The inside story of the making of a Heart

My Heart, “87th Bus Stop and Katz,” was installed in front of Tony Aguirre Community Center, 2050 W. Pennway, Kansas City, Missouri. I was so honored to see it in person and be able to give back to my beloved Kansas City. (Photos by Doug Tombaugh)
The other side of the Heart includes an old Katz building sign. (Photos by Doug Tombaugh)

by Rebecca Tombaugh

“So, I know this isn’t the best time to ask – but did you ever get your Heart?”

My dentist was asking me this question while examining my tooth.

“Weeessss,” I said.

I had told him and everybody I ever met how excited I was to be picked to be one of 143 artists in the Parade of Hearts, a public art exhibition that spans the entire metro area from March through May. The Hearts then are auctioned off and all the proceeds go to local groups most affected by the events of 2020 and 2021 pertaining to wellness, education, small and minority businesses, artists and tourism. Sponsors also kicked in support, with more than $2 million raised so far, according to the Heart website and officials. Local artists benefited by being paid $2,000 each.

I just never thought I’d get picked. Not in a million years. 

But I did – I DID – get P I C K E D!

My sketch was a painting I’d done of a bus stop near my home. I’ve done hundreds of “bus stops.” Long ago, I had the desire to paint people, but not when they are posed. I noticed people standing at the bus stop were very natural looking. So I would drive by and snap a pic and paint them later. The other side of the heart was a painting from an old photo of The Katz drug store in Westport, you know, the one with the big clock. It’s still there. 

“Where are we going to put it?” said the husband, when I told him I was accepted. 

“I don’t know – the garage?” I said.

“That means I’ll have to clean it out,” he said. 

On Nov. 30, my 5-foot fiberglass heart was delivered. (Photo by Rebecca Tombaugh)

A few weeks later, I heard a knock on the door. A guy in a mask said he was there to drop off a heart. The back of the truck was open and I could see a gigantic white heart. The two guys picked it up and carried it up to the garage door. The husband used zip ties to attach it to two furniture dollies and then pushed and squeezed it inside the front of the garage.

“I’ll get it cleaned out before you start painting,” he said.

“There’s time,” I said, “I don’t even know where to begin.”

I was nervous about trying to recreate a painting on a vertical fiberglass “canvas.” I’d never done anything like this before. (Photo by Rebecca Tombaugh)

I rubbed my hand around it. It was kind of rough. It was vertical, too. I usually paint on the ground. I’m not a real artist anyway. No schooling. No degrees. Just have always liked to paint and draw and stuff like that. I hang around the real artists all over KC. I go to a lot of plein aire (fancy word for “outside”) painting events and I show up with the Urban Sketchers Kansas City. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve gotten some of my paintings in galleries and coffee shops. Right before the ‘rona, we all met at Splitlog Coffee and painted that corner of the world. One of mine from that event is currently showing at the Buttonwood Artspace. (

My heart sat in the garage for a month. I’d go out and visit it after moving some boxes and 10 packs of pandemic toilet paper packages out of the way.

“Now what am I going to do?” I mused. 

There was a deadline I couldn’t miss or I’d lose out on the $2,000. So I got some of my paints out and set them on the base of the heart. There was no room on the floor due to the boxes of holiday decor stacked up. 

“How do you even paint fiberglass?” I wondered. Do I sketch it out? Do I project it onto my heart? What? Will the paint stick? Who knows. Why did I even think I could do this? 

I got out a brush and just kind of, you know, brushed on some color. 

“It does stick,” I said to myself. 

I felt happy.

Until March 2020, I managed a retail store. Before that, cranking out forms at a financial institution. Regular 9-to-5 jobs and painted when I could find time. There was no time, ever, and at some point I started painting for 10 minutes right before I left for work so that when that day came I would be in practice and be ready to paint. And when my store shut down in 2020, I didn’t know what in the world I was going to do.

“I guess you’re a full-time artist now,” said a co-worker.

“I guess I am,” I said.

I went home and changed my occupation on Facebook to “full-time artist” to make it official. Which, in 2021, made me think I should apply for a heart. Since I was, you know, a full-time artist.

