By Abby Hoover
The latest Northeast Kansas City mural was revealed this weekend in the alley behind the Express Stop at 4815 Independence Ave. Local artists focused on healthy lifestyles for the annual summer mural sponsored by the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
“What they have done is they’re creating a new space,” said Bobbi Baker Hughes, President and CEO of the Chamber. “It’s transforming this part of our community, and the transformation is evident with what’s here today, as opposed to what was here two years ago. It’s amazing.”
The 180-foot mural faces an alley that, before this summer, was overgrown and littered. One of the properties across the alley from the mural is a vacant lot owned by the Independence Avenue Community Improvement District, which Events Director Rebecca Koop said she would like to see used more in the near future.
“There’s some areas in a city and in a neighborhood that just need some love, and we’ve done buildings that are very visible, and that’s good, we’re helping that particular space thrive and entertain people with some art, but this alley really needed a lot of TLC, tender loving care,” Koop said.
That TLC started a couple years ago when they got the city to pave the alley. Since then the Chamber has worked with the owners of the building, who were all for beautification for the back of the building.
The Chamber has a mural map on its website, which is being updated to include murals on Truman Road and the 18th and Vine District.
A variety of experienced and new artists contributed to this year’s project, including Emily Alvarez, Fai Beal, Phyllis Hernandez, Zac Laman, Madison Sanchez-Martin, Isaac Tapia, and youth from Global FC.
Beal helped the young artists from Global FC by teaching them about mixing paint and correct techniques.
“Before this experience, for some of the kids this was their first time painting. Although it was new, they were excited to try it,” Mentor Coordinator Assistant Becca Dowell said. “Fai and Daniel were helpful, kind and patient, which made the experience even more special.”
Laman’s portion of the mural, like much of his work, was inspired by his daughter, Evie June.
“The whole concept is kind of like when people look up at the clouds and they see different images, you know, like animals, whatever, that’s kind of what my theme is,” Laman said. “The whole theme of the wall is healthy lifestyles, so mine is kind of like looking up at the sky and escaping and not thinking about all the everyday awful stuff that goes on in 2020.”
He often paints Evie June, his wife and their younger daughter, calling them his “in-house” models, because it makes his art more personal.
“I hope this is the beginning of a change,” Laman said of the alley and Northeast as a whole. “We’ve lived here for about four years now, and it’s definitely changed since we’ve lived here in that short amount of time, but I really hope that stuff like this is increasing that movement to a better neighborhood.”
Laman said he doesn’t often do murals for free, or next to nothing, for that many people, but he enjoys doing it for the Chamber of Commerce because he wants to see improvements in his neighborhood, and likes to see his art close to home.
“It does give artists a chance who maybe haven’t done a mural to get their feet wet and really figure it out,” Laman said. “It’s way different than painting on a canvas or whatever. That’s kind of how murals go. Someone has to give you a chance to do it because it’s on someone’s building or in public somewhere.”
Although Tapia’s mural is not quite complete, important elements already shine through, including athletes of varying abilities and the downtown skyline.
“Just being outside, taking a walk, going running, doing gardening, those were the things that we were able to do during the pandemic,” Tapia said. “I feel like everybody needed that. I think it definitely moved us toward better and healthier living.”
Hernandez took inspiration from the after school program she volunteers for at James Elementary. She teaches folklorico dancing to a group of students from all ethnic backgrounds, and makes costumes for the dancers. The forget-me-not flowers are in remembrance of one of her dancers who died by suicide earlier this year. In the stem, she included the phrase “rest easy” in Arabic to honor him.
“I think it provides a vibrant atmosphere for the community, it’s a positive atmosphere,” Hernandez said. “I know a lot of the neighbors have been cleaning up the alley, which is a positive thing, and less negative traffic around here… When we first started, a lot of trash, a lot of smells, but as we progressed, people stopped doing that.”
For her first mural in the area, Sanchez-Martin was interested in cultivating community through yoga, growing and eating local and plant-based food.
“I know that connecting with nature a lot during this time has been really helpful for me, and I’m sure a lot of people,” Sanchez-Martin said. “I think a lot of people are starting to kind of realize that it’s beneficial to be growing your own food.”
North East Alliance Together (NEAT) Director Scott Wagner said the mural not only shows such great artistic skill, but has pieces that call to this neighborhood and the people in it.
“One of the challenges in Northeast is our alleyways as far as the activity, and in some cases the overgrowth that occurs, so to see an alleyway like this, I think it’s a great experiment to see if we can make an alleyway a destination because people want to see this sort of activity and this art,” Wagner said. “I’m hopeful that everyone looks at this very positively and maybe this is the first of many to come.”