From the heart: Dan Gegen’s public art career

Dan Gegen has been working on public art projects for almost 40 years and is currently working on an essential bridge in the Wichita area.


Emma Wilks

Maize South art teacher Dan Gegan and engineer Brad Shores walk along the Amidon bridge, observing the construction progress. Gegan has been monitoring progress over the past weeks, watching as the bridge he designed begins to form.

Bridget Johnson, Fusion reporter

If you’ve ever driven along Kellogg and I-235 or past the Wichita City Building, you may have seen artwork built into overpasses, supports, or on the sides of an entrance or exit. Or maybe the planters on the side of the highway caught your eye. Maybe you’ve seen light posts with designs that stood out to you along the edges of bridges, towering above the car as you drove.

The giant leaf structures supporting the bridge are a landmark in Wichita, but did you know the creator behind these Wichita architecture landmarks is a veteran teacher at Maize South?

You may be surprised to learn that one of the most friendly, self-effacing high school art teachers is the artist behind these massive public artworks. Maize South art teacher, Dan Gegen is no stranger to these structures. For over ten years, Gegen has been a part of these public art projects, stepping outside his comfort zone to create something his whole community could appreciate.

“I enjoy the creative process and the problem solving of design,” said Gegen. “I enjoy the scale of it and that my public art is seen by thousands of people every day.”

Design by Emma Wilks

Those who know Gegen know him for his easy-going personality and passion towards his artwork. Not only does he teach art, such as ceramics, but can also be found creating his own art in his free time. Whether it be sculpting a piece or crafting a pot on the wheel, there is no doubt of Gegen’s dedication to his work.

Though most people who know Gegen know of his love of art, many do not know of his love for public artwork. Many would not expect him to be working with a group of architects and presenting ideas to a panel in his free time. Gegen, however, has been doing this for 38 years, since his first public art project at the City Parking Garage. 

“I was asked to be on a committee to help find public artists for a thing they were going to do at what’s now the Wind Surge stadium,” said Gegen. “They were going to do these sculptures and so they asked me to come in as an artist to review the slides and stuff. And I just happened to be sitting next to Steve Perry, who owned an architecture firm. So he got my business card and he called me a couple of days later and said ‘hey we’re working on a project, would you be interested?’ and then it kind of snowballed.”

That first project inspired Gegen to participate in more public art projects, his second being at Maize and Tyler at Kellogg. It took ten years to complete from the beginning sketches to the final product.

Gegen wanted to incorporate nature and leaves into his massive concrete-cast designs, which has carried through most of his major public art projects and left Wichita with many natural art pieces over the years.

Fast forward nearly 30 years and Gegen’s public art career is standing strong as he works on his current project at the Amidon Bridge, construction beginning in early October. 

Working with JEO construction firm, Gegen was referred and recommended by a previous colleague for the bridge project and has worked closely with Brad Shores through the process.

This project has a timeline of only three years, a much faster pace than his second design.

“Dan’s got a full time job as an art teacher at Maize South and he was very responsive,” said Shores. “He stayed on top of it, but that also, I think, forced us to know what was important to us because we didn’t really have any extra time to focus on possible extra items.”

Despite the stress to design quickly and the extra time spent outside of school, Gegen has enjoyed working on the tighter schedule.

“I like this one because it moves very quickly,” said Gegen. “The other ones, you have more time to kind of think things through, while the next meeting’s not for another month.”

The simple Amidon bridge today will soon be transformed into a much more visually appealing public art piece. With the towering lights and simple handrails, the bridge brings out the natural beauty of the river and enhances the originality of Wichita artwork. (Graphic by Emma Wilks)

Because the project is faster, he has had to kick his creative side into high gear over the last year, working in sketchbooks and with his team to design the artwork that will soon be open to the public eye as a part of the renovated Amidon bridge.

“A lot of this is based off of my clay pieces and then I did a lot of sketches and from there I built a lot of paper models of the towers,” said Gegen. “So I did build these little paper towers so I could actually see what they look like and then I started rendering them like they would actually look in real life.”

Not only does Gegen’s job entail designing the artwork, but it also includes presentations and lots of revisions and compromises.

“We went to design counsels and meet with the big committee and they review what you present and then they look at it and they say, ‘Okay we like this, we like that. Refine this a little bit,’ and then you come back again.”

After a full year focused on the concept of the design, Gegen and his team finally settled on towers with dragonfly cutouts and swirls, mimicking the motion of the water under the bridge. These cutouts will light up the bridge in the dark, creating a very beautiful and practical scene.

With the bridge renderings complete, Gegen’s job doesn’t end with the design side of the project; he must maintain his presence with the project until its completion in the coming years. The hours he has already spent outside of school will remain constant until the technicalities of the project are figured out.

“I would hate to say how many hours went into just the concept sketches, researching materials,” said Gegen. “It’s a lot and even just to fabricate this thing it’s going to be a lot of late afternoons we’ll probably go from here straight to wherever they’re going to produce these and probably spend a couple hours a day there kind of just overseeing the process.”

Dan Gegen and Brad Shores walk along the river under the Amidon bridge before construction had begun and the bridge was removed. In the next year, the two will be able to see their hard work show with the brand new artistic bridge. (Photo by Emma Wilks)

Extra hours, full sketchbooks, and short notice council meetings are no stranger to Gegen after his 38 years creating public art.

Driving down Kellogg and I-235, most people do not realize that there is an artist behind the leaf designs. They don’t realize that the designs on the Wichita City Building are the product of a talented artist and full time teacher.

Just like how they won’t realize the towers on the Amidon Bridge are a result of countless late nights and brainstormed sketchbooks. Gegen designs art for people to enjoy. He designs art to influence people and allow them to appreciate a place they may have been a hundred times before. He wants people to appreciate his art, not the person behind it.

“Something I really admire about Dan is his humility,” said Shores. “He’s trying to do what he thinks is really best for the whole project, that’s from the heart.”