First published: Spring 2020
The routes into and around a tiny Kansas town are littered with the head-turning rural street art of MT Liggett
Driving through the big-sky prairie flatlands of western Kansas, the first sight of Mullinville (population, approximately 250) is a multistorey grain elevator on the distant horizon. Nearer to the town, beside Route 400 as it enters from the west, the main site of the late artist MT Liggett abruptly presents itself: behind the roadside fence, a 400-metre procession of road sign whirligigs, churning in the perpetual-motion breezes, and metal sculpture “totems” mounted on steel pipes. The front row includes “AJAX”, “SOCRATES”, and a snake-bearing “CLEOPATRA”, while “ARTEMIS”, “KERMIT” (the frog), ”TED KENNEDY” and dozens more crowd behind. On the eastern outskirts of town is another display of Liggett’s totems and whirligigs – a 250-metre-long line of them, standing tall alongside the railroad tracks that are adjacent to Route 54, the other highway that passes through Mullinville.
photo: Ted Degener
Next to the town’s post office, five cannons made from junked irrigation apparatus and machinery parts are spread over a small grassy area, and a rusted tanker truck, “SEPTIC TANK CLEANING” re-lettered on its red cab, is parked just off the street in front. A thick suction hose connects the truck to a green portable toilet with two big, hand-painted red hearts on the door. Signs above the tank explain, “SCHITT-CREEK TURD-SUCK-TRUCK” and “YOU-HUMP WE-PUMP”.
Liggett said, “When I first bought that [land], everybody in Mullinville had a chance to buy it. So I put up cannons for all the dead in my family... ”. Then, after a dispute with the town ensued, “...I said, I’ll show you sons of bitches what it’s all about. So I bought that old shit truck and put it up there”.
Liggett also owned an empty lot two blocks away on Route 400. Here, next to a toilet bowl mounted on a vertical yellow wooden beam, there is a small windowless corrugated metal building with its door boarded-over by a large sign that reads “TOWN COUNCIL” over two words in Greek letters that translate into something about worms. At this central location, the artist would park topical “message board” sculptures built on trailers: a “LOVE” and a “GAYS” heart are positioned either side of the name “FRED-PHELPS”, an anti-homosexual activist pastor from Kansas who came to national attention in 2006: “HEEZA ASSHOLE”. Another message board sculpture, in 2017, showed a toilet bowl on the trailer and a sign: “HILLARY CLINTON URINE ASSHOLE”.
Needless to say, Liggett’s work attracted, and still attracts, attention – not all of it positive. Some of the Mullinville locals didn’t appreciate people coming in from the outside, taking photographs and “promoting” Liggett. The rural street artist provocateur also made little effort to ingratiate himself with the prevailing orthodoxies of the art establishment. Displaying “HILLARY” at the main site with a swastika body, holding a hammer and sickle, wasn’t calculated to bring a whole lot of art-world love.
Header image: Liggett’s main site in 2009, photo: Fred Scruton
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #105.