“Art of the Wish: Marn Jensen and Andy Newcom,” Leedy-Voulkos Art Center

“I wish people remembered that, though I may be older and slowing way down, I’ve had a colorful history — the older generation isn’t always remembered or seen that way.” Mixed media collage–vintage photos, acrylic, pins, found objects, wire, vintage camera lenses, cigar box, ephemera, 60″ x 36″ (Marn Jensen)

“I wish they wouldn’t give up on me. Please, don’t give up on me.” Photograph, 4’ x 8′ (Jane Kortright/Andy Newcom)

“I wish everyone had a good, dry martini within reach.”

“I wish everyone could find beauty in every living thing.”

“I wish everyone could work on a farm.”

“I wish our most vulnerable were cared for.”

“I want to go home.”

If you had a last wish, what would it be? In 2017 two Hallmark friends and co-workers, Marn Jensen and Andy Newcom, received a sabbatical grant from the famed greeting card company and spent six months traveling the country, talking to dozens of 80 to 100-plus-year-olds, asking that very question. Their goal was to create artworks embodying each individual wish.

Jensen and Newcomb contacted senior living communities, visited hospices, and connected with caregivers. They met numerous subjects through word of mouth.

“We were very deliberate in finding a diverse crowd,” Jensen said in a recent interview, “making sure we reached people with different ethnicities, religious affiliations, sexual orientation, income levels, political beliefs . . . It was important to us to get lots of different people with different backgrounds.”

Installation shot

Then they had to conceptualize and create dozens of highly diverse artworks. “It was terrifying at first,” Jensen and Newcom recalled. “We had no idea how we were going to make all this art.”

“I actually consulted a biologist who was a friend and Zen Buddhist,” Newcom said, “and he told me ‘just be open.’”

They scoured Kansas City and other areas to accrue their artistic arsenal. Their favorite haunt was Asner’s Iron and Metal Company, at 10th and Central, along with various thrift malls and flea markets. “We looked for things that had been discarded and had vulnerability,” Newcomb says, “because that applied to so many of the people we talked to.”

Although the two artists share a studio at the Bauer building in the West Bottoms, they soon discovered “we had very different styles, and it was best for us to work separately,” so they often worked at home.

“Pieces of the Past” — a tribute to all the wishes, vintage heirloom pieces, handkerchiefs, table linens, gloves, envelopes, thread, 5’ x 9’ (Marn Jensen)

“Wishes for the World,” the first iteration of “Art of the Wish,” began with 50 pieces in 2018 at Hallmark’s corporate gallery. It was not open to the public, but Stephanie Leedy and her daughter Erin Woodworth, who run the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, got in to view the exhibit and were “blown away by what we saw,” Woodworth said.

“What makes it so fascinating to me,” Leedy noted, “is how they managed to understand someone else’s mind set and then make these incredible works of art. It’s as if they were conduits.”

When Jensen had a one-person show at Leedy-Voulkos in 2020, she and Leedy decided they would exhibit a variant of the 2018 exhibit at the Art Center. Since Jensen and Newcom had both retired, they had time to create new works, and a total of 71 pieces, in painting, sculpture, drawing, encaustic, assemblage, textiles, photography, text and installation, are now installed in “Art of the Wish.” The Center for Practical Bioethics is sponsoring the show.

It is impossible to do justice to all the provocative, and in many cases, heart-breakingly beautiful works in this exhibit, which easily qualifies as a museum show. (For a digital walk-through of the show, go to “Art of the Wish” at www.leedy-voulkos.com.) The installation, designed by Newcom, is masterful, allowing the viewer to take in each piece individually. The text panels, which incorporate the interviews, are short and well edited.

The largest piece in the show is a joyful, quilt-like collage of letters, envelopes, and memorabilia from generations of one family which takes up an entire wall. It took weeks for Newcom to fulfill this wish of Nancy (one of the exhibit’s subjects, no last names given):

“My family’s correspondence, their deepest thoughts and expressions are in hundreds of cards and letters stored in my basement. Nobody in my family wants them. I wish I knew how to honor their lives, their meaning, their importance to me.”

“My family’s correspondence, their deepest thoughts and expressions are in hundreds of cards and letters stored in my basement. Nobody in my family wants them. I wish I knew how to honor their lives, their meaning, their importance to me.” Paper quilt, cards and letters from one family dating between 1901 and 1989, 4’ x 16’ (Andy Newcom)

Nancy and members of her family were able to see the completion of the actual “collage” at Hallmark. As with many of the artworks, Jensen and Newcom recalled, there was applause and pride when the interviewees first encountered the 3-D rendition of their “wish.”

“I wish our most vulnerable were cared for.” Old wire fence, jute string, 18” x 28” (Andy Newcom)

Two stunning, monumental textiles, one by each artist, are also highlights of the exhibit. Newcom has taught macrame; still, it took him six months to fabricate “A Wish for the Wishes,” made of thousands of knots shaped from clotheslines that hung from the rafters in his house. He wanted to acknowledge “the thousands of hours on mundane chores such as washing clothes and hanging laundry” performed by so many women that he and Jensen interviewed.

A creative director at Hallmark for more than 30 years, Jensen had never sewn before until she stitched together vintage napkins, coasters, clothing, envelopes and assorted memorabilia for her “Pieces of the Past,” meant to “collectively celebrate all ‘the wishers.’” The variegated frame shape reinforces the sensation of mapping a life journey through the decades, with all the existential ups and downs.

Newcom is an artist who was also chief photographic stylist for Hallmark for more than 30 years. Working with some of his colleagues, whose names are all on the labels, he created a range of outstanding photographs that encompass everything from immense, iconic faces of children to outstretched hands holding an enigmatic red thread. Nothing is obvious in Newcom’s art; his photos draw one in because of their mystery and beauty.

Jensen obviously loves the warmth and texture of wood. She is the creator of many tiny to large-scale assemblage pieces in “Art of the Wish, with all manner of sundry judiciously amassed together, illuminating the lively past and present of the men and women who got to tell their stories to people who actually listened.

“It was never about creating the most masterful art in the world,” Newcom and Jensen stated. “We just wanted to respect and honor the wishes of all the people we interviewed. In the end, we’re the ones who gained the most.”

“Art of the Wish,” by Marn Jensen and Andy Newcom, continues at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., through May 28. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday–Saturday. For more information, 816.474.1919 or www.leedy-voulkos.com.

To hear Maria Vasquez’ Artspeak Radio podcast interview with both artists, go to www.kkfi.org and iTunes.

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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