But now, in the garage, with boxes of magazines that might be worth something someday, and a tub of rags in case we ever need them and mailing tubes, and used bubble wrap, I was looking at shiny wet red paint. 

“Will it dry?” I wondered.

The next day I came out to check.

“Oh, no!” I said. 

I couldn’t even scrape it off with a scraper. I asked the husband if he would take the truck and do a contact-less pickup of a gallon of Kilz.

I re-primed the tests. 

Took two coats. 

“What do you think?” I asked the husband.

“I’ll try to get out there and move some stuff for you,” he said,” so you can have more room to work when you start painting.”

And, with that, I decided to just, you know, dive right in. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll feel inspired. Tomorrow, I’ll be ready. I posted a photo of the heart on the neighborhood Facebook page and got near 1,000 Likes. Woot! Woot! I was so encouraged. I’ll really be ready. Soon. 

A few weeks passed, when, one morning I woke up at 2 a.m. I put on my hoodie and went out in the garage. It was cold, but not too cold. 

“This heater will keep you warm when you paint,” the husband had said as he ran an extension cord up and around all the boxes, various sizes of extension poles, historic hand saws and a ladder. 

With the very first brush stroke, right in the middle of the Heart, I felt electricity race through me. Goosebumps. Happiness. 

“Oh wow,” I said. It works. I can paint this thing. 

I painted the Katz first, but the paint ran down the Heart. It was too drippy. I couldn’t fix it. (Photo by Rebecca Tombaugh)

I painted and painted in Indigo and then watched in horror as it all ran down in big drips to the base where it made big Indigo puddles. I quickly grabbed the white paint to fix it. More white drips. More white puddles. I took a step back and bumped into two boxes of books with a roaster pan on top to see if, maybe, it looked better when you step back. Then I sent photos to my family and friends, and posted it on the neighborhood Facebook page to see if I should keep going or paint over?

The consensus was to keep painting. I was relieved. 

And, I did, for another few days. But the painting began to look like a stretched-out old tattoo all blended into one blob.

“I’ll see if I can find the roller,” said the husband. “I know we have a roller, and a paint tray. That will make it easy to cover it up.” 

“You know where it is?” I asked.

“I think so,” he said. “I’ll go look for it tomorrow.”

So, I put three new coats of primer on the Heart and started over. (Photo by Rebecca Tombaugh)

The primer took three coats.

Each coat had to dry for 24 hours. 

Other artists were finishing up. 

Posting their beautiful hearts.

They also posted about being stressed out. One woman was cutting out thousands of tiny quilt squares to cover the entire heart. Another talked about spending countless hours drawing in the lines. Another said he wasn’t sure if this was going to come out right. 

The artists were chosen from all over the metro area, including Wyandotte County. The idea was to have all of us do this, and then put them everywhere so we can all go visit everybody and everywhere. A website was set up. An app was made. My tooth was bothering me.

“How’s the heart going?” asked my dentist.

“Wreat,” I said.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if you could paint a tooth in it?” he joked.

“Wi wan wo what,” I said.

“Seriously?” he asked. 

As I was leaving, my hygienist said, “Even if you can’t do it, I think you made his day.”

Weeks passed. There was that deadline. And all those posts. And real money on the line. What was I thinking anyway. I paint what I see and feel. In the moment. I scribble a lot. I can’t do this. I don’t use an easel. I’ve never painted anything this big. I’ve never painted anything standing upright. I’ve never…

Suddenly, I heard some noise in the garage and went out to check to see if the Heart was OK.

“What happened?” I asked the husband.

“Nothing,” he said. “I just moved some stuff around. You should have lots of room now.”

He had put all the boxes and extra chairs to be refinished some day and 10 packs of toilet paper and five packs of paper towels and the footstool he made in grade school and the roaster pan on top of his workbench. 

“I’ll get paint on the garage floor,” I said. 

“It’s a garage floor. You’re not going to hurt it.”

The second time worked. I used Rustoleum black around the edges. (Photo by Rebecca Tombaugh) 
In January, the weather was warm enough I could roll the Heart out onto the driveway and touch it up. (Photo by Rebecca Tombaugh)

I painted one side.

