It’s a big sky that looms over the flat, windswept plains of western Kansas, where the horizon bristles with silos, windmills and oil derricks, and where railroad crossing signals come alive with flashing lights, loud honks and swinging booms at any hour of day.
But nothing in the small town of Mullinville is quite as striking as the roadside forest of jutting, jagged totems erected by M.T. Liggett, a sharecropper’s son who spent three decades erecting more than 300 provocative, vivid metal sculptures and whirligigs.
Most of them stand over 10 feet, and all were hand-wrought in a nearby shop where Mr. Liggett, who died Aug. 17 at 86, filled the air with the sizzle of arc welding and the strains of his favorite composer, Rachmaninoff.
Everyone from presidents and county officials to celebrities and Greek gods was celebrated or excoriated with scabrous glee. Old girlfriends came in for a sly, gentle touch.
One piece lampooned the state board of education, featuring one of its members lurking in a toilet bowl. Another commemorated the Monica Lewinsky era of Bill Clinton’s presidency with a simple, if stained, blue dress.
Mr. Liggett worked with scrap metal, disused tractor parts and heavy irrigation pipe, in a style that seemed to mix elements of sculptor Richard Serra, Haitian sheet-metal art and county highway signs. His cartoonish, sometimes grotesque silhouettes always left room for block-letter slogans, ranging from the sassy (“Yassir Arafat: He-Ain’t-From-Brooklyn”), to the gnomic (“Camus: Absurdity”).
Along the way he cultivated the character of a profane, tobacco-streaked curmudgeon, enthusiastically riling his neighbors, as he put it, “just for ornery fun.”
His penchant for abrasive, reactionary politics and zestful sexuality railed on some city folk as well, although Mr. Liggett eventually acquired a national reputation as an outsider artist, a self-taught figure like Henry Darger, Bill Traylor and Clementine Hunter.
Fans said his corrosive invective was only a veneer. “He always said everything with an impish sense of humor,” said Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, where several of his pieces were exhibited in 2010. “It was all to get an argument going — I think that was his way of getting close to people, and it was a gift.”
Myron Thomas Liggett was born in Mullinville, Kan., on Dec. 28, 1930, to a sprawling family he described as “poorer than poor.”
He served in the Navy and Air Force for nearly 30 years before leaving to study at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. (“The military was no damn good for books,” he said.) He briefly studied law at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas before hammering together the rest of his education on his own, at one point filling a room with his library of well-thumbed art volumes.
Accounts vary on why, in the late 1980s, he began making his structures. One friend said it was an attempt at “black magic,” to ward off evil forces that poisoned a favorite horse.
He converted a barn into a metalworking shop and stocked it with scrap metal from surrounding farms and businesses and drew upon a brief but seminal stint at a California machine shop, which helped him develop formidable skills in welding, sawing, shaping and grinding metal. In his prime, he hoisted pieces up to 200 pounds into place himself.
Mr. Liggett sometimes used his art to hector neighbors in a score of grievances.
A local church took offense at his freewheeling habits, so he painted a legend on a junk car that he towed onto his property across the street: “Go to church on Sunday. Drink your beer on Monday.” Late in life, he used a shed on a public street to tell another neighbor, “Leave yor dead sheep on yor side.”
Neighbors complained, signed petitions and turned him down for public office whenever he ran.
But in the end, they seemed to tolerate Mr. Liggett. “He kept it a big secret, but he was always a lot better liked than he wanted people to think,” said Larry Meeker, a retired official at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City whom Mr. Liggett named as chair of a trust to protect his sculptures.
More than a dozen of them stand in the center of the Grassroots Arts Center, a nearby museum in Lucas that was founded to celebrate self-taught artists in Kansas. Rosslyn Schultz, the museum’s executive director, credited Mr. Liggett with helping to generate interest in self-taught artists.
Mr. Liggett’s five marriages ended in divorce. But he always credited his longtime girlfriend Marileeil Williams, who died in January, as his muse and “honey-haired enchantress.”
His death was announced by Minnis Mortuary in Bucklin, Kan., which reported that he died at a medical center in Wichita.
James Liggett, a son, said the cause of death was renal failure.
Survivors include three children; a brother; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Liggett courted controversy even late in life, offering a burial plot on his land for one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a police shootout. “You can’t hold anything against a dead man,” Mr. Liggett said.
In an interview weeks before his death, he said he never held his many grudges for very long. “Working on my art, I was always in a fury of one kind or another. But doing it worked out all the ornery.”