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Of bricks, paint and limestone
New Lucas mural depicts heritage of Lucas, Russell County
new deh lucas mural main pic
Outdoor artist Erika Nelson surveys the mural she is painting in downtown Lucas. Work on the painting, which shows the history of the area, is more than three quarters done. - photo by DALE HOGG Great Bend Tribune

LUCAS – When Erika Nelson saw the northern wall of Troy’s Grocery on this small northern Russell County community’s Main Street, she saw more than a wall.

The veteran outdoor artist saw the history of the county unfurling across the 50-foot brick canvas.

Nelson is over three-quarters finished with an epic mural depicting both the good and the bad that came from the area’s settlement. It shows the Czechoslovakian immigrant experience, the displacement of the Native Americans, the use of limestone and the transformation of the rolling plains that make up the local landscape.

Work on the project slowed during the winter since the paint used is sensitive to cold temperatures. The artist said they hope to have it finished this spring.

The painting is the latest outdoor art project that makes this quirky and energetic town of about 430 residents a mecca for artists. Lucas is already home to the Kansas Grassroots Arts Center and the internationally renowned (albeit slightly bizarre) Garden of Eden.

"This town has a great core of people making things happen," Nelson said, taking a break from her painting.

However, work is on hold now. Although the special acrylic-based mural paint has a life expectancy of about 30 years, there are limitations on its use. It has to be allowed to set up before the temperatures dip below 50 degrees. That can’t happen as fall fades into winter.

The painting started last fall. But, the painting was born of a idea conceived about a year ago.

"That’s sort of how things work in a small town," Nelson said. "You share ideas and brainstorm a lot."

It started out as a brochure, part of an ongoing effort to promote the region’s limestone legacy. It blossomed into a much larger effort.

"Post rock limestone is just part of our heritage," said Rosslyn Schultz, director of the Grassroots Arts Center. It dates back to the 1870s and two active quarries in the area remain in business today. There is even the Post Rock Scenic Byway that winds its way through the region, showcasing the use of the soft, golden stone. It was cut from hillsides and used for everything from fence posts to farm houses due to a lack of trees.

Nelson came up with a sketch. Drawn on supper-thin paper, it consists of a layer with the initial black-and-white line drawing and another overlaid layer with the color.

The next step was to do the under-painting on the wall. This was done by Lucas residents. "There was a lot of volunteer time donated," Nelson said.

Now, she is going in and bringing the sweeping vision to life in vibrant colors and stylized forms. Going from left to right, the painting features a family headed west in a covered wagon and ends with the image of Lucas as it exist today. Along the way, there are trains, farmsteads and a limestone quarry. There is even a painted version of a computer "status bar" indicating how far along the project has come.

The mural replaces another wall-sized work that showed a fence line and Lucas landmarks. However, "it had deteriorated beyond repair," Nelson said. She doubted the proper paint had been used.

Once done, a coat of varnish will be applied to seal it from the elements. But, "you’re painting on a wall. Who knows what’s going to happen to a wall."

Between actual expenses and the in-kind volunteer hours, Nelson estimated the project will cost between $3-4,000. However, a Kansas Arts Commission Grant is helping to cover the costs.

"We’re excited about the project," Nelson said.

Originally from Texas, Nelson had taught design and animation at the University of Kansas. Recently, she’s been traveling around the county lecturing on outside art. "I was living out of my car."

About five our six years ago, she passed through Lucas. "Lucas was just such an amazing place. It just kept sticking in my mind."

So, when she decided to settle down, she bought a house over the phone and came back. Now, although she still travels extensively, Lucas is her home base.

The town has the typical small town closeness. Nonetheless, "if you are an asset, you’re in" and accepted.

"I do a lot of community public art," Nelson said. She has works in Newton and St. Joseph, Mo.

So, when the concept for the mural came up, she was game.

In addition to the mural, Nelson is in charge of "The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things," a bus filled with scale replicas of global attractions. The bus was a traveling exhibit, but now it remains parked.

Nelson takes some of the items on the road in her car. "We’ve gone from bus to sideshow,"she said. The bus got nine miles per gallon and her car gets a lot better. "There was quite a cost savings."

This exhibit caught the attention of producers for the Conan O’Brien’s late-night program on TBS. The segment aired in December.