For the road-weary traveler, M.T. Liggett’s kinetic totems lining two pastures along U.S. 54 and U.S. 400 is a welcome respite from the long, flat wheat fields expanding west from Wichita. The crowd of ironwork, depicting wild women, lampooned politicians and mythic Greek double entendres, attracts tourists, truck drivers and art enthusiasts from across the state and the U.S.
For the road-weary traveler, M.T. Liggett’s kinetic totems lining two pastures along U.S. 54 and U.S. 400 is a welcome respite from the long, flat wheat fields expanding west from Wichita. The crowd of ironwork, depicting wild women, lampooned politicians and mythic Greek double entendres, attracts tourists, truck drivers and art enthusiasts from across the state and the U.S. Liggett has been featured in magazines, national newspapers, films and television. In Kansas he is known for being an outspoken, brash cultural evangelist as rough as the edges of his art. Despite the acclaim he has received from members of the art community, reactions to Liggett and his artwork have been, to be polite, “mixed,” amongst the people of Kiowa County. He has run-ins with local officials seemingly every week. His work has been defaced, spray painted and sometimes stolen. He believes city officials have been trying to forcibly remove him from his land. To which he responded with a swear-word laden, swastika-adorned trailer in the center of town. He is an artist who stands in contrast and in opposition and he’s OK with it. “I liked to draw,” said Liggett standing inside his shaded workshop on Elm Street. “I’ve always liked to draw. Doing the ironwork was just the next step. Like the next step in a dance.” Known once as Myron, the young Liggett was a hometown boy, from a well-known local family, doodling in classes and flirting with pretty girls at school. In 1948 he graduated from Mullinville High School and joined the military. He was discharged in 1971 and returned home in the 1980s to the family farm. “There have been more Liggetts in the military than any family in Kiowa County,” he said. “But I don’t talk about my military career to anyone, period. I served in the military; that’s all I’m going to say.” He has had a life as mobile as his spinning, gyrating scrap-carousels, traveling across the world with the Air Force and as a civilian. “I never wanted a life of ‘settling down,’ doing the same thing and accomplishing nothing. There are people in the world that have never had an original thought, not one in their whole life. How do they live? If I lived like that I’d [commit suicide]. If I had to get up and do the same things everyday, everyday, everyday and accomplish nothing, no sir.” His artwork, an evolving array of glass, steel, iron and found scrap, is a ghastly parade of juvenile, primitive, monstrous caricatures laughing against a simple and conservative landscape. Former presidents, local and state politicians and pop-culture icons draw some of the biggest crowds. “Sometimes I get twenty-five visitors a day and maybe fifty visitors a day on the weekends,” he said. “They like it, people like it. They stop and see it. This is the largest tourist attraction in Kansas, west of Wichita.” While the stopped tourists laugh and point at the goofy George W. Bush or the contorting animals in funny metalwork clothes, Liggett nearly skips past them when giving tours of his favorite pieces. His favorites are almost entirely people he’s known, lots of them women. “I traveled the world. I’ve been all over the world. In my travels I’ve met several women. If you meet a girl in Paris, Spain, China or wherever the heck, you might have a love affair. What better way to memorialize them than by put them up on the abstract? You can put up all of the things that went on between you.” To Liggett his artwork is a scrapbook, a memorial to people he has known, some for years, others for only a fleeting moment. “I’m making one now, it’s called Amy. I met her in Flagstaff, Ariz. She had a flat tire on her motor home and I stopped to help her fix it. It was a good, loving relationship. We had a good thing together. It was good and it wasn’t sex. She becomes a piece of art because I want to capture her. I’ve got her. Now, there will always be an Amy.” There are lots of female forms amongst his work. They are often nude, but strong, conveying an aura of power with broad shoulders and confident postures. Most of them are larger and taller than their male counterparts. Some locals have taken offense to the female statues as most have bare breasts. One piece titled “Rapunzel,” named for the popular fairy tale, is a rusty iron woman with long blonde hair bending backwards. “I use [breasts] in my work,” he said. “I put [breasts] on everybody. You don’t put a flat-chest woman up there; you’ve got to accentuate the [breasts]. Rapunzel had to let that hair down for the prince to climb up, she’s bending over backwards and her [breasts] are sticking up, naturally. If the sight of a [breast] offends