Troy Vancil’s foray into concrete artistry began with a broom in his hands.
The son of a construction superintendent, Don Vancil, Troy joined his father at job sites, starting at age 10, sweeping concrete floors and performing other odd jobs in Salina, Kansas, and beyond.
He grew into the business and was influenced by involvement in an art-rich home town.
“I’d always made my living in concrete and construction,” Troy Vancil said.
Through the years, however, art snared an interest that he melded into the strong concrete base that already occupied a big part of his life.
He wanted more.
Searching for ways to satisfy his creative urges helped Vancil rise on higher levels, using the same aggregate.
“There are people I’ve met along the way who have kind of kicked me in that direction,” Vancil said. “I started out doing construction projects that kind of piqued my interest in art.”
An early customer, Dr. Brad Stuewe, provided a vital nudge when he hired Vancil to build an outdoor kitchen using polished concrete.
“If I gave him encouragements, it was mostly in the form of ‘let’s try that.’ Troy has a can-do attitude with a natural artistic flair,” Stuewe said. “I was in a position to give him flight. We put together a design using concrete in a different way to utilize some of his skills.”
The outdoor kitchen, done in 2005, was Vancil’s first projects using stamped concrete, and the final product mimicked stone, a second concrete project followed at the home of Stuewe and his wife, Paula Fried, and it ended up resembling brick.
Stamped concrete can take on the appearance of many materials, including wood or other textures.
“It wasn’t me leading Troy, it was me giving permission to Troy to exercise ideas that he had on his own,” Stuewe said. “We explored it together.”
While working on a project at the Salina Art Center in 2006, he met Heather Farrell, the art center executive director, and Jeff Day, Professor of Architecture at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.
Vancil won an award in 2013 from Concrete Surfaces Magazine for the best new residential polish. His entry was a concrete bench. It won local and regional praise for Vancil and crew in his company dubbed Boulder Polishing, that is known for putting slick sheens and patterns into concrete floors and walls.
He demonstrated in 2014 at the World of Concrete trade show in Las Vegas, the world’s largest gathering of its kind. It’s where he met another collaborator, Rachel Bruce, who now owns and operates Floor Maps, Inc. of Rogers, Arkansas.
“She was installing a map on a polished concrete floor, something that caught my eye,” Vancil said. “I talked to her a little bit, having no idea I’d be creating stuff with her, like I’m doing today.”
He kept trudging toward the art side of concrete.
“I got two or three jobs that year. That’s when I decided to stop building and focus 100 percent on polishing concrete.”
From 2016 to 2018 Boulder Polishing smoothed and shined floors in both Salina Central and Salina South high schools, a large powder coat facility in Wichita and the Hutchinson Sports Arena.
Vancil’s company, and a friend from Wisconsin, Shawn Wardall— they share similar backgrounds — polished the Watson Room floor in the Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts during 2019.
The journey rose to another level when Vancil pushed concrete into an artistic medium.
By combining bold colors using stencils, similar to screen printing techniques, he delved into using concrete in art, creating a mural for St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church. He also completed a high-end residential project near Manhattan, Kansas.
Shawn Wardall, a like-minded friend from Wisconsin, played roles in a number of those projects.
“My company became a little smaller and a little higher end in artistic stuff,” Vancil said.
Next came a bold, elongated depiction of the spire at the Stiefel Theatre, covering five panels in Hutton Construction’s downtown Salina office conference room. He collaborated with two other artists — Wardall consulted with Bruce and Salina artist Debbie Harbin Wagner — on the piece that is named “Rise.”
Next was a production of an original concrete image of the GlobalFlyer, a lightweight aircraft flown by adventurer Steve Fossett in March 2005. He became the first to fly solo around the world without stopping or refueling. The flight took two days, 19 hours 1 minute and 46 seconds.
Vancil is working on other ways to show off his medium, such as creating a wall of translucent concrete that allows tiny sprays of light to come through, changing shapes and intensities as the viewer moves by.
Vancil’s evolution continues.
“You stop when you die,” he said. “As I move forward, my focus is going to be helping people, learning from them.”
Vancil would like to do consulting with architects and help in the design process.
“It doesn’t have to be these one hundred thousand dollars art projects,” he said. “You can weave it into a budget.”
The goal moving forward is to continue enjoying the art and the work.
“I’m doing what I would almost do for free,” he said. “Almost.”
Rolling through a successful career that began as a carpenter, Shawn Wardall happened onto a creative niche that changes his focus.
The Wisconsinite completed a college degree in construction manager. He went to work for a general contractor, remodeling K-Mart stores.
Wardall moved on to work for a contractor rated in the top 400 nationally.
“I was in the office,” he said. “That’s when I learned about decorative concrete. It was kind of new back in the mid-1990s.”
Intrigued, Wardall was inspired to “really research how to do it.”
He took classes and worked with his staff to dazzle customers.
“Once I started getting exposed to it, I started getting more (decorative concrete work),” Wardall said.
He recalled a project that called for stained concrete.
“Nobody knew how to do it. I kind of got known as someone who could stain floors. Word spread,” he said.
The Wardall portfolio soon expanded to overlays, countertops, pool decks, driveway, basement floors.
“I did different treatments of decorative concrete floors,” he said.
Rather than pouring a base and covering it with other material, such as hardwood or tile, Wardall found fulfillment, and profit, in “making concrete the finished floor.”
In a sense, he and others, including good friend Troy Vancil in Salina, and many other collaborators across the land, became known as concrete “pioneers,” who could take the building material into a category that made folks take notice.
“That’s a word I’ve heard thrown as us before,” Wardall said. “I’ve got a big network.”
He broke out on his own in 2000 and by 2004, was no longer general contracting.
“I could solely concentrate on decorative concrete,” he said.
Over one decade, Wardall was exposed to it, learned about it, perfected it “through trial and error,” and rose to proudly take on the tag of concrete artisan.
“I take your concrete and somehow make it look pretty, instead of just pour it,” he said. “I’ver perfected polished concrete, and for several years, I’ve been teaching classes around the country.”
Then COVID-19 hit and put a temporary end to spreading the word through teaching.
Wardall is sensing a return by assisting other companies, technical colleges and trade school.
“I am also keeping myself available for special projects,” he said. “I am getting older (58 in July). I want to do more traveling while I still can, and incorporate special projects into my travels.”
Those might included destinations like Salina, or “some exotic place around the world,” Wardall said.
“When passionate people come together to do concrete, we can really do some amazing stuff.”