I painted the other side.

I painted a dancing tooth in Indigo.

I added a “dancing tooth” below the Z on Katz — something that shows my tooth being happy. (Photo by Rebecca Tombaugh)

I called to have the Heart picked up.

When they didn’t show up, I called another moving company.

A month passed. I checked the drop-off schedule.

“We have to move the heart ourselves,” I told the husband.

“When?” he said.

“Right now!  It has to be there in two hours.”

A face was made by the husband.

“People do it,” I explained. “I saw it on Facebook. They posted pictures.”

Another face was made by the husband.

“No, really, they do,” I explained. 

“How?” he asked.

“I don’t know exactly,” I said. “But we can do it.”

The husband found moving straps, moving blankets and tie-down ropes. 

He went next door to see if the neighbor would help but no one was home. 

He went to the other neighbor who was home and able to help lift the Heart into the back of the truck.

I took photos and posted them on Facebook.

The husband (Doug Tombaugh) strapped the Heart into the back of the truck and we drove it to the American Royal. I watched out the rear window in case anything happened. (Photo by Rebecca Tombaugh)
(Photo by Rebecca Tombaugh)
(Photo by Rebecca Tombaugh)

We hopped in the truck. It wouldn’t start.

“It’ll take about an hour to charge,” he said. “I think we can still make it.”

The Hearts were clear-coated and then lined up at the American Royal area for a kick-off Mardi Gras celebration.

“Can I go?” I asked. “Is it safe?”

I used to go to every gallery opening. I hadn’t been to an indoor public event in two years.

“I think you can go,” said the husband. “You’ll be OK.”

That night, I stood by my Heart, along with all the other real artists and their Hearts. It was surreal to see all this in one place and be a part of and give back to my own community like this. Goosebumps, again. I walked around and talked to other artists about their Hearts. I watched hired acrobats and dancers and a man on stilts walked around the stadium entertaining the sponsors and all the people who came out to see. Then, the artists went outside and lined up behind the musicians and entertainers.

“How was it?” the husband asked when I got home.

“So fun,” I said. “I got to be in a Mardi Gras parade with the Marching Cobras!”

My Heart, “87th Street & Katz,” was installed in front of the Tony Aguirre Community Center, 2050 W. Pennway. I got my check and made a house payment, paid up utilities and scheduled a root canal.

In June, all the hearts will be auctioned off and the money will go to those in need across the metro.

(Rebecca Tombaugh is an artist in Kansas City, Missouri. She is a former managing editor of the Kansas City Kansan.)

Photos and story copyright 2022 by Rebecca Tombaugh


Proceeds from the Hearts will go to those most affected in 2020 and 2021 locally through grants to The University of Kansas Health System, Mid-America Regional Council, AltCap, local artists and Visit KC.

To get the app:


Hearts with Wyandotte County ties:

In Kansas City, Kansas, a heart is located at 6th and Ann. Its subject is the Rock Island Bridge and Kaw River, by Kristin Goering. The bridge is in the Armourdale area.

A Visit KCK heart is on display at 5th and Minnesota.

A heart, “Jazz, the Heartbeat of Kansas City,” by Hector E. Garcia, is located at St. John’s Dog Park at 4th Street near Ann Avenue.

“Respirator Heart,” by Menley Brennan, a registered nurse, is made up of donated respirators signed by health care workers. It is at the University of Kansas Health System, 3815 Cambridge St., Kansas City, Kansas.

“Kansas City, the Happy Place,” by Micah Rott, is located at 129 Elm St., Bonner Springs.

Piper Creek Elementary School artists, with teacher Stacy Haworth, have painted a heart.

“The Making of Memories — Growing Up in KCK,” by Jennifer Janesko, is at the River Market West, Wyandotte and 4th Street in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Heroes in Healthcare” is at the University of Kansas Health System, Medical Pavilion, 2000 Olathe Blvd., KCK. It is by Jeff Spiller, Erica Bennett and Juan Salazar of KU Health System.

To see more of the hearts in the display, visit

A locator is at