Mr. Imagination controversy in Salina, KS

(the following is from the Salina Journal)

Greg Warmack works Tuesday morning in his studio downtown. The imaginative artist is working on various art projects in town, including work at the Peace Garden in north Salina at Forest and North Second streets. (photo by Tom Dorsey / Salina Journal) | Buy Journal Photos

A vivid imagination



Salina Journal

Mr. Imagination’s mind is running wild with a new vision.

After the Salina City Commission rejected Mr. Imagination’s installation — grotto sculptures on downtown planters — local artist Katy England said she and Mr. Imagination, also known as Greg Warmack, are forging new plans.

“We don’t want to be scratched off the map,” she said. “Mr. I. was an invited artist. We’re going to focus on making this a positive thing for Salina.”

England said she was informed Friday by Salina Downtown Inc. executive director Phyll Klima that the planter project, which was being installed beginning Wednesday, had been called to a halt.

On Saturday, Mr. Imagination’s art, created with the help of Salina children, was jack-hammered off of the concrete planter in the 100 block of South Santa Fe.

“The city hasn’t moved that fast on anything except flash floods and snow removals,” former city commissioner Abner Perney said Tuesday. Perney was at Monday’s Salina City Commission meeting, where he called the decision to remove the artwork “a callous, unwarranted, unilateral action.”

Mr. Imagination said he was shocked to see the art being removed.

“I was at the (Smoky Hill River) festival,” he said Tuesday. “Someone told me they were taking the stuff off. I ran downtown and couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t come for all of this controversy. Every city has the same old pots. If mine were done, artists would come from all over the world to do this. The whole street would become a tourist attraction.”

Mr. Imagination said this was the first time in his career that a project has been halted midstream.

“Somebody made a very bad decision,” he said. “That will always be in everyone’s mind. When (City Manager Jason) Gage told me I couldn’t do it, I had packed all of my stuff and was ready to go. Phyll (Klima) came to me in tears. We hugged each other. Then a nice young lady told me, ‘God sent you here for another reason.’ This whole thing was not just for me. As a community works together, it builds. That’s what I wanted.”

Self-portrait: Greg Warmack, also known as Mr. Imagination, places red stones Tuesday morning on a self-portrait he is creating. It will be donated to Salina for auction to help fund art projects for children and artists. (photo by Tom Dorsey / Salina Journal)

Gage makes the call

The decision to halt the project and remove what was installed was made by Gage, in consultation with city commissioners, Salina Mayor Luci Larson said Tuesday.

Gage was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Larson said a communication gap caused the problem.

“To be perfectly honest, I had people comment on the art, and it wasn’t positive,” Larson said. “Either positive or negative comments, I always check it out. That is what made me initiate the first call to city hall. Somewhere from November to June, there was a communication gap.”

According to Larson, Gage attended Salina Downtown, Inc.’s monthly board meeting earlier in June, and it was mentioned that the installation would soon begin.

“When he realized he was a little bit unclear about what was happening, he told Phyll Klima he didn’t believe they had gone through the proper channels (for the installation),” Larson said. “He went back to his staff to see who approved what. Anytime you’re going to do anything on public property, whether it be downtown or at a park, there are channels that you have to go through, which might have been missed.”

The project had been approved by the boards of Salina Downtown, Inc. and the Salina Arts and Humanities Commission. However, Gage thought it also should have been approved by the community art and design committee.

Peace garden sign: A sign welcomes Greg Warmack, aka Mr. Imagination, at the Peace Garden, where he and volunteers worked Monday. (photo by Tom Dorsey / Salina Journal)

It’ll never happen again

Larson said she didn’t expect the removal to begin immediately.

“When the art was removed within a day of the decision, I thought I had missed something,” Larson said. “I personally didn’t realize it was going to happen as quickly as it did. It was a huge miscommunication and it will never happen again.”

City Commissioner Aaron Peck said he personally preferred that the installation be removable from city property, if needed. Because the art was made of concrete and grout, it would have been a permanent fixture.

England said she and Mr. Imagination will continue through this week to create art with the public at 113A S. Santa Fe. She urges city officials, especially the commissioners, to come downtown and check out Mr. I’s project.

Peck took her up on the offer Tuesday.

“I’m excited about these possible installations,” Peck said. “I felt I owed (Mr. I.) a personal apology. By and large, (there was) a complete breakdown between city officials and the city commission.”

Klima stressed the importance of this project, which was funded by grants applied for by Salina Downtown.

“It is of great concern that the public understand this was the first of a three- to five-year program,” Klima said. “(We wanted) to include many types of artists on these planters. Building that variety in our downtown community is essential.”

With options open at the moment, England said she has spoken to the Friends of the River project for a possible collaboration of the art and restoration of the Smoky Hill River, although nothing has been confirmed.

“I’m going to continue plugging away and making sculptures,” England said. “I hope to bring (Mr. I.) back for the installation, wherever that will be. Mr. I. is bigger than four planters. We’re going to make something good out of this.”

Mr. Imagination said he accepts city commissioners’ apologies if they are done face-to-face.

“This is a learning experience,” Mr. Imagination said. “I hope this never happens to another artist.”

Warmac and other volunteers created a courtyard Monday in the Peace Garden. (photo by Tom Dorsey / Salina Journal)

He doesn’t blame Salina

Larson agreed.

“Instead of someone pointing fingers, everyone is trying to be very civil and realizing that this was a group communication fault,” Larson said. “In the meantime, I think everyone is focused on the fact that it never happens again. Let’s learn from this experience.”

Mr. Imagination says he doesn’t blame the people of Salina. In appreciation for community support, he will donate a sculpture to be auctioned to support art programs for Salina children. The sculpture is valued at about $5,000.

“Public art should not separate,” Mr. Imagination said. “There needs to be more discussion on how public art builds up a community.”

Klima summed up the controversy by saying: “If art is supposed to evoke emotion, we have certainly succeeded.”

Regardless of how the decision resulted, Mr. Imagination said his family values have taught him to forgive and forget and still create art.

“I think the city commission made everyone else in Salina embarrassed,” he said. “Some artists are afraid to let everyone know their ideas. But when I leave this earth, I want to leave my ideas behind for others to use. But let the past be the past. It’s time to go forward. Later on down the road, I’ll be back in Salina.”

n Reporter Courtney Looney can be reached at 823-6464, ext. 153 or by e-mail at