Ron Lessman’s folk art perhaps warrants its own genre: art as political concern.
While many other art environments amassed the anger of the local authorities after they were constructed – S.P. Dinsmoor’s populist paradise “Garden of Eden,” or M.T. Liggett’s assertively personal and political metal sculptures quickly come to mind – one near Topeka, Kansas, was born out of anti-authority cantankerousness.
When the Shawnee County officials demanded Lessman dispose of a few disused vehicle carcasses strewn across his farm, he did whatever any law-abiding, individualistically-inclined person most likely would do: he buried them.
Indeed, Lessman, a quick-talking, bandanna-wearing product of a sensationalist culture devoted to fun and rebellion, planted the trucks bumper-first into the earth and used bright spray-paints to mark colorful slogans on their sides: “Freedom isn’t,” “Rise up,” “Rome didn’t kill Jesus, bureaucrats did.”
The six antique trucks were once used as hog shelters on the Lessman’s farm (The Lessman family bought the farm in 1879. Ron and his wife, Linda, moved to the farm after they got married in 1977).
“They break down the trucks, and after that no one wants them, or it was too hard to find parts for them,” said Lessman, who declared the site Truckhedge. “The judge ordered me to pick up the trucks and I picked up the damn trucks. They just didn’t tell me how to do it. How come you’re doing things like sticking trucks in the dirt or throwing bicycles in the trees – that’s what people keep asking me. My answer is, because I can!”
“Tom Sawyer was paid to take the fence, and I’m trying to make a life out of that. The city paid for me to take most of this stuff.”
Lessman said the whole imbroglio began in 2000, when he managed to upset “a local millionaire who I underbid for a local sand and gravel project he wanted to do,” he said. County inspectors told him to get rid of all the rubbish from the property, claiming that due to its close proximity to a flood plain, it was “all going to float down the river and kill everybody in Lawrence,” according to Ron.
The farm is near the Kansas River, which, Lessman admits, is susceptible to flooding. In fact, in the summer of 1993 it flooded so badly that he was “homeless for three weeks,” said Lessman; following this displacement, he turned his attention to the area’s sandy soil and manufacturing concrete. In 1991, the House Public Works and Transportation Committee approved $10 million for the Oakland Expressway in East Topeka. The Lessmans won a contract with the state to provide soil to construct the expressway.
More specifically, the judge ordered him to pick the trucks up, so Ron hoisted the bodies up with his front-end loader, hollowed out holes, and buried the ends of those trucks in the same earth his grandfather once grew tomatoes, watermelon, and cantaloupe. For added emphasis, he secured them in with massive quantities of home-made concrete.
“Truckhenge was born in conflict, but raised in humor and creativity,” said Lessman. “Read between the lines: crap from scrap. There are 40,000 pounds of concrete holding each one of them down, and that’s without weighing in the motors and transmissions which are still inside. It would take a bulldozer to lift them up now.”
The government pushed the civil case, but the judge relented. Soon, Lessman was brought before another judge on the criminal charge of criminal public nuisance.
“They figured the cemented trucks were going to float down the river, kill everybody in Lawrence, and also take out all the bridges and infrastructure, too. I said, ‘Your Honor, I’m not a nuisance. I’m just obnoxious. I paid my fine.”
In the summer of 2006, Lessman added Boathenge and then he concocted Beer Bottle City, cement collages which are exercises in the re-collection of the odds and ends of life; things that in isolation might be consigned to oblivion (antique whiskey bottles and a conveyor belt from the sand plant), but here constitute the raw materials of art.
Lessman is indeed an artist, a part of a high-density of self-taught, backyard visionary artists in Kansas. While the verbiage and language is still evolving, certain camps of thought use the description “grassroots” or “folk artist,” and still others would classify Lessman as an “outsider artist,” a term increasingly viewed as pejorative, for it implies that art is somehow impure or denigrated if not accessibly in the traditional gallery setting.
