Wednesday, February 27, 2008

TheWhole Wall

By Tim Unruh
Salina Journal

CONCORDIA -- Using mostly handmade tools, Catharine Magel, Mara Smith and a legion of local volunteers are shaping tons of "green" bricks into a work of art for Cloud County.
Their shaving, gouging and slicing of 6,400 unfired bricks is the first step in creating a 140-foot mural that will depict the development of Concordia and Cloud County.

"It's one big giant puzzle," said Magel, 51, St. Louis.
She was commissioned last year by the Cloud County Historical Society to create what's called the Whole Wall Project. The artwork will cover the east wall of the Cloud County Museum Annex in downtown Concordia.
"I see it as a statement of our history and our values," said Dana Brewer, an attorney who is president of the historical society board.
From a studio at the Cloud County Community College art department, Magel and her assistant, Smith, a brick carver on the project, are creating art one brick at a time. The carving began nearly a year ago and should be completed next month. Once all sections are fired in the Cloud Ceramics kiln, the wall will be constructed and attached to the building.
The historical society will seek bids from brick masons and hopes to complete the $350,000 project by late summer.
About $110,000 has been raised through donations and fundraisers such as the sale of locally made quilts and personalized bricks for benches at the mural site. In-kind contributions, such as the special tools used to carve the bricks, have been received as well.
Local scenes depicted
"I think people are going to be amazed when they see it," Brewer said of the project, planning for which was begun four years ago.
He expects the wall to be a lure for tourists.
"We see it as a means to get them to take the next step to see other museums and attractions in the county," Brewer said.
Included in the mural are local scenes such as St. Joseph Catholic Church, the Nazareth Motherhouse, the Republican River bridge, Miltonvale Wesleyan College Administration Bldg., the Brown Grand Theatre, a bi-plane owned by aviator Charlie Blosser, Orphan Train riders and Minersville, which was a camp of coal miners in the late 1800s. The historical society plans a narrative to explain each element.
Magel spent weeks researching local history and meeting with project organizers before making her first sketch. Collaboration with project committee members brought about some additions to the mural after it was started, such as the guard house of the World War II German prisoner of war camp near Concordia.
The mural is arranged not chronologically, but as a visual flow that Magel describes as a "rhythmic line, like a graceful kind of feeling within all of the activity."
The bricks have been donated by Cloud Ceramics, which made them from soil taken from deposits of Dakota clay in the Concordia area. The bricks are 8 inches deep to allow depth in the carving.
Cloud Ceramics also donated the transportation of the bricks, which must go to and from the college art department, to the kiln, and into storage to await construction. The company built a 22-foot by 10-foot easel where the green bricks -- wet and soft enough to carve -- are stacked. As each section is completed, those bricks are removed from the easel, numbered and placed on pallets for the journey to the kiln.
The project is important to Cloud Ceramics, which has made bricks at Concordia since 1946 and today employs 70 people.
"A standard issue brick manufacturing company could not pull off a project of this scope," said Ben Retter, general manager. "We have a fantastic group of tenured employees. They have a strong understanding of the drying and firing process."
Without the brick company's help, he said, the project might have been too expensive to pursue.
"A project of this size and scope is really an expensive undertaking -- several hundred thousand dollars if you have it bid," Retter said. "When we heard the historical society wanted to do this, we wanted to do it locally."
The Whole Wall Project is viewed as more than something that will dress up Concordia. Barbara Stevens, head of the art department at the community college, said the project has been priceless for her students, and enrollment is up this year.
"I've had all of my students drop in on them to see them carve and see the progression of each section," Stevens said. "We've had some high schools come in and they've let the kids carve with the artists."
The college art department has invited 30 high schools to tour its studios and the brick plant in late January.
Stevens said she hopes to build an apprenticeship program with Cloud Ceramics "to show parents in this rural area that there is an avenue for students interested in ceramics to make a living off of this." And she plans to apply for grants to start an artist-in-residence program to demonstrate and teach brick sculpture at the college.
Mara Smith sees that as a reasonable goal, and hopes young people can be attracted to the art form.
Brick carving offers jobs for about 60 people in the western world, she said, "and most of us are in AARP."

Reporter Tim Unruh can be reached at 822-1419 or by e-mail at

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