I am a proud alum of Mead Middle School. (GO MUSTANGS!) It was Mead Junior High back in the mid 80’s. I loved the building and remembering thinking the campus was so big after spending grade school down the street at Chisholm Elementary.
My grandmother was a lunch lady at Mead years ago. She was retired by the time I roamed the halls. But at the time there were still several faculty members that were there when the school opened in 1952.
Since that time I was always curious about the sculpture on the east side of the building. Aluminum chunks sticking out of the ground. It reminded me of the Tripodal, the James Rosati sculpture next to Century II.
I reached out to the school for help with an artist and or name of the installation. No luck. I reached out to my normal contact, no luck. No one seemed to know. I finally made contact with the facilities department at USD 259, and they were able to connect me to Beth, a curator for the school district. She provided enough information that I was able to track down the artist and find out a little more about the sculpture.
The artist is James Croak, born in Cleveland, OH in 1951. At 15 he was considered a musical prodigy on the guitar. He attended the Ecumenical Institute in Chicago and studied sculpture at the University of Illinois at Chicago before graduating in 1974.
Thanks to a residence grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Croak did an art fellowship with Wichita Public Schools in 1976. Croak told me he thought they brought him in after Rosati’s Tripodal controversy, “They wanted me to go teach the reasons behind abstract art.” Croak added, “This was the government working at its best: I needed what every artist starting out needs: a portfolio, and the public wanted art at its schools without a budget to pay for it…. I got a portfolio and the school system got artwork that provided objects of thought for 3 generations for free.” Croak mentioned that a piece like the Mead sculpture would be $60,000 to $70,000 today.
At 24, he constructed the aluminum and wood sculpture at Mead. Croak told me in an email, “I recall a teacher leaning out the window when I was installing it and suggesting I get out of there ‘before anyone thinks you had something to do with this.’ ”
He completed 6 pieces including two sculptures at Southeast High School, where he had his studio. Interesting side note: Both sculptures were moved from the original Southeast to its new location.
Thanks to the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, I was able to track down one more of Croak’s sculptures at Truesdell Middle School. Croak said he asked the aviation plants in Wichita for aluminum scraps. The plants were more than happy to donate them to the schools.
Special thanks to Beth at USD 259, WHiMS, and to James Croak for taking the time to help out with this story.
Check out some of Wichita’s other public arts. I like to call it, How Great Our Art.
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