Kevin Umaña hopes to bring more attention and opportunity to Midwestern artists

Photo by Natalea Bonjour

Kevin Umaña is originally from Los Angeles and moved to New York after art school to be part of the art scene there. Over the last decade, his work has been featured in exhibitions both nationally and internationally. But it wasn’t until the pandemic happened that he made the decision to move to the Midwest and begin curating his own art shows. 

Now he runs a gallery in the Crossroads called The Ekru Project with his friend Emily Reinhardt, the local designer and ceramicist behind The Object Enthusiast. Their part gallery, part studio space in the Crossroads is also home to Duet, a small gift shop featuring work from several local artists, including Reinhardt. 

We chatted with Umaña about the art scene in Kansas City, The Ekru Project, his artistic style and a few of his favorite spots around the city. 

Why Kansas City—what do you see happening on the art scene here?

Some of my favorite architects build homes and buildings here, and a lot of my favorite artists like Donald Judd and Stanley Whitney have taught here or grew up here. And so for me, Kansas City has always been this mysterious place. 

I came in here thinking, “Oh, I hit the jackpot. Kansas City is this undiscovered gem that just needs a little bit of work to shine.” There’s a lot of talent here, but I feel like there is a scarcity of some resources. A big component of our gallery is exhibiting emerging and underrepresented artists because we feel that a lot of younger artists and emerging artists haven’t had their time in the spotlight here. 

Would you describe the work that you curate at The Ekru Project as experimental?

I would say yes because there are so many different types of artists we represent. And we don’t just show young artists—we show a lot of mid-career artists and even established artists. We seek individuals who aren’t afraid to cross disciplines and take risks. We aim to exhibit artists who are pushing the boundaries. 

How would you define your own artistic style?

I do a lot of geometric abstraction, and while I mostly paint, I like to try new mediums. Right now, I’m doing ceramics, and I’ve learned so much from Emily. I’ve also figured out that there’s a sort of a philosophical approach to ceramics, like don’t get too attached to something because it might just break in the kiln. 

Lately, I’ve started to become more aware of my upbringing. I’m connecting ceramics with the relationship I have with my mom because she did ceramics, which I just recently discovered because of the pandemic. I was constantly checking up on my mom to make sure she was okay, and we would have hour-long talks. I was never really close with her before that, but we started to talk about what I’m doing and what an art studio is, and what art is in general. And then I told her about ceramics. 

She made pottery in El Salvador—bowls, plates, everyday things. I’ve kind of started researching my background and history as a means to bring it into my own art. Now I’m really close with my mom. And I’m using this medium as a means to bond with her and talk to her.

What place do you think art has in the post-peak pandemic era we’re living in?

I think we’ve seen that, during the pandemic, individuals go to art for entertainment. A lot of galleries have shifted toward an online platform. We just had an outdoor art exhibition with five other galleries called Site One. It was great because we had so many people come out from KCAI, the Kemper and the Nelson. It was free to the public—we had a lot of families and park-goers come out. Art doesn’t have to be displayed indoors or on walls. It can be displayed in nontraditional and meaningful ways. 

On the flip side of that, we just opened up our business here, in the middle of the pandemic. We’ve never really had a gallery before now. I also think I’ve become more of an activist for social reform because Kansas City is new to me and I want to make it my home. I want to be able to change some things in the system that I’ve seen. Every one to two months, we have roundtable discussions where I invite artists and pretty much anyone who’s interested to discuss what’s going on, what’s wrong with the Kansas City art scene right now, what we can change and get ourselves involved with. I’m trying to create more cross-institutional collaboration.

Favorite Spots

Clay & Fire and The Town Company

Clay & Fire has such a unique way of doing Turkish cuisine. It’s utterly amazing. The ambiance is amazing.

The Town Company is the same—the ambiance is just good. They have talented chefs cooking up some crazy food. That in itself is an art. 

Cafe Ollama

I don’t even like coffee, but I had one last week with spices—they make traditional Mexican coffee drinks—and it was amazing. 

Paradise Garden Club

Emily and I just became friends with the owners of Paradise, and they’re so cool. We have many plants from them in the gallery. 

Social Media

Get The Latest Updates

Subscribe to our newsletters

Kansas City magazine keeps readers updated on the latest news in twice-weekly newsletter. 

On Tuesdays, Dish brings you food news and our critic picks. 

On Thursdays, The Loop offers exclusive news reports and our curated events picks.