. Vanier) on the north end of downtown, now is draped by a collective beacon of youth, hope, love, family and community.
“It means and says a lot to me,” said Alston, who is from Dallas.
“People not from the same family who really don’t know each other, came to the same camp and were able to make something beautiful. And it’s not just on the mural,” he said. “For visitors and anybody passing by, looking at it, it shows this is a diverse community.”
The art is inspiring to Eric Brown, president and CEO of the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The Mural at the Mill is larger than life and represents a new catalyst for the community from many facets including economic and new collaborations between business and the art community. We have so many assets in this community that are so much bigger than just one individual or entity, and the Mill represents this in a very literal sense,” he wrote in a statement.
Some 16 million vehicles pass Salina every year on the interstate system, he said, quoting figures from the Kansas Department of Transportation. Work like van Helten’s on the mill elevator is among attractions that Brown figures is sure to lure some of that traffic into Salina.
“The mill is already a destination as people are making the pilgrimage to take a picture and see it up close and personal,” Brown wrote. “This talks about the community spirit. It talks about what’s happening.”
It’s a group effort.
“A lot of the projects and programs that happen in Saline County and Salina don’t come to fruition by the work of one individual or one group,” his statement reads.
Ring Around the Rosie, “is a game engrained in the culture of society and speaks to how people come together.”
Mural at the Mill helps make art available to the masses, Strasburger said.
“When people see this, they aren’t necessarily seeking art experiences,” she said. “They can step into the artist’s studio and see how these things are created, and know how it happened. There is no threshold to cross. It’s just there for you.”
It has made five girls and their families beam with pride.
“It was like ‘Oh my gosh! It’s really cool,’ ” said Nora, a sixth grader at Salina South Middle School, daughter of Dewayne and Nicki Seay.
“My social studies teacher put up a picture of it. One of my softball teammates, Abbie, said ‘Now I know somebody famous,’ ” Nora said.
Same for Sophia, whose interests include art. She turned 8 two days before Christmas.
“It’s a beautiful art piece. I love to drive by and look at it,” Sophia said. “I don’t think I could look at it enough times.”
Monica (nicknamed Mauhnie), told of when her godmother, Adria Smith, paid their first visit to the elevator and mill.
“When I saw my face right up there, I was really happy and surprised this happened. I thought I might be on TV,” Monica said. “When I’m older, I can show it to my kids. It will be a tradition.”
Joyful, 9, a fourth grader at McArthur Elementary School in Liberal (southwest Kansas), has yet to see the mural, but has been sent pictures.
“When I saw (the photos), I got really excited, and started screaming,” she said.
The mural is a big deal to the family that includes Joyful’s mom, Markayla Patterson, stepdad Anthony Smith, and an “ornery” brother, A.J., 6.
“A.J. is really happy about it. Jealous too,” Joyful said. “He wants to be on there.”
Same goes for tiny Angelica, 5, her cousin and Monica’s sister.
The Liberal family is anxious to visit the mural, perhaps sometime next year.
Markayla is proud that her daughter is part of something that carries deep and special meaning.
Joyful is a perfect fit for the mural, Mom said.
“She matches her name, a really sweet kid,” Markayla said.
“These little Black girls made history,”

he said, referring to four of the five (Anadelia is Hispanic and Caucasian).
“I wouldn’t expect them to be put on a building. Everybody has a little racism in them,” Markayla Patterson said. “It just shocked me that they did that, with the way the world is going.”
Brittanie Patterson, Monica’s mom, was delighted as well.
“I was excited that my daughter was presented in that type of way, and in a way that could bring some excitement to our community,” she said. “They don’t have many things like that around Salina, so I thought it was pretty awesome that she got to be a part of that,” Patterson said. She’s a second grade teacher a Sunset Elementary School. Monica’s dad, Marquez Patterson, is a former college and semi-professional basketball player.
“The kids are kind of the future, just all inclusive, with different races up there,” said Nicki Seay, Nora’s mother.
“It’s neat,” she said of the images, “the innocence of them, just playing and having fun. The youth of our community are being brought up in a way to stand together.”
The mural carries influence, said Nora’s father Dewayne.
“It’s an inspiration to other kids who come here for basketball and softball tournaments, and it’s a way to inspire me to do better, to get along,” he said. “Nobody’s fighting. It’s like, Salina kids will lead the way. We need to get more kids to be joyful like that.”
The images touched Christine Deese, Anadelia’s mother.
“When I first saw the pictures, they made me think of unity, kids playing together,” she said.
A para-educator at Lakewood Middle School, Deese praised the church for how it enhances the education and experiences of children and Salina.
 “The St. John’s camp is about doing things for the community. The kids get involved and they get to go see things, like the Rolling Hills Zoo, Lakewood Discovery Center, the police department, fire department and meet government officials,” Deese said.
The mural kids also live that message on concrete.
Nora, for example, landed straight A’s in school last semester. After classes some days, she tutors younger students at Coronado Elementary School, where she attended through fifth grade.
Anadelia likes to read, draw and practice her violin, her mother said.
The girls are connected. Nora, a budding artist who plays softball and volleyball, has received pitching lessons from Brittanie Patterson.
Monica is proud that Cousin Joyful is on the mural.
“I really like it because I usually don’t get to see her,” Monica said. “I know my cousin is beside me (on the mural) and she really loves me.”
The youngsters are generally “kind of a tightly knit group,” Brittanie Patterson said, and the mural suggests they stand as one.
The parents who commented are proud of their daughters.
 “Sophia is very determined and an amazingly smart child,” said Amy Bennett. “She’s been through a lot, but she just finds the positive in it.”
Her daughter is involved in dance, also singing and gymnastics, and eyeing a number of ambitions later on.
“I want to be a teacher and a doctor and a veterinarian, and take care of animals,” Sophia said.
Bennett was taken by the depiction of children at play on the mural, showing enjoyment through their facial expressions.
“They’re having a good time playing together,” she said. “It shows there are definitely a lot of people trying to make Salina more positive and credible. It gives hope to the lower income families and it makes us feel like we are accepted into the community.”
The mural experience has scored Salina some points in Liberal.
“If I didn’t have so much down here, I would move there. Salina could be a good place to live,” Markayla Patterson said. “In every town, there is a lesson to be learned. I think kids could teach us a lot. They see no color. If we could all just get along, the world would be better.”