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West Plaza artist remembered for giving away unique creations

Terrie looking at book.png
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jun 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-18 08:55:19-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Next time you're walking through Kansas City's West Plaza neighborhood, take a close look around.

Can you spot the spider? Or the alligator? How about the giant flower?

metal alligator
A metal sculpture created by artist John "Big John" Cummings

These unique creations, fabricated out of nuts and bolts and other scrap metal, are the work of John "Big John" Cummings.

He lived on the corner of West 46th and Genessee streets for decades in a home he designed specifically for his 6 foot, 11 inch frame.

To his neighbors, Big John was a gentle giant with a colorful personality – something that shined through in his artwork and acts of kindness.

"He had this big heart, along with his physical size," John's brother, Sudduth Cummings, said. "And he just loved helping people."

Big John
At 6'11", Big John was described by friends as a gentle giant.

After working as a bouncer, then a barge worker on the Missouri River, Big John found a career in the contractor supply industry.

He used his skills to renovate several West Plaza homes and was known as the handyman around the neighborhood, helping neighbors with repairs and shoveling driveways during the winter.

"He really created a stronger neighborhood in that West Plaza area," Sudduth Cummings said.

In his free time, Big John could be found in his large garage, welding various metal bits and pieces to create his distinctive style of sculpture.

Then, he would give away his creations to friends and neighbors, like Terrie Simons. Big John gifted her a metal duck, modeled after her real-life pet duck, Squeaky.

"Big John knew Squeaky the duck. Everyone knows Squeaky the duck," Simons said. "And that's how me and John got to talking and being friends."

Over the years, Big John gave away dozens, maybe even hundreds, of his sculptures.

"If you complimented [them] and said, 'Oh, I'd like to have one of those art sculptures.' Well, within days or months, you'd just find one in your yard," Simons said.

While going on walks with Squeaky the duck, Simons began taking photos of Big John's creations all over the West Plaza neighborhood.

Then last year, Big John's health started to decline. Simons decided to put her photos of his artwork into a book as a "get well" card for him.

"He really, really enjoyed it," she said. "He claimed he didn't even realize he had over 100 of these sculptures spread out along the neighborhood."

Terrie's book
Terrie Simons, Big John's neighbor, put together a book with photos of his artwork.

On April 13, Big John died at his home. He was 79 years old.

Now, the metal sculptures are a physical sign of his legacy – pieces of himself left behind.

"It really distinguishes our neighborhood," Simons said. "I think the neighbors are very honored to be an owner of one. They really value them."

Sudduth Cummings said his brother's "largest legacy" is the lives he touched.

"But then also, I do think his art through the sculptures is something that will endure simply because they're probably indestructible," Sudduth Cummings said.

The picture book Simons created for Big John, filled with photos of his artwork, is now available on Amazon.