KC artist GK Callahan connects communities with colorful quilts and growing gardens

KC artist GK Callahan connects communities with colorful quilts and growing gardens

After artist and Lawrence native GK Callahan moved to California at 16, he became obsessed with needles.

Specifically, the hypodermic needles discarded by addicts on the streets of San Francisco. He started carrying a box to collect used needles on the streets and in the Please Touch Community Garden, an urban oasis and community art space he helped launch nine years ago.

“It got crazy,” Callahan says. “There were 2.4 million needles given out in San Francisco and 1 million returned. That’s more than a million problems on the streets.”

Since the Please Touch Community Garden sprouted nine years ago, it has provided an inclusive, immersive experience in gardening for a wide variety of participants, including many blind and homeless citizens. “We never pushed anyone away,” Callahan says Callahan.

The artist, who holds degrees in painting and social practice, created the garden in collaboration with the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. It was funded by the San Francisco Arts Commission. The project that was originally intended to last 18 months will soon wrap up after growing wild for nine years. “There are 11 mature trees, more than 1,600 pavers inside the gated lot,” Callahan says. “There were edibles, herbs and hops, which have been made into beer — Blind Brewers’ Braille Ale.”

The garden is located near the confluence of a busy street and an alley once frequented by the homeless and drug addicted. “It wasn’t very safe for the blind when we started,” Callahan says. “I collected more than 2,000 needles from the lot; it wasn’t unusual to find 15 to 20 used needles a day at the garden. That got me involved with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation needle swap.”

Inspired by his work with the foundation and the AIDS Memorial Quilt, Callahan facilitated an impressive beaded quilt made by visually impaired artists.

“We made a mural out of kids’ craft beads and installed it at the entry to the alley, near the garden’s gate. It activated the alley and gave the blind another project while we waited to get permission to use the lot,” Callahan says. “The project helped with finger dexterity, memory — even color and shape recognition.”

The six-by-six-foot quilt is made up of 150,000 fused beads and withstood the elements for half a decade. It now lives at the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Callahan eventually returned to Kansas City and took a job with the University of Missouri, where he is a Community Arts and Development Specialist for the university’s extension office in Clay County. He teamed up with Laura White to create a complement to his San Francisco quilt in Kansas City. White, whose background is in fine art and special education, met Callahan at an art class offered by Alphapointe, a support center for people who have experienced vision loss.

“We hit it off really well and enjoyed talking about art,” says White, a former activity coordinator for the Kansas State School for the Blind. “Everyone can experience art in some way. Art is not only for the visual.”

The Kansas City Beaded Quilt, now two years in the making, features more than 300,000 beads and is being installed this week at Weinberger Fine Art, 114 Southwest Boulevard in the Crossroads Arts District. It will be on display through October 25.

Measuring roughly nine feet by 10 feet, the quilt was assembled during beading circles held at numerous nonprofits, camps, coffee shops, churches, and meeting rooms throughout the Kansas City metro.

“The beaded grid of squares symbolically highlights the colorfulness and diversity of the communities that worked on the quilt,” Callahan says. “They also demonstrate a togetherness to work on a large project over time.”

“We had our first beading session at the Kansas State School for the Blind,” says White, who is deafblind. “I didn’t know how I would be able to see or hear the students. I told GK maybe he should find another partner. He was very encouraging and said, ‘You can do this!’”

White says she found ways to pick out students who needed one-on-one help and developed strategies for identifying bead colors. “I made large-print labels and placed them on small plastic pitchers for each bead color,” she says. “That way I could get the color the student was requesting.”

White says working on the quilt helped her and other artists build a sense of purpose and community. “The biggest point of this project was the joy individuals had chatting, telling stories, or just sharing everyday issues,” she says. “It got me and others out of the house and socializing.”

Save for a $100 donation from a local chapter of the Lion’s Club, Callahan and White self-funded the project. The list of participating partners is lengthy, including Jason Conaway of Jason’s Square, who Callahan credits as being instrumental in the making and assembly of the quilt.

The future of the Kansas City Beaded Quilt is uncertain. Callahan solicited numerous outlets and found a friend in Ross Redmond at Weinberger Fine Art, who was willing to show the work. “Social practice artists wouldn’t traditionally find a home in Kansas City studios,” Redmond says. “The physical work it took to make this piece builds a lot of bridges and provides a platform for the important work that went into it.” “We’re excited to present the quilt,” Redmond adds. “There aren’t many pieces that reach out to this broad of a community.”