In 1999, Elizabeth Stevenson found herself in Wichita, Kan., with a maxed-out credit card and no quick way out. An architect and artist from Montreal, she’d traveled the world before a strange set of circumstances brought her to the Sunflower State. Marooned for the moment, she found work at an architecture firm until she could afford a ticket home. Instead, she found a reason to stay — Wichita’s thriving art scene.
Kansas is smack-dab in the center of the country, which means it’s as far as you can get from the coasts and the high-profile art scenes of Los Angeles and New York City. For artists living and working in Wichita, however, that’s just fine by them.
“Artists who choose to stay in Kansas do so because they can afford to be artists here,” says Stevenson. “We’ve created a scene where people aren’t seeking fame; they’re creating art for the sake of art.”
In her first year in Wichita, Stevenson became involved with Fisch Haus, an artist cooperative. Fisch Haus anchors what is now the bustling Arts District on Wichita’s Commerce Street. When the cooperative first opened in 1993, however, Commerce was just a string of empty storefronts and abandoned warehouses.
This story is a familiar one: Artists move into a depressed urban pocket and transform it into a vibrant neighborhood. But someone has to be the first. Someone has to brave no plumbing, no heating and no walls to make it happen. In Wichita, it was Fisch Haus.
Fisch Haus was founded by four artists — Patrick Duegaw, John Ernatt, Eric Schmidt and Kent Williams — who first met in high school and college. In Kansas, you can go off to study art and architecture in Manhattan without even leaving the state — Kansas State University is located in Manhattan, Kan. That’s exactly what Duegaw, Schmidt and Williams did.
When the friends reunited in Wichita after college, they found the local arts scene lacking. After staging guerilla art shows in vacant storefronts, they pooled their resources, sold their cars and bought a three-story building on Commerce Street. No plumbing. No heating. No interior walls.
It proved to be the perfect blank slate for the collective, who used their artistic sensibilities and their architectural training to transform the building into an exhibition space with room for studios and living quarters upstairs. It has a full wood and metal shop on site, as well as a graphic-design studio. The result is a building that almost seems to pulse with creativity. In a retrospective on the 21st anniversary of Fisch Haus, Dr. Emily Stamey writes, “Wandering through the building’s seeming labyrinth, one has a sense of being simultaneously in a wonderfully full attic and an ingeniously crafted tree house.”
This is the enchanting world Stevenson stumbled into when her travels took her to Wichita. Fifteen years later, she’s the director of Fisch Haus – and married to one of its founding artists, Patrick Duegaw. Her presence has helped Fisch Haus form a nonprofit and expand the space’s programming. Their events calendar is now packed with large-scale annual arts shows as well as community events, including readings, concerts and classes.
Fisch Haus is also a must-see stop on Wichita’s Final Friday art walks. On the last Friday of every month, the neighborhood’s galleries and shops stay open late for festivities. It’s a combined art-and-pub crawl that winds through the Art District that Fisch Haus helped put on the map.
In turn, Fisch Haus and its surrounding art scene are now helping put Wichita on the broader art world’s map as well. Shows like their biannual XX Series, highlighting female artists, draw artists from across the globe. Artists from South Africa, Israel, Iraq, France and Germany have all exhibited at the show, along with contributors from across Kansas. Stevenson founded and coordinates the series, and is proud of the impression it leaves on visiting artists.
“People might think Wichita is a little out of touch,” Stevenson says. “But when they come, their minds are blown and they go back to Paris with the notion that there are cool things happening here.”
524 S. Commerce Street
Wichita, KS 67202