KU School of Medicine–Wichita
1010 N. Kansas
Wichita, KS, 67214
October 24, 2019
Beautiful Ninth Street Plaza artwork can be seen on the southeast corner of 9th Street and Minnesota near KU School of Medicine-Wichita.
By Brian Whepley
Thanks to a multimillion dollar art and public works project along Ninth Street, the approaches to KU School of Medicine-Wichita's front door have become more attractive and easier to navigate.
The project completed this summer cost about $3.5 million, said Gary Janzen, Wichita city engineer. In addition to the artwork, it widened sections of Ninth from I-135 to Hillside, added turn lanes and parking, installed gutters and sewers to mitigate a longtime flooding problem and upgraded sidewalks and crosswalks.
The work smoothed the transition between four lane and two lane sections and provides a ready connection between the Redbud Trail used by walkers and cyclists and the trail beneath the interstate. The city reused paving bricks from the street in the art installations.
"The Ninth Street infrastructure project was the most significant investment in this area in a number of years. East of Grove, some of the original brick pavers were still being used and had significantly worn and no longer provided a smooth ride for modern day vehicles," said Brandon Johnson, who represents District 1 on the Wichita City Council.
Artist Ellamonique Baccus worked with engineers from Baughman Company as the artist consultant for the project. She credited Johnson and former City Council member Lavonta Williams for pushing the project forward and incorporating art. The work took three years from start to finish and involved gathering input from neighborhood associations, the African American Council of Elders, the Urban League and others about what the art installations should include. A community celebration in late August marked its completion.
The artwork flows from painted columns under the Canal Route (I-135) to a plaza of mural sections and benches at Ninth and Minnesota and along Ninth all the way to Hillside. Just west of Hillside, a mural wall lines the hill along Highland Cemetery, accompanied by benches.
The works celebrate the neighborhood around the med school, long a predominantly African American area and, during segregation, a major business area for the community. "That was the only place they could shop, one of the few places people could live," Baccus said.
"The project connects the parts of Ninth Street that have so much history for people. There are so many people that are well known and accomplished in this community, particularly African Americans, and that's where they were raised," Baccus said.
Embedded in the new sidewalks are Adinkra symbols, often seen in West African cloth. "We need love and transformation and hope and wisdom and knowledge and cooperation. We need to learn from the past," Baccus heard from community members. "I used those symbols to represent the values community members told me."
The symbols work in tandem with the values and colors of Kwanzaa, the annual celebration of African American heritage. Red, for example, represents struggle and sacrifice, while black - a combination of all colors - represents unity.
The painted mural west of Ninth and Hillside is called "Cultivating the Seeds of Our Future." It includes a seed, a young girl bursting from among sunflowers, an older Mother Nature-like woman, a Tuskegee Airman (modeled after Wichitan Donald Jackson, a Wichita veterinarian and Tuskegee Airman), a biplane, and an image of a community elder. Altogether, it's intended to communicate the cycle of life and how hope, education and the support of community are among the keys to a successful future and how one can learn from the past.
Baccus involved multiple artists to implement her redesign of Ninth Street, some trained, some community volunteers. Baccus painted the Seeds mural, while Janice Thacker worked on mural sections for the Ninth and Minnesota plaza. Thacker's paintings reflect the principles of Kwanzaa including faith, hope and purpose. One, emphasizing self-determination, features an image of a civil rights era lunch counter sit-in like those in Wichita and elsewhere. Tina Murano, who created the Jayhawk mosaic installed earlier this year at the medical school, did the tile work with community members at the plaza and the Seeds mural.
"The best part is working with community members and the celebration at the end, seeing it all come together," said Murano, who has done other public art projects, including the Redbud Trail "pause point" at Ninth and Hillside.
Volunteers from community organizations including Rise Up for Youth, as well as apprentices from the Wichita Way to Work program and other community members, helped paint parts of the project, sometimes onsite, sometimes offsite. Baccus said a pleasure of the project was interacting with community members.
"I'd be out there painting and people would drive by and yell out of their car windows. They would stop their cars and get out and talk with me," Baccus said.
Summing up, referring to the art piece but just as readily to the public works project, Baccus said: "It took a lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of listening, but it was so worth it."