by kayla weinkauf | photos by de johnson & provided by wichita falls alliance for arts and culture
I grew up in Wichita Falls, feeding ducks in Lucy Park. I love the Eastside. I attended Washington Jackson Elementary—and later learned to drive in that same parking lot. I fished along backroad creeks, and after every Sunday service at Eastside Baptist, I’d head down the street for lunch at Grandma’s.
“The WFAAC works to bring ‘all the arts to all the people.' Making art continually available and accessible.” ~ Leslie Schaffner
Eastside was my home for 18 years before departing for college. There wasn’t much I didn’t notice about the neighborhood—until a recent trip down Harding Street. At a four-way stop, right next to what I remembered being a gas station, I casually glanced out the window expecting to see the rusting decay of an aging, abandoned building. Instead, I saw the realistically painted faces of joyful children against a background of brightly colored mountains and flowers. Mesmerized, I forgot to drive. I just stared and smiled until the unhappy driver behind me honked—reminding me to proceed through the intersection.
When I shared that story with Margie Reese, Executive Director of the Wichita Falls Alliance for Arts and Culture (WFAAC), she beamed, saying, “I’m so glad the art moved you. That’s exactly what it’s meant to do. Make people stop and stare.” The WFAAC works to bring ‘all the arts to all the people’ by including programming that reaches across a broad spectrum of cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds—making art continually available and accessible.
Leslie Schaffner, a founding board member, said that vision was the result of seven years of hard work. “In 2012, The Priddy Foundation commissioned the development of an Arts and Culture Plan for the city. Through that year-long grassroots process, it became clear we needed an organization focused on helping us recognize that expression through all the arts are integral to a thriving city—culturally, economically, and creatively. The challenge was finding the right person to lead it. We launched a nationwide search for an executive director, received a lot of interest, and interviewed several very capable candidates. We knew the leader had to be someone who could communicate with artists and organizations, be persuasive enough to bring the community together, dynamic enough to garner support from city leaders, and connected and savvy enough to set the city on the cultural fast track. I think we were looking for a unicorn.”
Reese turned out to be that magical leader, with the right mix of qualities and experience. “I first met Margie in the beginning stages of developing the Arts and Culture Plan. She was with a Dallas-based organization that provided creative learning programs for youth. When we launched the search, I reached out hoping she’d direct potential candidates our way, which she did. Several months into the search, I felt somewhat discouraged that our board hadn’t found that ‘perfect fit.’ I called Margie again. That call was a game changer,” Schaffner said.
Following their first visit, Margie had briefly contemplated looking closer at the position herself. After reading Shonda Rhimes book, “The Year of Yes,” which encourages readers to say yes to new opportunities, Reese was ready to consider taking a risk. Schaffner asked her, “If you’re serious, how soon can you get here to talk with us?”
In January 2016, Reese launched the WFAAC as its Executive Director. “There were opportunities open around the country – Boston, Houston, and D.C. I’d led city arts agencies in Dallas and Los Angeles and even worked for the Ford Foundation as a grant maker in their West Africa office, but I couldn’t pass the opportunity to build an arts council from the ground up. Involving this community in creating things that didn’t exist before makes me smile every time I think about it.”
“She approaches the challenges of this work, not as problems, but as opportunities. She’s direct, passionate, visionary—but also affable and open.” ~Margie Reese
Margie’s passion has given Wichita Falls plenty to smile about. Schaffner doted, “There are few people who could accomplish all that Margie has in three and a half years. She approaches the challenges of this work, not as problems, but as opportunities. She’s direct, passionate, visionary—but also affable and open. She’s pushed the boundaries of creative thinking here.” The most visible examples are the popular summer art projects “Don’t Fence Me In” and “The Wichita Dome,” both located on the Kell median near Attebury Grain elevator.
“Don’t Fence Me In' was an effort to create a community sculpture. We asked people to paint one fence picket. We thought we’d get maybe 200 total, but the community produced about 1,200 pickets!” Reese explained. The success of that first art project helped spur support for “The Wichita Dome” the following summer. Schaffner believes the Eastside murals are the most potentially transformational projects to date. “With each unveiling, the sense of excitement in the neighborhood is palpable. The murals are the intersection of creativity, pride, urban renewal, and hope.”
Reese agrees, adding, “We want to bring attention to a neighborhood that’s often left out. I looked around Eastside, and there was no color brightening up streets. That’s how the idea of painting murals came to me.” Master artist Ralph Stearns was commissioned to create the first mural, and members of the Elks Lodge granted access to their wall as a canvas. With the first mural in process, Margie and her staff began to work on developing the other three murals in the series. “People live where they live. There’s community and connectedness everywhere. Eastside needed more than one mural. We wanted to cover the neighborhood with color and light—giving the city beautiful new landmarks.”
Reese secured a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts, using that as leverage to raise additional funds as a match. “Nothing was a hard sell. The level of support and contributions we secured helped make the project very doable,” Reese said. Paul Clark, WFAAC Board President, noted that community collaboration was vital. “The Eastside Mural Project has been about collaboration; with artists, the City, arts benefactors, and the community. We’re proud to see the impact the arts are making in our city. I think Margie’s mission all along was to bring our community together through the arts, and that’s exactly what’s happening.”
“The Eastside Mural Project has been about collaboration; with artists, the City, arts benefactors, and the community.” ~ Leslie Schaffner
City officials helped market the project and assisted with the demolition of unsightly and dangerous properties near the mural sites. “It’s a great city for an arts administrator. I’ve worked and traveled all over the world—from Moscow to Nairobi. Wichita Falls is unique. Working with MSU faculty and art students is a luxury. Foundations, donors, and arts supporters in this community are risk takers and unusually generous. Our local artists and arts organizations are committed to collaboration, not competition. That doesn’t exist everywhere,” she said.
“The murals are the intersection of creativity, pride, urban renewal, and hope.” ~ Leslie Schaffner
Reese believes, “art public spaces restores dignity to neighborhoods. Images of the first mural went viral—sparking the public’s interest in Eastside. High school seniors in their caps and gowns pose alongside the murals, and neighbors gather at the sites and linger. We want people to know they don’t need tickets, a dress code, or a membership to enjoy art.”
“If these murals encourage conversations or make people smile—we’ve done our job.”
“We need galleries and museums because they hold our cultural identities, but not everyone feels comfortable going to museums. If these murals encourage conversations or make people smile—we’ve done our job.” The Eastside Mural Project gave four incredibly talented local artists the opportunity to have their work seen and valued. Each lead artist assembled a team to install the murals, employing 15 local artists. “Most of the artists have full-time jobs—but they created excellent work no matter how many hours it took. They worked nights, weekends, through lunch hours, and in bad weather.” Eastside residents kept artists inspired by honking as they drove by, cheering, and giving thumbs up. One artist even received $20 for lunch from a neighbor.
“We wanted to cover the neighborhood with color and light—giving the city beautiful new landmarks.” ~Margie Reese
Margie said bringing the community together through creativity is challenging—but in a good way. “There aren’t enough hours in the day to develop all the projects we want to do. But I can’t do my job if I stay in my office all day. I must meet people—understand their interests and cultural values. I have to fundraise, build relationships, support our local arts organizations, and meet with educators who want to find ways to unlock the creative genius in their students.”
For Reese, art is more than just a passion—it’s a necessity for living. “Everything the Arts Alliance does focuses on engaging the public in creativity. Creative thinkers become innovators and innovators change the world. If we do this right—we could change the future of our city.” †