Rural murals transform everyday Kansas into art

The idea of outdoor art in the form of murals is making a comeback for many Kansas towns. It's a trendy new economic development tool.


State News

October 15, 2021 - 3:53 PM

Hays artist Matt Miller holds a smaller version of the artwork he created for his new mural. He's had it taped to the wall to help him translate the painting to a larger scale. Photo by David Condos/Kansas News Service

HAYS — Matt Miller slowly walks backward into the middle of 5th Street in downtown Hays.

The wall in front of him used to make up the plain, gray side of a local glass shop. Now, it’s his giant concrete canvas — 13 feet tall by more than 18 feet wide — for painting one of the northwest Kansas town’s new murals.

It’s so large that he has to take a step back every once in a while just to get a good look at his progress.

“I still need to make that brightest highlight a little brighter, but it’s close,” he said. “I could probably about bust into dancing right now.”

From Hays to Great Bend to Lecompton, small towns across the state increasingly turn to larger-than-life works of art to inspire pride among residents and attract tourists. And as more towns blaze this artistic trail, the economic benefits of murals — and the road map to getting them done — come into focus.

Miller, an artist who has lived and worked in Hays for the past 10 years, is putting the finishing touches on a painting that depicts Indigenous bison dancers from tribes who once used the western Kansas plains as hunting grounds.

Translating his art to such a grand scale has been a months-long process that’s come with plenty of challenges, many of them conquered while standing on a scaffold five feet above the sidewalk.

There’s the math it takes to accurately enlarge his original four-foot by two-foot painting to fill this wall. Then there are the long days of taxing physical work to actually brush the paint onto a building instead of a canvas.

“It’s just kind of a different animal,” he said, “a different process.”

But around Hays, this type of scene is becoming increasingly common.

Miller’s wall is the second in a line of several murals that will go up on local buildings, from the thrift shop to the sushi restaurant, over the next year.

Branded as Brush the Bricks, the series will culminate with a community art project that invites residents to paint part of Hays’ grain co-op. And the town has already collected roughly half of the donations and grants it’ll need to reach its $150,000 goal to pay for the endeavor.

Miller said that’s not just good news for local artists, but also for anyone else who calls western Kansas home.

“It gives you a sense of place,” Miller said, “and it’s another way to bring people together.”

This Clay Center mural turns one of the town’s buildings into a bookshelf. Photo by Courtesy Of Shannon Stark, Clay Center Chamber Of Commerce

The mural movement

Murals in rural Kansas go back at least 100 years, to companies like Coca-Cola commissioning artists to hand-paint advertisements on brick walls.

But Marci Penner, executive director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, said the idea of outdoor art as a means for boosting a small town’s bottom line and staving off population loss has now become, well, trendy.

“The trend to utilize (murals) as an economic development tool … to bring people in, to improve quality of life,” she said, “that’s on the rise.”