Maria Vasquez Boyd, inside the KKFI radio station where she has hosted Artspeak Radio once a week for 10 years. (photo by Jim Barcus)
Painter, writer, poet, musician and teacher, the Kansas City artist and activist is a community dynamo
For 10 years, with a voice Scheherezade would envy, Maria Vasquez Boyd has interviewed a cosmology of Kansas City’s most creative individuals on “ArtSpeak Radio,” the live show she produces and hosts every Wednesday afternoon for community radio station KKFI. Boyd, a 1991 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, talks to local artists, writers and performers, often highlighting events that would get little publicity without her spotlight.
“I still get excited every time I go to KKFI to do my show,” she says with her typical gusto. “It always feels like Christmas to me when I get to do this.”
Even after a decade, Boyd remains both supportive and excited as an interviewer, coaxing her guests to relax and reveal simultaneously. A pro at getting her subjects right to the point, Boyd is always kind. “It’s important to make people feel safe,” she said in a recent interview. “I’ve been on the other side of the table, and I know how it feels.”
That’s just one of the myriad art roles Boyd — a painter, writer, poet, musician and teacher — commands as one of the city’s foremost art activists. As someone with a deep commitment to helping people in various communities with her art, she qualifies as a social practice artist, although she is too modest to label herself as such.
“I was criticized at KCAI and other places for doing so many different things, but if I see a need, and I know how to fill it, why not?” She doesn’t bother with a website. “People always seem to know how to find me,” she said.
When her cousin’s son was born with Down syndrome, Boyd created a hat from polar fleece that had the shape of a spiral winding from bottom to top. “The spiral was about his energy and him taking in the goodness of the universe,” Boyd recalls. “Inside I embroidered the words ‘joy,’ ‘love,’ ‘peace’ and ‘balance.’” So many people loved the hat that her friend, the owner of Latin American Imports in Brookside, began carrying versions of it in the store under the name “Small Wonders.” Adults wanted them also, so Boyd kept making them until the store closed.
When the Joplin tornado devastated that small Missouri town 11 years ago, Boyd was one of the artists from the region who went to the city, recovered debris, and turned it into a major sculpture at an exhibit sponsored by the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center (all proceeds donated to Joplin).
For two years during the pandemic, Boyd handcrafted hundreds of Ojo de Dios weavings (typically Mexican four-pointed hangings, named the eye of God, that represent protection and understanding of the unknown), and hung them spontaneously from various trees across Independence, Kansas City and Lawrence. “I placed 20 of them at police stations, because I knew the officers needed them as much as anybody,” she said.
Boyd has taught for years at schools and institutions all over the city. Before attending KCAI she worked in new product development at Hallmark; after graduation she was an instructor in the design and illustration department at KCAI, taught at Blue River Community College, and at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for 15 years.
She loves teaching workshops for children, one of her favorites being the Migrant Farmworkers Project in Lexington, Missouri, where she helped migrant farmers’ kids design and construct little houses, which were later displayed at the Nelson-Atkins.
Boyd has also exhibited her own art around the world. Besides painting murals in Mexican schools in 2003, her work has been shown at the Museo de Tangacicuaro, in a gallery in Xalapa, Veracruz, the Mexican Museum of Chicago, and locally, at the Mattie Rhodes Center, The Nelson-Atkins Museum, the American Jazz Museum, the Writer’s Place, the H&R Block Artspace at KCAI, art billboards for Southwest Boulevard, and numerous other venues.
“I didn’t have a lot of hope growing up…I learned I could make up my own world by making art. I also started writing poetry when I was in college.”Maria Vasquez Boyd
An Organizer — and a Poet
A resident of Independence, she is also active as the Committee Chair for Artists for the new, developing Englewood Arts neighborhood in Independence. The Englewood district includes a major public arts center, affordable housing for artists, and glassmaking studios, among other facilities, and is a revolutionary turnaround for the once-declining neighborhood. It promises to gain national prominence, and Boyd is one of two artists on the advisory board.
Steve and Joan Israelite began the Englewood project with the main goal of creating a neighborhood where artists could live permanently, without the usual scenario of having to leave after developing a neighborhood that soon becomes unaffordable. (In September the couple will receive the Truman Heartland Community Foundation Humanitarian award for their work in Englewood).
“We wanted Maria on board because she is a community grassroots developer to the core, and she is purposeful,” Steve Israelite said in a recent interview. “Also, she knows what artists need; she understands what needs to be done and we love working with her.”
Additionally, as a longtime member of the Mattie Rhodes Center — she was their capital campaign co-chair in 2019 — Boyd has created 20 designs for papel picado panels on the portico/trellis exterior of the Center’s new building at 17th and Jarboe. Boyd says the designs will “reflect community voices about what they wanted to see and what was important to them.” She has also worked for years helping to create the all-important Mattie Rhodes Day of the Dead altar, while also collaborating with the center’s installation team to establish that same tradition at the Nelson-Atkins.
Boyd grew up in South Kansas City, the youngest of three sisters, with one younger brother who died years ago. Although both Boyd’s parents were children of Mexican immigrants, she did not grow up speaking Spanish, nor knowing much about her ancestral culture. Determined to change that, she made it a point that her daughter Whitney learn Spanish and become immersed in such customs as Mexican folkloric dance, which she learned to perform professionally.
“I didn’t have a lot of hope growing up,” Boyd says, “but I loved the Smithsonian Magazine’ and National Geographic’ when I was young. I was fascinated by the constellations, black holes, anything to do with time and space. I learned I could make up my own world by making art. I also started writing poetry when I was in college.”
Boyd became aware that “there weren’t many places for Latinx writers in Kansas City; I went to a lot of poetry readings, and I didn’t see any people who looked like me.” So in 2006 she became a founding member of the Latino Writers Collective, which continues to foster writers of color, of all ages. In 2021 she was the judge for the Kauffman Center’s first “Artful Poetry Contest,” open to adults, teens and youngsters.
She is also awaiting the publication of her first poetry chapbook, “The Weight of Recognition,” which contains 60 of her poems and has forewords by Missouri Poet Laureate Maryfrances Wagner and Kansas Poet Laureate Huascar Medina, among others. “I am really, really honored by this,” she says. “I never expected something like this to happen.”
Boyd stopped writing temporarily in 2021, when she learned she had a serious heart condition that would require open-heart surgery. “I used to write almost every day,” she says, “but last year was such a strange journey for me. I started giving things away; I stopped writing. Ultimately, I made peace with things.”
Recently, however, Boyd found out that her heart functionality has gone from 20% to 55% and she will not need a transplant after all. “I believe in prayer and healing and good support,” she said.
So she’s back at work. And she’s still a member of the Ukulele Fighting Club. But that’s a whole other story!
Our Obsessive Desire to Understand Why
In the cool
whiteness of this space
I listen in broken syllables
I am invisible
I recognize human faces as less human
I am a shifting mask in the mirror
I masquerade as ordinary
I look at myself and I am not pleased
I yearn for invincibility in this temporary body
My cold and impermeable eyes
have become an outward reflection of who I am
I dream the power of birds
— Maria Vasquez Boyd