Story and Pics by Linda Kissam
I am a lover of art in open places. Whenever I travel I like to visit art that has made its way off the walls and out of the galleries and into the great outdoors. You can tell a lot about a community from the time, talent and treasure it invests in art. I don’t care if it’s an interpretation of an anchor stuck on a gangway in a marina, a twirly kinetic piece in a city park open for elucidation, or an easily recognizable bronze located in a mall featuring a girl on a bench with flowers; I think art in open spaces is a beautiful idea. The more “regular” people can see, feel and be exposed to art, the more I’ll be leading the cheer and taking pictures.
On a recent visit to Topeka Kansas I was challenged in my thinking about what constitutes art. My guide for 2 days was the charming Shalyn Murphy, Visit Topeka’s Communications & Marketing Director. She expertly guided the group of writers I was with through several art stops. Before we came to our last stop, she took a deep breath and said, “This is going to be a different experience for you. You’re either going to love Truckhenge or hate it.” She was absolutely correct. I loved it. Maybe you’ll hate it. Either way it is a must see for anyone visiting the Topeka area.
Truckhenge in Topeka, Kansas is a unique eclectic combination of farm rights , salvage and recycled objects , countryside sanctuary, power tools, personal statement about “the man”, and perhaps folk art . It’s the work of one man, Ron Lessman. Reviewers say it is reminiscent of England’s Stonehenge. I’ve been to both, and am thinking not so much. But it certainly is unique.
Basically, think of a man who had a lot of dilapidated trucks strewn across his property. Now think about floods possibly floating those trucks off the property in the river going who knows where, pissed off neighbors, concerned officials, and one strong headed owner all coming together in a round of discussions that, putting it mildly, did not go so well. We’re at a standoff somewhere between Ron declaring “I believe in recycling, so I recycle everything,” and public officials ordering Ron to haul the trucks away.
The county said he couldn’t have any loose metal on the property. “They told me to pick my trucks up.” “So…Okay! I picked ’em up,” and at the same time a new form of folk art took shape. Ron upended the vehicles into crazy monuments cemented deeply into the ground. Trust me these suckers aren’t going anywhere for thousands of years. Maybe the fact that these trucks then became slogan-bearing billboards made them art. Maybe not. Phrases such as , “Rise Up” is on one truck, and “Freedom Isn’t Lost” is on another. A school bus is buried nose-down in front of a ragged concrete tombstone titled, “Truth.” Art? Dissention? Standoff?
To visit the property you have to call ahead and make an appointment. There’s no charge for the tour except your full attention to a man’s distinctive vision and use of power tools. Expect to walk a bit on a fairly level unpaved dirt road for the best views. Close up and personal is an important part of the experience. Property owner and artist Ron is fervent about his ever expanding project and delights in showing visitors around his property. His family has been farming this land since the 1870s. Ron is fun to listen too, and talked nonstop as we toured the grounds. He’s amazing with one-line zingers, so don’t drift off while he’s talking. He may seem like he’s rambling on, but this man knows exactly what he wants to say. One either thinks he’s somewhat manic, or one really sharp cookie. As mentioned above, his favorite subject is his ongoing talks and visits with Shawnee County. Personally, the more he blustered, the more I found myself cheering him…and his art form…on. If this were the 60s no one would think twice about his fight with “the man.” It would just be a normal part of the give and take of politics and perhaps grassroots art. It’s probably good to note that his work caught the attention of the Shawnee County Preservation Association, resulting in Truckhenge receiving a Kaw Region Art Park marker in 2006.
The whole place is captivating and ever changing. According to Ron, “Our family has owned these lands for almost 130 years, and each generation has made its mark on the property.” As time goes by, Ron has added more than just trucks. There is now a boat section called Boathenge. Same game, same names, same look. He invited my writers group to grab a paint brush and scrawl our names on the boats jutting out from the ground. If we had had time and I wasn’t wearing $250 shoes, I would have given it some serious thought.
On your way back to your car, you may be invited to tour Ron’s home. It’s another monument of sorts, but this time to what can be accomplished by using all recycled and salvaged materials. It gives the meaning “green living” a whole new perspective. It’s another wacky, wonderful part of the Ron Lessman world.
It’s huge, power-packed and mesmerizing. The home is a massive 40 by 120 foot structure built in a Quonset house/hut style. The lower level is a garage and studio, the upper level has a big living area and small hot house. The home has over 50 circuit breakers and over 150 electrical outlets. It also has 8000 sq. ft. of heated concrete floor. The main entrance to the living quarters is across a foot bridge with an old spiral, wooden staircase at the far end of the bridge. Don’t miss it. I am pretty sure when the world’s lights go out, Ron’s home will still be standing and shining brightly.
Want to try this experience? Keep in mind that Truckhenge is first and foremost a home and farm to the Lessman family, so be respectful. Make sure you visit his webpage to get a sense of the Truckhenge experience. You can get his number and call him to make an appointment. Most people call for a same day appointment. It’s private property, so don’t just show up and begin walking around. Take a camera, wear flat shoes, relax into the quirkiness, and expect to be part of this art experience for a minimum of one hour – longer if he invites you into his home.