you, man, you’ve got a problem.” Liggett likened his use of female anatomy to the “David” statue by Italian renaissance artist Michelangelo, noting the absurdity of some who want to put a loincloth on the 400-year-old marble sculpture of a the biblical warrior. “That is sick. If that is obscene,” chuckled Liggett, “let me off of the world.” But Liggett has made waves amongst the people in his small community for a number of his more graphic pieces. After consolidation of the Greensburg and Mullinville school districts following the May 2007 tornado, Liggett erected a massive cow, symbolizing the new school mascot, filling a commode. He also constructed a large sculpture depicting the crucifixion of the former mascot, Ricky Ranger. “They took a neutered heifer, the color of dung and made a mascot out of it,” he said. “The school board sold these people out when they didn’t have to.” Liggett is a highly educated man. There are rumors of his membership in MENSA, a private international organization of highly intelligent people, although membership lists are private so it could not be confirmed. He is well-spoken and boasts of being able to write in more than three different languages. He is a wordsmith and his signs, though sometimes crass, are elevated by his command of Latin and Spanish. While he may staunchly deny it, he is a man who enjoys using his art as a rebellious weapon. If he is intelligent enough to know the swastika, believed to be a product of the collective unconscious, was the ancient symbol for good luck and good fortune long before Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party corrupted it, he is intelligent enough to know modern interpretations of the swastika are of fascism and overreaching governmental powers. This duality permeates his artwork. He is a brilliant, spoiled man-child; complicated, brash and absolutely punk rock. This is not the type of person one would expect to find amongst the quiet, rural streets of Mullinville. He has become somewhat of a pariah, surrounded by people that either love him or a much larger group that hates him. He said he has never given a tour to any of his family members that live in Mullinville. He has never had an art showing at the 5.4.7. Art Gallery and most people in the county view his work as a nuisance. “They don’t like [my work],” he said. “I don’t know why. It does drive me a little crazy that everybody in the world likes my artwork, but the people here don’t. Some people said my artwork is the thing ‘holding Mullinville back.’ That’s what they say. It’s no trouble. The kind of people I want to see, they come down this road and stop to see me.” Asked if he thought that was true, Liggett scoffed, “Doesn’t make any difference, that is what they think.” Every few months someone tries to steal a piece of his work or the antique farm equipment that sits inside his 80 acres of pasture land. He doesn’t know if they want to keep it because they like it or want to destroy it. Someone spray-painted homophobic slurs on his work across from the Mullinville Café on U.S. 54. “I have been north to the Arctic, I’ve been south to the jungles of South America, I’ve been east to the brothels on the Mediterranean Sea, I have been west to the dope dens in China and I’ve never seen more vile SOB’s than what I’ve seen here in Mullinville, Kansas.” That hasn’t stopped him from making new pieces, although health issues have slowed him down in recent years. Five new wind catchers, made from wheel hubs and buckets from a grain belt, were drying in the sun; waiting to be put on a new trailer. Liggett said he wasn’t sure what they were going to be. “It just comes to me, sometimes I’m driving down the road, somebody says something or I see something and it happens.” His workshop on the west side of Elm Street is as jumbled and complicated as he is. It is filled with tools and scrap, a wood burning stove and piles of knick-knacks. Hanging from the ceiling is “the world’s largest coffee cup collection,” according to Liggett. He works nearly every day, so long as the weather is good. “When you’re 84 years old, you don’t have much of a choice. You either work or you die.” He is a regular at late-night poker tables at the Dodge City Casino and is usually weaving between aisles at local auctions. He has no plans to leave, “I’ll leave in a wooden box,” he says, noting his land and “open-air art gallery” has been placed in a trust and will remain untouched. “This land will sell at noon on Fri. May 31, 2099. So, mark your calendars.” His plan is to have his artwork on display long after he’s gone. Liggett was asked why, after the vandalism, squabbles with local officials and backlash from a community that seems to not want him; he hasn’t packed up and left. “I have to have this wind for my art. I’ve got to have wind. You’ve got to have movement. You can set a sign out there and nobody will ever see it. If you got movement, they’ll see it. I have to have wind and a sea of grass.”