I was walking beside a quiet two-lane highway in north central Kansas, admiring sculptures scattered in the scrubland, made from rusty farm implements, car parts and animal bones, when a small truck pulled up from a dirt driveway. It was the sculptor, waving.
“Thanks for being interested,” he said. “I’ve got to go to work now.” Off he drove, onto the empty blacktop and into open ranch land.
It was a fitting start to my latest exploration in and around the town of Lucas, pop. about 400, the state’s capital of “grass-roots art.” Also known as “outsider art,” this is the creative outpouring of self-taught artists located far from the mainstream art world (geographically, commercially, aesthetically), using unconventional materials and techniques.
They are often retired farmers, mechanics, newspaper editors, funeral home directors (you name it) making stuff with whatever’s around — car bumpers, light bulbs, barbed wire, gum, horseshoes, tree trunks (you name it). Prolific (some might say compulsive), they might not call themselves artists or even seek viewers for their work, which is typically found on their property.
In Lucas, it all started with Samuel Perry “S.P.” Dinsmoor, an eccentric Civil War veteran, farmer and teacher who in the early 1900s, at age 64, began building a fantastical sculpture garden in the backyard of his cabin home, located on an otherwise ordinary small-town residential block — which is part of its charm and shock value. The sculpture garden took 22 years, 113 tons of cement and many tons of native rust-stained golden limestone.
Now known as the Garden of Eden, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it includes the unique cabin — also made by Dinsmoor, out of limestone “logs” — and the garden, with sculptures representing biblical figures (most notably Adam and Eve) and populist themes (most memorably, labor being crucified by the lawyer, doctor, preacher and banker).
A macabre highlight is the 40-foot ziggurat-shaped mausoleum that Dinsmoor built, also with limestone. Inside, as Dinsmoor wished, visitors on a tour can see what remains of his face — he died in 1932 at age 89 — through a glass-lidded coffin. Nearby, unseen, is his first wife. At age 81, Dinsmoor married his second wife — his 20-year-old housekeeper. They had two children.
Since Dinsmoor’s day, locals and transplants — including grass-roots artists and aficionados — have helped cement Lucas’ claim to fame. It now attracts more than 10,000 visitors a year. I’ve visited several times since the late 1980s and each time, I’ve found more to see in an area that still feels refreshingly off-the-beaten-path, making it a perfect outsider art outpost.
Post Rock Country
Returning this spring with my Kansas-born husband, eight years after our last visit, we found more art dotting the highways, near where the art was made, offering fresh views and insights.
In addition to Jim Dickerman’s metal and bones work found along Hwy. 14 (mile markers 181 and 182), California artist and retired dentist Fred Whitman’s facial portraits of local residents are carved into limestone posts along Hwy. 232 (mile markers 12 and 13, east side; 14 and 15, west side; and 16 and 17, east side).
In Lucas, along the sleepy, two-block downtown bordered by a water tower and a grain elevator, we found a spectacular public bathroom/art installation. Opened in 2012, “Bowl Plaza” is shaped like a giant toilet tank with a raised lid and adorned with mosaics made with repurposed bottles, license plates, pottery and more. (Don’t miss the toy cars in the men’s room.)
Joining several others on a guided tour of the Grassroots Art Center, opened in 1995, we marveled at painstaking work of Kansans, including Herman Divers’ full-size car made from vintage soda can pulltabs and John Woods’ elaborate collages made from toys, keys and even handguns found in the muck of a drained lake.
In the outdoor courtyard, an exhibit opened in 2002 showcases the region’s “post rock” limestone masonry. Lucas is Post Rock Country, where stone masons during the turn of the 20th century made fence posts — and many buildings — out of the limestone because the treeless prairie ruled out wooden posts.
As for the Garden of Eden, it looks better than ever, thanks to a major 2012 restoration of the garden and cabin supported by the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation. Sculptures once darkened by age are now cement-colored, with dabs of pink that even some tour guides didn’t know were there.
From the Twin Cities, Lucas, Kan., is 672 miles southwest, via Interstates 35 and 70 to Exit 206 and Kansas Hwy. 232.
Florence Deeble Rock Garden/The Garden of Isis: The rock garden is the handiwork of a Lucas teacher, inspired by S.P. Dinsmoor to create her own backyard masterwork in the 1930s, using colored concrete to fashion “postcard scenes” from her travels. In 2002, Lucas artist Mri-Pilar transformed the 1906 Deeble House into a recycled art installation, lining the walls with foil, salvaged dolls and toy slinkys.
Roy and Clara Miller’s Park: Relocated beside the Garden of Eden, this mid-1900s creation is a miniature town built with rocks, minerals and shells by a local couple in their yard.
World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things: Artist Erika Nelson’s tiny versions of giant things — including Minnesota’s big lutefisk and ball of twine — are on view, by appointment, at 214 S. Main St. Text ahead of arrival (1-785-760-0826; worldslargestthings.com).
Post Rock Scenic Byway: This 18-mile stretch of Kansas Hwy. 232 connects the towns of Lucas and Wilson, running past Wilson Lake and Wilson State Park, with hiking and mountain bike trails, swimming beaches, boating and camping. Also drive Hwy. 18 east from Lucas to Lincoln and Hwy. 14 south from Lincoln to I-70. Take time to admire the imposing limestone buildings in windswept Lincoln and Wilson.
Where to eat and sleep
Brant’s Market on Main Street in Lucas has made bologna and sausages since 1922.
Garden View Lodge (1-785-658-6607; airbnb.com), across from the Garden of Eden, is run by a Garden tour guide and Dinsmoor descendant.
Midland Railroad Hotel (1-785-658-2284; midlandrailroadhotel.com) in Wilson was a film set for the 1973 movie “Paper Moon.” Open for dinner, the 1899 hotel’s Sample Room Tavern serves regional fare including chicken-fried steak.
Garden of Eden: 1-785-525-6395; garden-of-eden-lucas-kansas.com.
Grassroots Art Center: 1-785-525-6118; grassrootsart.net.
Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog TakeBetsyWithYou.