By Greg Doering on September 8, 2021
Public art inspires pride, commerce in Clay Center
Brett Hubka wanted to leave a lasting mark on Clay Center when choosing the annual project for his Rotary Club. First he considered updating the city’s welcome sign but quickly decided against it when he discovered all the red tape involved in placing a sign near the highway.
“A mural project has been talked about for a long time here,” Hubka, the president of GNBank says. “So, I said, ‘Why don’t we try that?’”
The plan was to start small, just one mural and then see what would happen.
“That one mural snowballed into 15 in the last year,” Hubka says. “It’s grown a lot more than I’ve ever imagined. It’s turned into a really good thing. We’re kind of off the beaten path, and it’s given people a reason to come to Clay Center.”
GROWING CIVIC PRIDE
Dubbed a “Mural Movement,” the art project has swelled community spirit, with nearly $200,000 in donations pouring in to install new murals and provide a fund for the upkeep of existing ones. Early on though, Hubka notes, not everyone was sold on the idea of turning walls into public attractions.
“Getting business owners to allow us to put a mural on the side of their building for free was difficult in the beginning,” he says. “Now artists are approaching us, businesses are approaching us and donations are coming in without us having to solicit them.”
The community’s enthusiasm has grown in part from the attention the movement has attracted from unfamiliar faces spotted across Clay Center.
“About every single weekend when we go downtown to the farmers market, we see people looking at the murals, and they’re people I don’t recognize,” Hubka says. “In a town this small you kind of know everybody. I know people are coming here.”
While not an explicit goal at the beginning, the project has become a unifying force because the designs and artists are carefully chosen.
“In today’s society where everyone is so divided, this is something that’s brought everyone in Clay Center together,” Hubka says. “We made that a point when we pitched the idea — no pandemic or politics. They’re all pretty conservative murals that everyone can rally around.”
SCENES OF AMERICANA
While the works don’t tackle divisive topics, they do reflect the values of small-town USA. A tribute to veterans recreates the flag raising on Iwo Jima. In a touch of realism, the flagpole breaks the frame with a physical U.S. flag fluttering above. Nearby is the “God Bless America” mural featuring the stars and stripes behind a bald eagle.
Other scenes range from affirmational “You Are Loved,” to geography “Center of It All.” Rescued pets, first responders, literacy and the main north-south route, Kansas Highway 15 are all celebrated throughout the city.
Clay Center’s rural roots are documented in several scenes, like “Wildflowers,” “Farm to Table” and “Bucolic America,” which covers two sides of a feed mill near the city center. It features a windmill, red barn, green grass and a Hereford cow with two calves.
Artists have come from near and far, with William Counter of Chapman and Whitney Kerr III of Kansas City among the earliest contacts based on their work in Abilene.
“Those were the first two artists who agreed to do something in Clay Center, Hubka says. “We really prided ourselves on having professional artists come to town.”
CONTINUING A MOVEMENT
Aside from Hubka’s observations at the farmers market, he has other anecdotes from businesses owners and sales tax receipts that the murals are drawing outsiders to the community. One business owner counted 60 out-of-town visitors after asking patrons where they came from. The beer cans at 15-24 Brew House have the mural printed on them, and city coffers are a little bit fuller.
“I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not, but our sales tax is breaking records every month,” Hubka says.
The goal now is to keep the momentum of the Mural Movement going. Three more projects are in the works, and there’s enough money to provide some upkeep on the existing artwork.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Hubka says. “Our goal was to put up one mural. We’ve kind of just been flying by the seat of our pants and throwing stuff at the wall to see if it sticks — no pun intended.”
In many ways, Hubka’s original idea of a welcome sign has been realized, just across 15 canvasses and counting. One mural in particular accomplishes the goal — “Greeting from Clay Center, Kansas” is the message, the city’s name in block letters over a blue silhouette of the skyline. It’s a postcard you can only appreciate in person, but the salutation is heartfelt.
“I’d like to welcome people to Clay Center,” Hubka says. “We have a lot to offer, and I think we’re really a hidden gem in Kansas.”