Sunday, August 1, 2010

Art's Art

On June 19th, Emily, Brittany and I traveled to Lucas, Kansas to visit the Grassroots Art Center. We were there to attend the open house for a new exhibit on display in their museum. A display of my Grandpa Johnson's metal replica's of buildings he made in his later years. Arthur Theodore Johnson (Art) died back in 1986 but you can find his buildings all over Kansas.

Grandpa, the artist, fit right in with the others that have their work displayed in this gallery. Most of them were self taught artists who developed a passion for a specific medium and began creating the majority of their work after they retired. Grandpa fits this description but his creative work began many years before he retired.

For as long as I can remember, Grandpa has loved creating things. He was a farmer with a Swedish accent and a lot of ideas rolling around in his head. I recently learned from my dad that Grandpa would begin work before sunrise on their farm outside McPherson and, many times, when his sons had finished their chores and were ready for farm work, he would find a reason to go to his metal shop or wherever he was working on his latest project, and work for a while there. He couldn't resist the call to create. It was important enough to take up valuable daylight. I understand this and so, have developed an even stronger connection with him.

Besides farming, Grandpa was an inventor. I learned much later that at least one of his inventions, a handheld machine that would pick up grain from the ground and deposit it in a truck, was produced and marketed. Grandma and Grandpa's old crank telephone hangs on my wall. The insides have been gone a long time. I wonder what project they ended up in. He definitely was ahead of the times with the whole reuse recyle, reduce idea. That's all pretty cool but not what I remember him for.

When I was young, I was never wanting for original play equipment. My swing set was the tallest any of my friends had ever seen. The only ones as tall were on the school playground and Riverside Park. It was made entirely out of recycled parts from farm machinery carefully fitted and welded together to form a strong frame. The swings had long chains that made me feel like my feet could touch the clouds and we sat on tractor seats to ride the glider. The merry-go-round in my backyard spun over a huge tractor tire.

That was all really neat but not even close to the coolest thing he made us. When we went to the farm, we were sure to find something new to entertain us.

One of our favorites was a gas powered car. The body was metal, of course, and it had a seat and steering wheel. This is me in one of his earliest cars. It was a lot of fun to drive around the farmyard. At least once a year we would arrive to find that our car had been updated. Sometimes it had two doors and other times four. I remember when it had been transformed into a four seater, painted green and sporting a hood ornament. Then more of us cousins and siblings could ride.

I think I believed all grandpas made things like this for their grandchildren. It was later when I realized that this had been a very special "grandchildhood." Not every grandpa made cars or rowing machines with a (you guessed it!) tractor seat. The homemade camper, complete with bunks was my favorite place to sleep when I spent time there during the summer. Didn't every grandpa make one of these? My sisters, cousins and I were allowed to use the equipment in his metal shop. We learned to use his riveter to make swords out of scrap metal. The only rule was to leave everything the way we found it. Now that was trust!

Well, most grandpas do finally retire and their interests adjust to a new lifestyle. That is when grandpa started crafting buildings out of metal. He worked from memory and pictures creating two or three hundred little metal buildings in his basement workshop in a little house in McPherson. People would bring him pictures of the sides of their favorite building or house and he would recreate it on a smaller scale. At Christmas all of the kids might open a present and find a very small church or windmill. That workshop was always open to us also.

I am fortunate to have acquired several of his buildings over the years. They are some of my favorite things and have a special place on my mantel and in my heart. Several Kansas museums display one or two, also. Looking at them brings a flood of memories of my Grandpa Johnson.

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