The Creative Spirit: More than an Exhibit
Written by Bryce Boyd on August 29, 2019
Most students here at KWU who do not happen to be Salina natives are most likely less than informed about the town’s history. About how a small collection of settlers came to this spot over one hundred and fifty years ago, and eventually created the city that we all live in, if not permanently, at least most of the year. The Smoky Hill Museum located on Iron Street is trying to shed light into the interesting artistic history of Salina. The exhibit, The Creative Spirit, which runs until October 5th chronicles a number of early artists, photographers and architects that called Salina home, and how each of them left their mark on the town. While the museum has plenty of exhibits and interactive activities that showcase the history of the region as a whole, it was the artistic aspect of early Salina that caught my eye, and after further investigation, there was more to the town’s history than I had thought.
The initial experience of The Creative Spirit is one of wonder more than anything else. There isn’t just one painting, or drawing, there is a wide variety of art taking up the exhibit space, from sculptures to architectural blueprints, and each is unique in their own way. While I was exploring the collection, I was able to discuss the art with the museum’s Curator of Collections, Jennifer Toelle, who discussed the art with greater detail, and answered some of my questions. When asked about the impact that these people had on the world around them, she said that “Early artists, especially photographers documented local history and those pieces impacted people in different ways.”
In a drawer underneath one of the larger collections of photographic equipment is a large photo book, each page filled with portraits of citizens of Salina, from a bygone age. And it’s the work of the men and women who took those photos that shows how time progresses, and shows the way we’ve grown and changed. While it’s not on display in a massive glass case, and adorned with information about the creator and their life, these portraits are the true looking glass into the past. It’s not glamorous, but it’s an unedited look into the past, and that’s what makes something as simple as a dated photograph so interesting.
However, there are more view-able displays that are just as interesting. In one corner of the collection are two massive churches, each one sculpted out of burnt matchsticks with the larger structure being made out of nearly 22,000 of those matchsticks. It was made by a Salina resident in 1978, and is a model of the former Sacred Heart Cathedral, that stood during the artists childhood in the 1930’s and 40’s.
Another interesting display is one revolving around the Malm brothers, who spent time making sketches and creating handmade stencils of a variety of objects. The museum was able to display a number of their sketches and drawings since the brothers spent their lives in central Kansas and here in Salina. Many of their sketches and stencils revolved around architecture in Salina, and are truly impressive artworks in their own right.
I was suprised to find a connection to KWU while I was exploring the collection, and I did in fact find one. There was a small section about a playwright that actually went to Kansas Wesleyan and graduated in 1908. He was a talented writer, art critic and director, and wrote a number of internationally recognized works about art history and art theory.
When I asked Jennifer Toelle about the historical significance of these pieces, and she elaborated “It’s interesting to have these stories about people’s lives.”
It was this thought about history that got me thinking, and it was that thought that led me back here to campus and to the history department, more specifically to Doctor Anita Specht, and she gave her own thoughts on why the exhibit is important. “It helps people have a sense of place, a sense of the value and importance of their home and their locality.”
This was good insight, but I also wanted to know what the average student thought of the exhibit, and one of my friends, Tiffany gave her two cents. “It’s very interesting to see the development of art through the ages, especially for students who are art majors.”
There’s a lot you can tell about a place from its history, and a good way to see history is through its artistic side, my trip to see The Creative Spirit was enlightening, and showed me a lot about Salina, so if you want to learn more, the Smoky Hill Museum is a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon, and the exhibit that shows so much history is here for another month, so stop in and explore.