TowerEast: A Hotbed of Community Creativity

A Burgeoning Number of Artists Studios and Workshops are Congregating Around 31st and Cherry

What isn’t an “Art District” these days? The neighborhood around 31st and Cherry, which many know as Martini Corner, has just rebranded itself TowerEast — named for the iconic, red KCPT radio tower — and the district’s art credentials are growing. In recent years, an ever-increasing number of makerspaces, artist studios, print shops and other businesses have settled in the area. They have also banded together for a semiannual creative showcase, Wanderfest!, to draw new crowds. The next Wanderfest! will be held Nov. 5.

TowerEast is an easy place to miss. If you’re passing through, you’ll likely only see the Home Depot, fast food chains and gas stations on Linwood Boulevard. But the atmosphere on 31st Street is very different. Unlike other arts districts which are known for their galleries, TowerEast is home to mostly studios and workshops.

It’s hard to say who the first artist to move in was, but it was probably Linda Lighton. Known for her ceramic sculpture and her philanthropic work in the KC art scene, Lighton purchased her enormous warehouse back in 1990. The first floor is mostly empty, except for a corner with her husband’s woodshop and handmade canoes, but the second floor is filled with Lighton’s provocative ceramic sculptures of machine guns and black flowers. According to Lighton, the neighborhood has really changed from its mafia-run days decades ago, and she is particularly impressed with the ambitious young artists moving into what is now TowerEast.

Kelsey Pike is one of those ambitious artists. Pike runs the Cherry Pit Collective, an all-female studio workspace. Cherry Pit has a wide range of members, from fine artists and craftsmen to vintage clothing retailers. Some use it as a workspace and others use it to meet with clients. Pike uses her space for her paper-making business, with contracts ranging from wedding invitations to paper for fine art printmakers. Pike also uses the communal area to run an Etsy Incubator teaching other makers how to best use the online platform for their businesses.

Pike is also the lead organizer for this fall’s upcoming Wanderfest!. She is still finalizing the list of participants, but last spring’s event included groups like the 816 Bike Collective, a community bike shop; Maker Village, a community wood and metal shop; Longfellow Farm, a community garden; and Oddities Prints, a combination printshop and music venue, just to name a few. Last spring, El Torreon, an enormous event space often used for weddings, decided to rent a giant inflatable bounce house for the public’s enjoyment. This fall’s event will have newcomers too, like Print League KC, a community print shop that just opened this summer. While many of these locations will be having sales and special offers, many will also be giving public demonstrations and tours of their facilities, and there should be some live music, food and drink too.

Pike says the purpose of Wanderfest! is to bring all the local businesses and organizations together and to let the public know what’s happening in the area. To help foster the TowerEast community, Pike and her fellow organizers hit upon an interesting tool for Wanderfest!. When you show up at a location, you’re given a map directing you to other events. At each location, you can get your map stamped and use those stamps to enter a raffle to win products from local businesses and artists. The more stamps you have, the better your chances of winning. What’s a festival without a raffle anyway?

It’s no mistake that so many of thes TowerEast businesses and organizations describe themselves with the word “community.” While it’s a popular buzzword, it stands in direct contrast to words like “commercial” or “private,” which describes so much of this city. Come November 5, get out and enjoy it!

The fall 2017 Wanderfest! will be held from noon to 6 p.m. Nov. 5 at 31st and Cherry Streets.

Neil Thrun

Neil Thrun is a writer and artist living in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a 2010 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and was a resident artist with the Charlotte Street Urban Culture Project in 2011 and 2012. He has written for publications including the Kansas City Star, Huffington Post and other local arts journals.

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