Issue Preview ~ Summer 2004
A Prairie Populist
By Mary Hooper
Residents of tiny Mullinville, in Kiowa County, are used to the sound of screeching brakes on Route 400, just west of town. No, the city hasn't put in a speed trap. There's no sudden stop sign at the city limits. There are no barriers or impediments to the smooth flow of traffic.
Except for one thing.
Make that hundreds of things hundreds of windmills and whirligigs; fantastical birds, demons, dragons and bugs; gnarly characters with long, warty noses, buck teeth and springs popping out of their heads; chickens wearing boots, a gigantic green alligator, a snowman with a rooster on his head, grinning dogs, pot-bellied men, befanged women all made of welded and brightly painted scrap iron.
And if all this weren't enough, many of these bizarre metallic cartoons bear captions that are the last word in political incorrectness.
"This is probably one of the best tourist attractions in southwest Kansas. There are people down here all the time in the summer," says M.T. Liggett.
The creator of this display of political commentary and folk art, Liggett has been called many things a prairie populist, an equal-opportunity annoyer, a grouch as well as some you can't print. He's ornery, cantankerous and contrary, but funnier than well, than his icon of Ted Turner as a big green nerdy lizard. Wearing a necktie.Liggett, 73, traveled the world during his military career, but never really strayed far from Mullinville. Everybody calls him M.T.
"I've had the same mailing address for 73 years. I was born in a claim shack on that hill," he says, gesturing towards the pasture where his crazy mishmash of satirical artwork spins and bobs in the prairie wind. Growing up on a farm, the son of sharecroppers, Liggett had no formal art instruction in school, not that he misses it.
"Art teachers ruin more students than they create," he declares. "The best artist in the world is a 7 or 8-year-old kid. Then the teacher tells the kid to draw something, and when he does, the teacher doesn't like it, says it's wrong. The kid says, I don't need this."
Liggett joined the Navy in 1948 and retired from the Air Force in 1971.
He worked in California and eventually came back to Mullinville. He began his artistic career in 1989 with a gargoyle.
"I made it to protect this old horse. See, back in days gone by, you'd put a voodoo or hex on something to protect it, create something evil-looking to ward off evil."
Did it work?
"Nope. I sold the horse."
Liggett is a big fellow with iron-grey hair, large workingman's hands, and a loud, gruff voice. He typically wears bib overalls and looks as if he's ready to climb into the cab of a combine. He works in an old barn on Elm Street, part of which is lined with windmills he has crafted from stop signs, speed limit signs and no-parking signs. Inside the dirt-floored barn, thousands of coffee mugs festoon the walls or hang from the rafters like ceramic bats. Why does he collect coffee mugs?
"I don't have the slightest idea. You don't have to have a why, do you?"
Castoffs and pieces of unfinished projects are everywhere an iron cut-out of a strange bird with big feet, a disembodied arm cut from metal, a cylinder bar from a combine, a center-rim truck tire, more junked road signs, cultivator wheels, a shank from a fertilizer applicator, lister shares, tilling discs, rotary hoe wheels fits and starts of Liggett's metallic lampoons and cartoons, which he calls "totems."
What some would view as an unsightly pile of rusting junk, Liggett sees as treasure, perceiving the beauty and symmetry in machines and their parts.
"The hardest thing for many people to understand is that I'll just see something in somebody's junkpile. It'll give me an idea."
He begins by drawing a picture with chalk on a piece of junk iron.
"I start with only an idea. I capture the thought."
Classical music playing in the background, his tools a plasma arc cutter and an arc welder, Liggett goes to work.
Lately he's been working on a piece he calls "Jolie Blon," to commemorate an old girlfriend. A railroad track tie plate welded to a cylinder bar from a combine is to be the basis of another sculpture he's calling "Tokyo Rose." This Tokyo Rose isn't the turncoat radio siren of the World War II Pacific Theater, but a blonde Texan named Rose whom he met on the Ginza in Tokyo when he was in the Navy.
All of his sculptures have a story, he says. He's put up at least two metallic tributes to a longstanding ladylove, Marilee, "the honey-haired enchantress." Liggett is partial to the ladies. He's been married "a bunch of times," and has "bunches" of kids and grandchildren.
Liggett's main "gallery" is a pasture he owns on the 400 Highway, just around the corner from his workshop. He says he doesn't hate anybody and claims he doesn't aim to insult anyone, even those whose totems he seems to have etched in acid, such as the one dedicated to James Carville, advisor to President Clinton and CNN pundit.
Still he insists he doesn't dislike those he skewers. "If I don't like somebody, I'll be damned if I'll spend all this time on them and do all this work. It'd be absolutely crazy, wouldn't it?"
It isn't only politicians who come in for the Liggett treatment. One of his more startling sculptures is that of the late Princess Diana. Monica Lewinsky is there too, of course, in the form of her famous blue dress.
Even more eye-catching than the totems are Liggett's gyros, his'"kinetic" art.
"You need kinetic things in your art if you're out here in a sea of grass. You need moving things."
Liggett will make a windmill out of almost anything. One is made from the bottoms of gas tanks to which paddles are attached. Others are cups from grain elevator belts rotating on hubs.