If you want to know how highly the city of Atchison thinks of artist Max King, get this. Earlier this week, Atchison mayor Dave Butler declared Aug. 9 “Max King Day” in the Northeast Kansas town.
That’s right. He’s so beloved that they named a whole day after him.
“I don’t know if they’ll give me a steak dinner or what,” King playfully jokes while cracking a smile.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone with something bad to say about the 76-year-old, and it’s largely because of the humble charm he exudes. Ask him about his work with pottery or photography and he’ll tell you that he has a lot of friends who are better. Ask him about his many art accomplishments and he’ll try to get a chuckle out of you. Even when speaking about the ceremony in which “Max King Day” was officially proclaimed, he speaks modestly, but with a hint of mischief.
“It was really, really touching. They went way beyond what I expected anyone to do. It’s just marvelous,” he says of the ceremony. “It must be because of my looks or something.”
On Friday evening you can go meet King and see why people are crazy about him. The Muchnic Gallery (704 N. Fourth St.) in Atchison will host the opening reception for the “Max King Retrospective” from 5 to 7 p.m. on Aug. 9. The exhibition will remain on display through Sept. 29.
The show will feature several paintings, pottery pieces and sculptures from King’s life — some recent, some dating as far back as the 1970s. But this exhibit is especially emotional for King and everyone involved because it will be his last. Aside from submitting the occasional works to the annual Albrecht-Kemper Membership Exhibition in St. Joseph, King says he’s done with shows.
“I’m getting too old for that,” he says.
Needless to say, the folks at the Muchnic Gallery have been cherishing every moment in which they’ve been working on the exhibition.
“I was just excited to get to work today and thumb through everything he has,” says Deborah Geiger, executive director for the Atchison Art Association at the Muchnic Gallery. “Our Facebook is lighting up because people have either had him as a teacher or he’s touched their lives. And, so, this is a really happy show.”
King taught students about drawing, painting, pottery and sculpture in the Atchison School District for 32 years following teaching stints in Monett, Mo., and Stockton, Mo. He says he also has received several Facebook messages from former students — many of whom have pursued some form of art — telling him about the impact he had on their lives. As he looks back at his life, King says that’s the thing he’s most proud of.
“You see that they’re being rewarded and doing well in life. And that’s helpful,” he says. “You’d like to think that I had a little bit of a connection there. Or maybe I steered them in the right direction.”
He views his hometown of Atchison with lots of pride today, but he didn’t exactly feel the same way when he visited the first time. In fact, he didn’t want to take the job after going on a school tour and meeting with the students.
“Some of them were sucking on the same lollipops and I thought, ‘What in the world is this? I don’t want to be in this situation,’” he recalls with a laugh.
It’s a good thing he eventually took the job because during his 44-year teaching career, King accomplished far more than the average art instructor. His work with advocacy was recognized by famous Kansas City artist Thomas Hart Benton. He also worked with former Kansas Gov. John Carlin as a member of the Kansas Arts Advisory Council. Of course, this came after his great work in Stockton, Mo., where he earned recognition from former Missouri Governor William E. Hearnes as well as former president Harry Truman for serving as a representative of secondary art education for the Missouri Art Education Association.
During his lifetime, King won numerous Teacher of the Year Awards and the Student Art Association of Southwest Missouri even created a traveling trophy called the Max King Award.
But King wasn’t just a great teacher. Take one look at the pieces in this exhibition and you’ll see that he also was quite a talented artist.
Some of King’s collection was displayed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City as well as national showings in Oklahoma City and Springfield, Mo. Several pieces in the retrospective exhibit were former winners at juried shows like the one the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art hosts every year in St. Joseph. In fact, his favorite mixed media painting “Crisis” took home first place in that competition one year.
Despite the accolades and achievements, King’s interest in art never became complacent. He was always fascinated by compositions and seeing more than what we see with our eyes.
“A lot of people stay with realism and a lot of people say, ‘I like what I can relate to — cows or houses,’” King explains. “If you go beyond that and you study composition, you’ll appreciate Jackson Pollack and Salvador Dali and all that he did.”
“There are thousands of ways you can have a good composition,” he adds. “It’s like solving a problem, you know? In life, you solve problems and I think the arts help individuals out with problems.”
King says he was most inspired by artists like Harry Krug as well as Bert Keeney, his sculpture and pottery instructor at Pittsburg State University. King’s studious trends appear in his work. For example, he created the painting “Favela” during his cubism phase and “Tribute to Gershwin” when he was playing with colors and abstract ideas. Other works came as the result of real-life influence. “July 2, 1937” was inspired by Atchison’s own Amelia Earhart Festival and he painted “Tribute to John” when one of his former students passed away.
One prominent theme found in King’s work is the influence of Mexico and Spanish culture, which is on full display in the stunning “Pueblo Serrano” and a few other paintings in the gallery’s southwest room. During frequent trips to visit his wife when she was pursuing her master’s degree in foreign language in Mexico, as well as visits to his daughter’s and son-in-law’s residence in Puebla, King says he drew inspiration from the peculiar sights of the country and created his own scenes from them.
Among King’s highlighted works resides a walnut sculpture called “It Wasn’t Salt, But Wood.” Several handmade nails and a few little wheels are part of the imposing wooden being’s broad face. King jokes that he wouldn’t mind parting with it because it’s so heavy, but there are a lot of fond memories attached to it.
“It was in the Lakeland Restaurant in Monett for the longest time and it was right by the door where people came in,” he recalls. “It was interesting sitting back in the booth and watching people come in and feel the thing. They’d want to touch it.”
Another notable piece is his photograph titled “Shelter for Homeless,” a shot of an abandoned car that he took in Downtown St. Joseph that already has sold. Geiger expects many of King’s works to sell on Friday and if his last appearance at the Muchnic Gallery was any indication, she’s bracing for a very big turnout.
“He had a piece in the members’ show, and out of everybody, he was the one was commented on the most — not only about his art, but that he was such a great guy, such a nice guy and such a great advocate of the arts,” Geiger says.
Nice, sociable, humble and talented — that’s Max King in a nutshell.
For more information about the “Max King Retrospective” or the opening reception, call the Muchnic Gallery at (913) 367-4278.