Rusty Leffel’s Changing Outdoor Installations Address Climate Change, Gun Violence, Immigrant Detention and Other Hot-Button Topics
On an unusually mild morning in late August, near the corner of Tomahawk Road and Willow Lane in Mission Hills, Rusty Leffel is gathering his art supplies. He’s got chalkboards and a big box of colored chalk, electrical tape, cable ties, balloons and an air pump.
For the last year and a half, Leffel has been using this part of his yard for a series of art installations. “They’re not signs,” he points out, since those would face stricter city regulations. But they do address important issues of the day — climate change, gun violence and various actions taken by the current administration, especially regarding immigration.
“The concept is like a restaurant menu board,” he says. “It’s not permanent. It’s not a fancy piece of art . . . just a way to remind us to ask ourselves how we can make the world a better place.”
This installment will address July’s record-setting heat, using two boards lashed together. “My wife did the lettering on the early ones. She’s glad I’ve taken over that part.”
Indeed, Leffel dives right in, picking colors that will contrast nicely. No measurements. No sketches. It’s just him and his admittedly poor penmanship.
H, O, T, T, E, S, T, J, U, L, Y . . .
“Everything looks different when you’re writing in big letters with chalk,” he concedes.
Despite that, his first attempt is remarkably successful. Leffel moves on to the gold balloons, using his pump to fill them. After all, “helium is a non-renewable resource.” The mylar E, V, E and R slide quickly into their allotted space. He makes a few minor adjustments “for readability,” then tethers them to the ground.
The result is a jarring juxtaposition. An ominous warning dressed in perky party decor. And it echoes a piece he built earlier this summer that used balloons for a somewhat cryptic reference to 415.7, the planet’s all-time highest CO2 reading.
Paula Leffel, his wife and a painter herself, wonders if those festive touches might muddle the message. “I’m more direct,” she smiles. I thought he should have just written, ‘We’re burning up!’”
But make no mistake, these two are in this together. “She inspires me,” he says proudly. They often immerse themselves in the day’s headlines and plan their response. It might take the form of another installation, writing and calling their legislators (again), or perhaps showing up at a demonstration.
On occasion they’ve taken it further. They recently purchased toothbrushes and personal supplies to donate to families who’ve been detained at the U.S. Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas. (Not surprisingly, that shipment has been mired in red tape.)
The Road to Activism
So, how did an activist streak like this begin?
There were glimmers of it during Leffel’s days at KU in the turbulent 60s and early 70s. He ran for student body president his senior year. He lost. But he went on to form and lead an advocacy group called Students Concerned For Higher Education In Kansas. By the time he graduated from law school in 1973, some of his classmates were impressed enough to endow a scholarship that still bears his name.
That’s a story in itself. But this particular chapter, he says, “really started in 2017 when I mowed the word ‘climate’ into the lawn.”
That impromptu bit of what he terms “performance art” helped crystallize an idea. That his own greenspace could be a staging ground for installations to jump-start conversations. On topics that too often get pushed aside. Or dissolve into shouting matches. “The idea is to get people to interact,” he emphasizes. “I’m not trying to be in your face with it. Or mocking. I want my artwork to be considerate.”
Paula nods in assent. “That’s who Rusty is. He has a real love for humanity. He sees the good in things. It really shows up in some of the photos.”
She’s referring to the black and white images Rusty calls his “street photography.” Since the 1990s, he’s documented streetscapes, parades, political rallies and public expressions of pure joy from New York City to Portland, Oregon. “There’s so much out there to appreciate,” Leffel says of his explorations. “I look for compelling moments in places that many people might not be able to get to . . . and I can stop that moment, so we can experience it again and again.”
Catching such moments often means walking long stretches through cities and urban tableaus. If it requires approaching a group of youths perched on a bench in New York’s Union Square, no problem. “The artist’s job is to reach out,” Leffel reasons. “And people will reach back, more often than not.”
As for that ongoing art project at home, the million-dollar question (especially considering the Leffels’ ZIP Code) is this: “What do the neighbors think?” Admittedly, it’s far from a scientific sample, but during the two hours when “Hottest July Ever” came to life on his lawn, these interactions did take place:
1) A car zips by, the horn honks. Someone inside yells, “Keep it up, Rusty.” “That’s my neighbor Patty Scherrer,” he grins. “She’s started putting some signs in her own yard now.”
2) A trio of 30-something dog walkers — Shay, Mike and Tess, stroll past on Tomahawk. “I wondered who was making these,” Shay says as Leffel ambles out to meet them. She remembers the one that read simply, “Ban Assault Weapons.” When he asks, “Were you OK with that?” they nod, before Mike adds, “Well, we’re not OK with the reasons that it needs to be said.”
3) A late model sedan pulls up to the curb. Rusty and Paula lean in to talk. Turns out it’s Peggy and Dan Pruett, neighbors and supporters from up the street, who don’t mind being quoted as saying, “We love it.”
This definitely does not imply that everyone is a fan. When Rusty posted pictures on Facebook of his plea to ban assault weapons, a barrage of negative feedback followed. Many parsed his use of the word “assault.” He chose not to delete those comments, reasoning that different viewpoints (even those he suspects sprang from a single pro-gun group) made for a more robust discussion.
But others on social media have been unkind as well. An observer posting on the Nextdoor app dropped some especially harsh remarks. All of it begets this question: In a world with so much vitriol flying around, wouldn’t an artist start to feel somewhat at risk? Paula simply shakes her head. “No, he doesn’t see it that way.”
In fact, Leffel seems more determined than ever to keep the status quo from holding us back. “I have great confidence in human beings. We’re awfully inventive. It’s not how bad can we be? It’s how good can we become?”
On that note, he points toward the four-way stop sign just a few blocks from his newest installation. “Think about it. When we come up to it, we have no idea who’s in the other cars. Their politics, religion, age, sex. We just go through without asking. We have all this common humanity. So why fall back on stereotypes? We need to reach out. Don’t retreat.”