"On to Wichita, to Prophesy! O frightful bard!Jim emerged to greet me from his modest, two-story home; he was wearing a loose, short-sleeved cotton shirt on a ninety-degree day. He was about fifty and stringy, with sunken cheeks and a rosy, pitted nose.
Into the heart of the Vortex..."
- Allen Ginsburg, Wichita, Kansas, February 14, 1966
I stepped inside his house to see a huge painting on the wall by painter David Salle. Works by Hans Hofmann, Bruce Conner, and other great modern artists also hung in the otherwise modest home.
"Yeah," Jim drawled from deep in his throat, "Salle is from here. We were quite a scene in the sixties. Michael McClure and Bruce Conner came from here and were part of 'the Wichita Group.'"
"What do you do for a living?" I asked.
"I'm a freelance art curator," he said.
I had no idea there was such a job description, so I asked how he got into it.
"I went blind." He must have been used to that statement being met by silence like mine because he went on without my asking the obvious question. "I couldn't work," he explained, "and my brother had an art store. So I started making frames. Gradually, my sight came back, and I saw a lot of art at the shop. Then I started to see more. And I got to know some artists personally." Then he motioned that the rest was history.
"What is the art scene like here now?" I asked.
"It's like Bosnia," he answered flatly. "I call it 'Draconian.' There's no real sustained support," Jim went on. "Except by the rich white East Side people. Wichita has failed to extend its artistic assets to a broad audience. Navas, who put together the great Wichita Art Museum collection (including the Hoppers), did it while in D.C., not Wichita. She, in fact, had to fight the city fathers all along the way to get the art shown and the museum built."
"You want to see how Wichita treats its art?" Jim challenged, rising from the couch. "They have a James Rosati sculpture that sits in a park district lot."
Jim gave me a tour of Wichita in his rattly Bronco, which I appreciated not only for his company, but also because it spared me having to drive. In my first five minutes here, I saw three accidents. I saw drivers slowly drift over two lanes without signaling--only to drift back three lanes. The cars seemed unmanned, as if the event has come to pass on the bumper stickers,
"Why does Wichita have such bad drivers?" I asked Jim.
"We don't know," he said, measuring each word evenly as if also baffled by the phenomenon. "We have driver's education. The urbanites blame it on the farmers. Farmers blame it on the city people. That's one reason I drive such a behemoth."
He drove me past a concrete parking slab behind a building, where the Rosati sculpture lay in pieces. "They got the Iron Metal and Steelworkers union to volunteer their services free. Somebody took a burnishing wheel to it and just ruined it. They didn't have a conservator near." When I got back, I found a Wichita city Web site that said, "the sculpture was reconditioned by the Wichita Building Trades."
"I'll show you what Wichita thinks is its latest art installation," Jim sneered as he drove me past bronze sculptures of mawkish subjects that lined the main street in Wichita. "They were donated by a prominent citizen so they couldn't be refused. I actually feel better since I found out they're fountains, because they sort of work as fountains. But these aren't even Segal rip-offs. The only one that's worth squat is this one." He pointed to a copper version of a soda fountain counter with laughing patrons on its bar stools. It actually looked like a setting for a Hopper painting. "This site was the Woolworth store, and that counter over there has actually a social meaning. This sculpture was supposedly about blacks at the counter during the civil rights movement." He smacked his lips. "I don't buy it."
He took me to lunch at a Viet Namese place outside of town a bit. He had been excited to share with me "some of the best steak in the world," until he learned that I was vegetarian. "Well, ethnic food here is steak. This restaurant is one of the few places to get real ethnic food. Pizza Hut was started at Wichita State University. Here, it's fast food money and fast food taste."
"Why do you stay here?"
"It's home for me," he shrugged. "I found a community. I know the handful of people who are educated and interested in the arts. The other side of it is I've always had the income and the wherewithal to travel. I was kayaking in Europe last week. So I'm out of this city a lot. If it weren't for that, it would have been difficult. But there are some things you really get used to: the smallness of the town (Wichita's about a half million people), the simplicity of it, the cleanliness and the order. Why are you here, anyway?"
When I told him, he responded, "Hopper's type of isolation is an urban type and wouldn't apply to Wichita. I think it's more communal [here] and that the farmers helped each other when they settled. In World War II, everybody from everywhere moved here. Airplane manufacturers are the leading employers in town. McConnell Air Force Base and Fort Riley are nearby. This is and always has been a test market because it is so middle-of-the-road in every way."