Lessman said that he generally dislikes it when people make grandiose claims – when they talk about life and death, death and life, birth and death. His eyes glaze over. He prefers to talk about calculated silliness and having a good time.
The artist in Lessman is interested in the child that remains within himself, within everyone. He can make art fit (like the old-fashioned bowling pins stacked up near a neighboring fence), even when they don’t – and that’s his gift, which also conveys the essential message: It’s all in fun.
“Sometimes when I head out to feed the peacocks their corn in the mornings, someone will leave me a whole stack of shoes. We have fun, right? My dad worked for Goodyear. He retired and he was dead after 5 years.”
Would Lessman, who truly seems to enjoy his unofficial role as the property’s docent, like to see his artistic milieu preserved for posterity?
“As long as the government don’t take it – sure.” said Lessman, who provides minimal background information, such as year of birth (1952) and list of occupations (he once raised 300 hogs, owned a lawn service company, and operated a sand plant).
Indeed, Truckhenge is as much a celebration of art as it is a vindication of it. He knows that, in an age that bombards us with ever more extreme visual representations, his work can still make even casual passersby stop, stare, and smile. The scene is both slightly smirking (the artist) and poignant resurrection (the re-purposed material).
Somehow the premises offer some kind of organic unity in the chaos of clutter: one wooden slab reveals a two-faced alligator and another one a rotating head with a bulging-eyed face and upholstery tacks as eyes. The breadth of eccentric beauty of these small carvings (imagine a hybrid of animals and movie stars) makes it easy to appreciate that Lessman has scattered his energies among so many kinds of work. He has added a fence post of old shoes, which he calls The Wall of Lame, or with a more reflective bent, “my comment on the Midwest Arts scene,” said Lessman.
“The property is a mixture of Burning Man and the Three Stooges and the Red Green Show and Woodstock and Ma and Pa Kettle and the Beverly Hillbillies. I can’t make this stuff up, I’m not that smart. I could’ve done pictures of houses and scenery. But I can’t beat nature. So why compete?”
Ron and Linda Lessman built their house using unconventional materials with their own mission of artistic style, which includes a concrete mixer integrated into the back porch steps. The two-story home is a Quonset hut, sprayed outside with polyurethane foam insulation and then painted in a hodgepodge of at least eighteen different colors.
Downstairs, Ron paints his visions on T-shirts, old thrift store canvasses, large sheets, blankets, cardboard boxes and other scrounged materials. He has even painted the cement floor a swirling menagerie of colors and images. One can’t help but wonder whether Lessman at his best balks at explicit meaning and sentiment and thrives, instead, on ambiguity.
Rife with snatches of cartoon imagery and pop culture puns, his paintings include his own interpretative rendition of the Mona Lisa’s likeness at age 80 and a baby being delivered into the world, from the newborn’s vantage point.
Indeed, Lessman conversational style may be divergent, but there’s an underlying theme to his life of chainsaw-sliced and hand-tooled logs, welded animals, spray-painted boats, buses and trucks, license plate-covered huts, and faded earth colored tapestries.
“What’s my biggest inspiration? Boredom! You’ve got to jump out of the box and just throw ideas up. Not bad, right?”
The upshot of his defiance and exposure include a visit from actor William Shatner in 2015; listing on the official tourism websites of both Kansas and Topeka; and the Shawnee County Recycling and Preservation Association’s declaration “as an official art park.”
On this March morning, wearing a T-shirt that reads “You Say Psycho Like It’s a Bad Thing,” Lessman is cheerfully defiant, exhibiting an idiosyncratic, if not generous, sense of humor that he freely shares with his visitors. His humor has a mischievous suggestiveness, lighthearted, yet memorably eerie (he frequently illustrates his resentment toward county officials with a universally recognized naughty gesture of one arm slapped across the other with one forearm and fist upright).
“What’s the American way? Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, right? Well, I’m just trying to keep the wife happy. Fuck the county.”
— Uncharted101.com (@Uncharted1o1) March 12, 2017