Plans Underway to Preserve the Kansas Provocateur’s Inimitable Artworks
For Kansas artist and firebrand M.T. Liggett, fire was his brand.
Over a period of 30 years, the self-taught Kansas artist wrought fire, by means of an arc welder, into sizzlingly provocative metal sculptures.
Using scrap and repurposed metal, including farm implement parts, road signs and railroad equipment, Liggett created more than 300 larger-than-life-size silhouettes, which he installed on 20-foot poles along the fence lines of his Mullinville, Kansas, farm. Though incorporating the humor and lightheartedness often associated with folk art, the metal totems burn with caustic commentary on politics, the justice system, social constructs and current events.
Although Liggett passed away in August 2017, the works can still be viewed from US-54 and US-400, which intersect in Mullinville, 120 miles west of Wichita.
Art collector Larry Meeker, one of four trustees of Liggett’s art estate, is working to ensure they remain there. Currently Liggett’s trustees are in talks with Wisconsin’s Kohler Foundation, which acquires, restores and gifts works to institutions that can care for them long term. (One of the Foundation’s largest preservation projects is the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas.)
“Our task is to try and determine a vision for interpreting Liggett’s work on site and maintaining the physical work and his spirit in the work, for future generations to enjoy,” Meeker said during a phone interview from his home in Lake Quivira.
Born in 1930, Liggett was in his late 50s before he began making art. His first sculpture was a gargoyle created in response to the fatal poisoning of one of his horses.
“He said that dark forces needed to be warded off and he created his own defense,” said Liggett’s son, James. “He made gargoyles to keep the evil spirits away.”
Following that first gargoyle, Liggett launched into creating his large body of work. Ranging in scale from eight to nine feet tall, his clownish, whimsical totems include confrontational block-letter slogans, as well as windmills or whirligigs continuously spun by the blustery prairie winds. Unreservedly provocative, Liggett’s sculptures intentionally light fires.
“Provocateur is a great word to sum up his driving force,” Meeker said. “He had a saying, ‘I can’t make you mad. Only you can make you mad.’ Yet, through his work and conversation, he provoked people’s anger and challenged their belief systems. His greatest ability was to drive to the core of the matter in a provocative yet humorous way.”
Along that way, Liggett left no one unscathed. He was suspicious of politicians, questioned the motivation of religious organizations and sniffed out hypocrisy in everyone.
“If you walk up to me and say you’re a Democrat, I’m a Republican. If you’re a Buddhist, I’m a Shinto. If you’re a Catholic, I’m a Protestant,” Liggett said.
Well-read and a keen observer of the world, Liggett was also highly educated in politics, history, art, mythology and religion — areas in which he visually and verbally expressed his contentious views.
In the sculpture “Six Nincompoops,” in which one member’s head is peeking out of a toilet bowl, Liggett rebuked the Kansas State Board of Education for leading schools into the “stone age” over evolution vs. creationism education.
In another, “Bring Back Slick Willie,” he links former President George W. Bush to big oil and asks for the return of his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Yet, in another work, he depicted Mr. Clinton as a red hog and entitled that sculpture “Razorback Draft Dodger.”
From the time he began creating his work, Liggett became known for his brusque, straight-talking temperament.
“He developed this blunt persona to accompany his work, and it went hand in hand with it,” Meeker said. “This persona was actually an important element of his work and he thrived on the controversy.”
Determined to realize his candid creative vision, the prolific artist not only constructed 300 large-scale sculptures and totems, but 300 smaller works — all in less than 30 years.
During these intensely productive decades, Liggett developed heart problems and had a pacemaker installed. He was instructed by his doctor not to weld because it would adversely affect his health — instructions Liggett defied.
“He said, ‘If I can’t make my art, I may as well be dead,’ Meeker recounts. “So, he would weld, sit down and rest, and then go back to welding again. Liggett was driven to make his art. He was committed to his work and believed in its power.”
“Many artists create roadside art or make things from scrap metal, and people ask me what makes Liggett different,” Meeker says. “My response is that everything he did makes you think, and it draws out our personal stories.”
“If you think about it, this is really what makes a piece of art significant. It challenges us. It can start and sustain conversations between people. It connects us with one another.”