Rural communities across Colorado and Kansas are telling colorful stories about their local history through murals. These works of art make a statement and help regenerate community spirit by giving rural towns a voice.
Cousins Staci Beauford and Audrey Sayles are both farmers’ daughters and grew up in the Plains of eastern Colorado.
“Our fathers are both very passionate about agriculture,” Beauford said. They have both carried on the family tradition to be a voice for agriculture, but they share their message in an unusual way—painting rural scenes on grain bins.
They formed their mural painting business, Some Girls and a Mural, while completing a 60-foot-high mural called “Heart of Harvest” on a grain bin in Limon, Colorado. The mural was designed for a town rebranding initiative in 2018 and is visible from Interstate 70. Krystal Wiser and Kayla Ravenkamp also contributed to the massive painting, which shows a modern farm scene inside a silhouette of a farmer swinging a child into the air.
The positive response to the mural, both locally and online, was immediate.
“It just absolutely blew everybody away. It was such a perfect fit for that space,” Sayles said.
The area of Colorado from the Kansas border to the Rocky Mountains tends to be the area travelers want to get through as quickly as possible to get to the mountains, Beauford said, but the artists want to change that perception. She and Sayles have partnered with the Colorado Prairie Arts and Music Council on a “Paint the Plains” project.
Grain elevators make a giant statement, and Sayles said they consider them the lighthouses of the Plains. Their goal is to paint elevators and grain bins along the interstate route in eastern Colorado.
Beauford said, “Our mission is first of all to help the local economies. If they can get a few more people to stop on the interstate and pull in and support the local businesses, that’s great. But the other part is just to tell our story.”
Sayles said of their “bin bling” works of art, “We really want to bring joy to people’s lives and give rural communities a voice. We know so many creative people. We see so much beauty around us. Paint the Plains is just bringing joy and bringing art out of the communities.”
Connecting with the people who are consuming the products created out on the Plains is also important to them, Beauford said. “Our feeling is that if we’re reaching people that are driving to big urban areas and we can show the modern farmer in a positive light and connect to them, then maybe there can be more communication and understanding between rural and urban areas.”
During his term as Clay Center Rotary Club president, Brett Hubka aimed to complete a club project that would have a lasting impact on the Kansas community. When he pitched his idea for a mural downtown, he did not expect just how much of an impact it would have.
“We’re at sections of Highway 15 and 24 so we have a lot of people that pass through. But we wanted to give them a reason to stop because we have a lot to offer here in Clay Center,” he said.
The first mural, which portrays a sunflower image using Kansas license plates, inspired many individuals and businesses in the community to support what became “A Mural Movement.” Thanks to donations and grants, 11 artists have now completed 12 murals in Clay Center since last July, and more murals are in the works.
The town offers visitors a walking tour that takes them by a brewery, coffee shop and other downtown shops while they view the new murals.
Hubka said a massive mural celebrating the area’s agricultural heritage will cover two sides of the Key Feeds facility along Kansas Highway 15. Travelers heading north and south will be able to see the mural.
“I think the amount of murals we have already is unique, but to do a project of this size and scale will be incredibly unique,” he said.
Honoring a giant of local history
Erika Nelson, a visionary artist and educator based in Lucas, Kansas, creates miniature works of art for her “World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things.” Recently, she has shifted her focus to creating art on a much larger scale. She is currently painting a women’s suffrage mural in Norton, Kansas, in the northwest part of the state.
“The central figure here is a 14-foot-high Ida Walker,” Nelson said of her design. Walker (1870–1946), a Norton County Republican, served in the Kansas House of Representatives from 1921 to 1923. She was among the first women in the United States elected to a state legislature, following the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1919.
“Having this giant from their history honored on one of the downtown buildings that looks out onto the courthouse is a story generator,” Nelson said. “It gives people a chance to remember Ida—because there are still some people here who do—and tell stories about her.”
She said having a town mural encourages people to think about others who have helped to build the community, which reinvigorates and excites people. Nelson said murals also elevate the cultural components of a rural town so that visitors can see there’s an active arts community, which helps make it a healthier place to live.