A Night With Hesse McGraw & Josh Shelton

By Melaney Mitchell

Saturday February 11th, Subterranean Gallery hosted the first of three Hot Tub Dialogue Lecturesfeaturing Hesse McGraw with moderator Josh Shelton. McGraw founded the Paragraph Gallery in 2004 and acted as a forerunner in revitalizing KC’s downtown through the arts. The space looked to transform the city, and the way in which art worked towards revitalization. He now works in a similar fashion as the Chief Curator of the Bemis Art Center in Omaha, Nebraska which focuses on works with a community impact. The evenings moderator, Josh Shelton is chair of the Steering Committee with Art Thru Architecture, a principal member of the architecture firm, El Dorado, and is on the board for the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, KS. McGraw and Shelton connect through their interest in the community, with Shelton’s teaching and studio practice at the University of Kansas School of Architecture, Design, and Planning. Shelton and his students work to develop architectural projects that have a direct engagement with the current urban context specific to each project. This is the same direction McGraw was heading in when he opened Paragraph Gallery.

Saturday’s steam-filled dialogue was surprisingly, traditional. A PowerPoint presentation led us through McGraw and Shelton’s history as artists in practice. McGraw spoke first, a former writer for Review Magazine, who eventually worked alongside Urban Culture Project to create a revolutionary space for artists at Paragraph Gallery. Its goal was to make things possible and was, as Shelton said about “bringing the life back” into Downtown Kansas City, which had lost its vibrancy. Thus, by using art as the platform for this revitalization, Paragraph featured artists that were challenging scale and how it attempted to occupy the world outside of the gallery.

Shelton’s history was intermingled into McGraw’s in order to see the parallels between the two lecturer’s practices. While McGraw was working on the Paragraph Gallery, Shelton was in the process of designing and building a self-storage facility in Topeka, Kansas to revitalize a lackluster portion of that city. Upon completion of the project, the owner of the storage facility gave Shelton the original marketing budget to create an art show within the facility. This broke ground for what Paragraph was becoming for McGraw in Kansas City. It identified a platform “in which art could be in direct engagement with the neighborhood”. Another important point of recognition from this project was that art was becoming the thing that attracts people and creates a stronger sense of community.

The goal for McGraw was to find ways in which art can engage with non-traditional space and community outside of the traditional gallery setting. The way in which Downtown Kansas City has been transformed, and the exponential growth of the Crossroads Arts District are proof that the creative efforts in downtown Kansas City have yielded real results. McGraw brought what he learned in Kansas City back with him to Omaha, at the Bemis Art Center, and has had exhibitions which engage the community such as The Rainbow Project which creates a synthetic rainbow. The goal of this project is to both educate about the sustainability of harnessing rainwater but also uses what is normally wasted to beautify the city of Omaha.

Rounding out the talk was a discussion of the future at Bemis. One particular goal was working towards helping Theaster Gates, an artist and urban cultural planner based in Chicago, Illinois, create an artist initiated housing neighborhood development in under-privileged neighborhoods in Omaha. This project is to further fuel “radical and pragmatical” work from artists, and to link up with those thinking about how art can be interact further with the community.

Aside from the pedagogical nature of the lecture, there was plenty of fun involved. The night began with original music from Gregory Gagnon, and Lean Sproul Pulatie, and featured Terri Quinn on clarinet. Guests enjoyed “trans-modern-oasis Caribbean-fusion” hors d’oeuvres by the culinary talent of Joe Lawlor and many of our ingredients were provided by the gallery’s neighbors, Natures Own Health Food Market. Drinks and specialty offerings were served from loquacious bartender Sam Fifield.

The Hot Tub activities were the real star of the night, and had three additional guests during the lecture, Sean Starowitz and Dave Rhodes and Subterranean Gallery founder and Co-Curator of the series, Ayla Rexroth joined them in the spa. Unfortunately, the other Co-Curator of the series, Clayton Skidmore was too busy filming clips of the lecture to take a dip with them.

This first Hot Tub Dialogue explored the role of the artist and the art space in the community, which is key in how Subterranean Gallery operates. Subterranean combines public art space with a domestic space and art is mingled directly into said community. Nestled in a midtown Kansas City apartment complex allowing for a situation more welcoming to conversation for the viewers. With the state of the arts community today, getting the public interested in more facets of art is crucial. Showing that work can move beyond what we know as the gallery and open doors that would otherwise seem closed off. Spaces like Paragraph Gallery, and the Bemis Center, are working to break the standardized bounds put art in places where people wouldn’t expect it. In a culture so focused on social informativeness, when you put art in a place that will foster discussion, you create a unique and new dialogue. When McGraw and Shelton were placed in the hot tub, they took the conventional lecture to a more relaxed and intimate level, thus setting a new tone for those that would follow.

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