Lawrence artist chosen to craft anniversary sculpture

He's written and illustrated children's books, created moveable blue robot art for Lawrence Memorial Hospital's children's wing and designed a massive mosaic for a New York subway station.

Now Stephen T. Johnson will try his hand at metal work.

The Lawrence artist will twist and mold musical elements into a massive colorful abstract form that will grace the Lied Center in honor of its 10th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of the Concert Series.

Johnson, a 1987 Kansas University graduate, was selected by a nine-member Anniversary Lasting Gift Committee from among entries received from artists as far away as New Mexico, California and Connecticut.

The commissioned sculpture will stretch 14 feet wide and 20 feet tall on the wall above the ticket office in the main lobby. Johnson will create it using aluminum plate with a baked enamel paint finish in shades of blue, red and gold.

"It's a great opportunity to do a piece of art in such a wonderful context as the Lied Center," Johnson said. "I was very excited. It's a big honor."

The timeline for installing the piece isn't set in stone, but Lied Center officials say it should be in place by late winter or early spring.

The sculpture will use simple forms from musical notation, such as the treble and bass clefs and the forte symbol.

"I started to twist and pull and reshape them and turn them into abstract colorful shapes and, in so doing, started to create an interesting sculptural piece which resembles sort of a flame or a ship," he said. "You will be able to find some of the treble clefs and bass clefs in there, but primarily they've gone quite abstract."

"I wanted to create something that spoke to the center as a performing arts center and not to pick one genre," he continued. "Even with the spoken word, the most natural thing to bring all these elements together was musical notation."

Johnson received bachelor of fine arts degrees in painting and in design and illustration from KU. He lived and worked in New York for 13 years before moving back to Lawrence about three years ago. He has earned numerous awards for his work, which is shown in solo and group exhibitions, private collections and in galleries and museums throughout the country. Johnson is also the author/illustrator of several children's books, including "Alphabet City," a 1996 Caldecott Honor Book.

In addition to the Lied Center sculpture, Johnson is working on several other projects. The 66-foot-long, 13-foot-high mosaic mural he designed for a New York subway station is in the fabrication stage. He's doing a painting for the 125th anniversary of KU's law school. And he's working on several more children's books; the next one published will be "My Little Yellow Taxi," an interactive book much like his "My Little Blue Robot," which includes a robot children can take out of the book.

"It's not that much different, if you think about the Lied Center project. You have a certain space you have to work with and how do you make something visual and tell a story and have it fit into the place just right," Johnson said.

"It's just being a creative person and not falling into any kind of routine of style," he said. "I'm still figuring out who I am, but these are all opportunities to try out new things."

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