First Kansas bills signed into law in 2023 reauthorize long-delayed art at Statehouse

"Ad Astra," the bronze statue of a Kansa warrior, is silhouetted atop the dome of the Kansas Statehouse.
"Ad Astra," the bronze statue of a Kansa warrior, is silhouetted atop the dome of the Kansas Statehouse.
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The first two bills to become Kansas law in 2023 reauthorize a replica of the Native American warrior statue atop the Capitol dome and a Statehouse mural of the first Black soldiers in the Civil War, both of which have been delayed for more than two decades.

Gov. Laura Kelly signed the bills into law on Monday, with SB 39 reauthorizing a mural of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment and SB 11 reauthorizing a life-sized replica of the Ad Astra sculpture.

"It is well past time we pay tribute to the contributions the 1st Kansas Colored Voluntary Infantry Regiment made to Kansas and to our country as they fought valiantly to defeat slavery," Kelly said in a statement. "Once this mural is complete, all who enter the Statehouse will be reminded of the sacrifice and service these soldiers made for our nation's progress."

The regiment was the first U.S. military unit comprised of African-American soldiers. Civil rights activists and Civil War reenactors from Topeka have long pushed for a Capitol building mural honoring the Black soldiers.

More:Will the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry mural come to the Statehouse after 22-year delay?

Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, first offered the provision as a floor amendment in 2000, when he was in the House. The law at the time required mural plans to be developed by Jan. 1, 2002. Delays brought on by the 15-year-long Statehouse restoration, then a lack of funding followed by a conflict between legislative intent and technical language have bogged down mural efforts.

The Legislature largely ignored efforts last year to reauthorize the mural by rewriting the law. The Capitol Preservation Committee, which oversees the projects, made another push this year.

"This mural is about honoring those who gave their last full measure of devotion and ultimate sacrifice to serving the United States of America," said Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City and a member of the Capitol Preservation Committee. "A mural honoring this Regiment will not only honor the sacrifices of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry but will also further recognize Kansas’ role in holding the Union together.

"This story and its inspiration are more relevant than ever today — and long overdue."

Sen. Elaine Bowers, R-Concordia, who also serves on the Capitol Preservation Committee, said the next steps are to begin fundraising and find an artist.

More:Kansas legislators will try again at reauthorizing mural of Black soldiers in Civil War

Ad Astra replica statue faced difficulties

The Ad Astra statue — named after the state's Ad Astra Per Aspera motto, meaning "to the stars through difficulties" — has faced its own set of difficulties.

A Capitol dome statue was originally commissioned in 1889, but it was never made due to opposition to the price tag and controversy over making the figure the Roman goddess of agriculture. It wasn't until 1984 that lawmakers reapproved the project, with a design competition in 1988 and installation of the Kanza warrior statue in 2002.

To help raise money to fund the project, a 1995 law authorized a ground-level replica statue as a fundraising mechanism. The Legislature abolished the donation fund in 2003 and likely transferred any money to the State General Fund.

The bronze statue is already made and has been sitting in storage in Salina, waiting to be placed on a granite pedestal that sits empty on the southwest lawn of the Statehouse.

More:Recognize this statue? A second one could be coming to the Kansas Statehouse.

The original Ad Astra artist, Richard Bergen, died in April 2020 at age 95. His son, Rich Bergen, has pushed for legislators to allow him to finish his father's work. Salina-based Bergen's Art LLC previously estimated it would cost nearly $160,000, though more money may be needed.

"This bill sets us on the path to seeing this project become a reality," said former state Sen. Randall Hardy, R-Salina, who has been an advocate for completing the project.

He said fundraising can now begin.

"'To the stars through difficulties,' our state motto, embodies everything we are as Kansans," Winn said. "We have grit, drive, an eye for a better future, for freedom and for exploration. The creation of this statue will remind us of our core values and keep them centered in everything we do here."

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Kansas Statehouse art to add Ad Astra replica, Black soldier mural