By Kevin Collison
Alexander Austin has worked on some big canvasses as one of the city’s preeminent street muralists, but the new assignment he’s executing in the Power & Light District is taking him to an even higher level.
As in working up to 80 feet above street level painting a mural over a half-football field long on the new 24-story Two Light apartment tower.
“It’s the biggest I’ve ever done,” says Austin, who began his mural career on Troost Avenue in the early 1990s as a homeless person. “To have Cordish show this much appreciation for me, I’m honored.”
In choosing Austin to execute the new mural honoring major black entertainers and athletes from Kansas City, the Cordish Co., the Baltimore-based operator of the downtown entertainment district, is returning to a familiar figure.
Austin was hired in 2008 to paint the original murals that adorned the south sides of the Power & Light District buildings facing Truman Road and the South Loop freeway.
His new work, which is 175-feet long, was prompted by the construction of the apartment tower, which is scheduled to open early next summer.
The new building occupies a parking lot adjacent to one of the murals, blocking it from public view, although glimpses still will be possible from the lobby of Two Light, says Nick Benjamin, executive director of the Power & Light District.
“Those two original murals had become a significant part of the district,” Benjamin says. “Our original message was paying homage to the great African-Americans of the Negro League.”
The mural now being done will continue that Negro League homage and will include baseball great Jackie Robinson, who played one year with the Kansas City Monarchs before going onto break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
University of Kansas legend Wilt Chamberlain also is depicted at a height he would have appreciated.
“We think it’s fitting to have as a component of this contemporary building an interesting and attractive representation of some of the great people and achievements that are part of the history of Kansas City,” Benjamin says.
“We have a lot of great personalities and stories, and this is a way to keep them alive for the future.”
The design of the mural is a collaboration between Austin and Selbert Perkins Design, a national design firm, Benjamin says.
Austin says he’s receiving $65,000 for his work, and hopes to receive another mural commission if the Cordish company moves forward with a planned third high-rise apartment tower, Three Light.
For this job, he suits up for work with a harness, hard hat and steel-toe boots to make sure he meets federal safety requirements for the job site. He anticipates the full mural will be completed in six- to eight weeks.
“I’m a lucky guy, there are many talented artists in Kansas City,” he says. “I’m really blessed.”