It’s one of those projects that you catch a glimpse of when you are passing by and wonder, “what’s that all about?”  They look like wheat stalks lined up near the railroad track, and then there’s a stage in what seems like an alley.  At night it comes alive, the lights really pop against the darkness of the night. But I ask, “what’s that all about?” 

Commerce Street at Waterman

Turns out it’s part of a street makeover by the city, the owners in the neighborhood near Commerce Street at Waterman (Between Intrust Bank Arena and Kellogg) and two local artists,  Kent Thomas Williams and Stephen Atwood.

The project is highlighted by the “Railgrass” installation. They are sculptures crafted from the original railroad tracks that once ran through the area.  The 20 vertically standing tracks are each topped with 93 LED lights

I had a chance to talk to Williams about the project, “It started with a vision to make an old street new again.”  The city was interested in helping but only with input from the owners in the area.  Once the owners were onboard, the focus turned to the land which was owned by the railroad. Local realtor David Farha helped make a deal for the land.

The city needed parking spaces for the neighborhood, they figured they could get 140 spots in the area.  The city also put up 10% of the spaces to go to art.

Williams wanted to do something with the tracks from the area and came up with the idea for “Railgrass.” 

Watkins Inc. agreed to bend the original rails as if there was a south wind blowing them around.  The project turned out to be too dangerous to complete.

It was decided just to put the tracks up without the bend, but the city engineers were hesitant to put 15 foot tall rail beams into the air, because it’s Kansas and you know high winds could cause a problem.  They were worried about the structure being safe.

Problem solved thanks to a sonogram on the rails which sink about five feet into the ground.  Custom heads were added to give the lighting effect.

This is cool, there is a sensor on the train bridge and when a train passes the Railgrass blink at the train.

“The Platform which is a nod to the railroad, was selected as the name for the stage by the area owners” commented Williams.  It can be used for performances.  Williams excitedly talked about the stage area… “The surface of the stage collects rainwater, which runs down the wheelchair ramp and into a grate, which waters a tree.  The tree is a single burr oak that is slow growing, but one day, it will provide shade for the entire stage area.”  Sections of the concrete in front of stage are painted in homage to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway logo.

One of the early performers at the platform was musician Nick Jaina.  Kent asked him to “help incorporate words and music into the project.”  Nick asked to bring in a Native American to incorporate a traditional language.  An Osage poet, Carter Revard, from Washington University in St. Louis was asked to help.  They came up with poetic words that are cut into the metal grate that waters the burr oak tree I mentioned earlier.

“It will not end, we sang in time or leaves of paper will be dancing lightly

Making a nation of the sun and other stars” – Carter Revard

Dear Hitomi

Maybe I will stare longer at a tree because I saw you do it once Love, Nick Jaina.

You know they should host acts on the platform after concerts and games at Intrust bank Arena, to give people a chance to avoid the traffic.

I wanted to include some pics of the area.

I want to thank Kent Thomas Williams for taking the time to talk to me and make this story even better.

Check out some of Wichita’s other public arts. I like to call it, How Great Our Art.

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