Across America and around the world, cities, and towns are turning to public art as a potential engine of tourism–looking for something (anything!) eye-catching enough to convince people to spend more time in town. In Salina, Kansas, this intersection of art and commerce is driven by the Salina Kanvas Project, and their largest commission to date has been wrapping a historic mill with grand images of children at play.
In Salina’s case, the building that comprises the canvas for the mural may be just as compelling as the art itself. The 100-foot-tall building was once the H.D. Lee Flour Mill. It was completed in 1898, and was operated for years by Henry David Lee, whose other business, a mercantile store, was already prospering. In 1913, Lee produced his first garment, an overall called Lee Union-Alls. This became a hit, and Lee Mercantile increasingly focused on denim garments. Today, the company is known widely as Lee Jeans.
Meanwhile, Lee sold the mill to Kansas entrepreneur John J. Vanier to focus on his apparel store. The mill continued to operate for many years, but fell into disuse by the 2010s. Travis Young, a local business leader, was taken by murals in York, England, and decided Salina needed a signature project of its own–an Eiffel Tower of Salina. Working with funding from John Vanier’s grandson (also named John), he founded the Kanvas Project and settled upon the mill as the spot.
To complete the project, Young tapped Australian artist Guido Van Helten after being introduced to his work. Van Helten had experience creating silo murals in Australia (at Brim and Coonalpyn) and elsewhere around the world. He visited Salina for several months to get inspiration for the project. On one excursion, he passed St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church during a camp day, and noticed a group of children playing “Ring Around the Rosie.” Four of these five girls were Black, a fact their families later noted with pride and disbelief after seeing their faces on a giant mural. Seeing the diversity and community spirit on display, Van Helten painted them on the Lee Mill elevators from a photo reference at a monumental scale. Today, people turn off the interstate to stop at the mill, which is all the Salina Kanvas Project could ask for.