Kansas Prairie Inspires Public Art Projects for Merriam Plaza

When the Merriam Plaza Library opens next year, it will include a drive-thru, state-of-the-art technology, early literacy space in the kids section, and all the other amenities one would expect in a new branch built at a cost of nearly $14 million.

Adhering to patron feedback, the new branch at 6120 Slater St. will also have abundant natural light, a warm wood ceiling and a “green” roof with vegetation that provides a habitat for pollinators.

Yet the art integrated into the design of Merriam Plaza — which is replacing the aging Antioch Library — may well provide the most eye-catching connection to nature.

After evaluating nearly 180 submissions, the Johnson County Public Art Commission last year commissioned projects from Emily Alvarez of Kansas City, Missouri, and Sage Vaughn of Los Angeles.

Alvarez’s four-panel indoor mural will include deep blue teal and lime green among its vibrant colors and will have raised plexiglass panels featuring plants and side profiles of residents of diverse races.

The mural also has a portion with people standing on roots to pay homage to the groundbreaking work of the Webb family, leaders of the 1940s movement to desegregate schools in Merriam. The hardiness of the prairie grass she features celebrates the “community aspect of developing roots in your community that make it easier to withstand hardship,” Alvarez said.

With its emphasis on diversity, the art commission carved out a portion of the budget to include Alvarez’s work. She is awed and humbled at the confidence the commissioners placed in her against much more experienced applicants.

Vaughn’s outdoor installation features his sketches fabricated into four prairie flowers in two groupings of two apiece. The metal sculptures, some reaching taller than the building itself, are made of Corten Steel, which has a weathered, rust-colored exterior.

The flowers featured in the installation include Mexican Hat (prairie coneflowers) and a sunflower variety. Vaughn collaborated with a computer effects designer who loaded a 3D model of the Merriam Plaza building into software that, by simulating how sunlight would hit the sculptures, helped determine the placement of the installations.

Vaughn considers a project for a local library as the “absolute pinnacle” of public art and said his goal is “to take some of those flowers that are common and make them remarkable, with the idea being that it's a public space, that it is something that can help inspire memories and kind of make things locatable even for the very, very young people who access that space.”

The green roof captivated Vaughn.

“Geez man, this is perfect,” he thought. “That’s my whole jam. It’s flowers and butterflies and insects and birds. It was really fun to just say great, you guys set it up, let me just hit it, and if you guys are into this you are into it, if not, I totally get it.”

The height and scale of Vaughn’s pieces is an aspect of the work that will spark intrigue and conversations among patrons, said commission Chairman Larry Meeker. He said the colors in Alvarez’s mural might also spark debates among visitors who love the vibrancy and others who think a library should be more muted.

The fact that both of the art projects are open to interpretation is exactly what public art is supposed to do, Meeker said, offering a “double barreled” benefit to the library to complement its collection.

“Good pieces of art are open-ended,” he said. “That is also what makes a good piece of literature.”

Art installation is set to begin at the site this fall.