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Center for Engagement and Community Development

KSU APDesign’s Small Town Studio Brings Arts to Community Engagement

Each year, the Small Town Studio is made up of 13 APDesign architecture graduate students from Kansas State University, mentored by Todd Gabbard, associate professor of architecture. The studio focuses on bringing innovative design strategies to small towns and rural communities in Kansas.

The Small Town Studio has proposed a mural project to Eureka that will build on the city’s unique collective identity. The mural will be in the city's historic downtown, with a goal of generating interaction between Eurekans, residents of the Flint Hills and people passing through. The Create a Spark event on October 7 was the first step in the development of the project. Prof. Todd Gabbard explains, “Create a Spark itself is a sort-of pop-up art gallery. We will be showing images of murals in other towns that were successful in some way. The Small Town Studio also has created some small-scale test murals for visitors to the event to comment on, and as an architecture studio, the students have built free standing street furniture that Eurekans can interact with. Basically, on the night of the event we are bringing art in a big way to Eureka.”

“Murals are more powerful community-building tools now than they have ever been. The mural itself is, of course, art. Once it is up it will relate to anyone passing by, both residents and visitors to the town. Murals - good ones, anyway - can have a great influence on their surroundings. We've found evidence that murals can have commercial benefits, bringing people to nearby restaurants, they bring people out on the street, they beautify their immediate surroundings, and they influence neighboring properties to spruce themselves up. In the social media age, we've seen that people like to take selfies with murals in the background. This creates buzz, interest, attention - all things that many small towns would like to have, or have more of.”

Gabbard continues, “I have worked with small towns before, and have learned that it is important to get a town behind whatever project you are working on. The idea for the mural came from the students - I challenged them to come up with a group project that does something meaningful for Eureka, the town this semester is focused on. We developed Create a Spark to inform townsfolk about what we are wanting to do, to get information from them about their thoughts on the town and what they think a mural in Eureka should be about.”

“We are interested in making small, remote towns in Kansas (Eureka in specific with this project) better places to live and to help their economic development. The larger goal is to help to preserve small town life in a time when the overall societal trend is to move towards cities. Small towns will always exist in some fashion, and history shows we can't ignore an entire category of place - in this case rural places, which comes to about 75% of our country.”

As an architecture studio, the Small Town Studio is concerned with developing leadership skills and communication skills. In a recent survey, practicing professionals want emerging students to have these abilities. The studio immerses students in specific communities, requiring them to talk and work with people in the creation of projects. Prof. Gabbard’s goal was to get students to understand that every architecture project is at heart a community project, and what they do in the Small Town Studio is to put that realization into practice.

The voices of 5th year grad students in the College of Architecture, Planning, and Design involved with the project help bring this idea to life: “I am very excited to work with the community of Eureka, and to see this project come to life with the skills we have learned at K-State,” said Gabriela Hernandez.

“I’m most excited about the opportunity to engage a struggling community and help foster a better town identity through the proposed mural. Talking to people in the community will start the process of creating something meaningful to Eureka and all of its citizens,” said Zach Rostetter.

“I'm really happy to be a part of a program that is diving into the people aspect of our field. By reaching out to community members and understanding their feelings and aspirations for their town, we can better do our jobs and go beyond what is asked. Our Create a Spark event is evident of that. Turning a project into a discussion with a community helps our clients fully understand what they would like to do. As a result, we produce a final product that embraces that connection,” said Jacob Karst.