Lied Center marks 10th year with a special 'Arrangement'

It's almost as if Stephen Johnson gathered up all the color, motion and rhythm from 10 years of performances at the Lied Center and sent them through an extruder that spits out art that perfectly captures the essence of a place.

At least that seemed to be the consensus Thursday evening when the shroud dropped and several hundred people caught their first glimpse of the sculpture the nationally recognized artist created in honor of the venue's 10th anniversary.

"Oohs," "Aahs" and a few "Oh wows" signaled the crowd's approval of "Arrangement in Red, Blue and Gold," which is mounted high on a wall next to the box office in the Lied Center's lobby.

"It's wonderful," Lawrence resident Judy Wright told Johnson after the revelation. "It's warm and lyrical and happy and zany. I love it. And it fills the space in a marvelous way."

Johnson began the piece with the simplest forms in musical notation, such as the treble and bass clefs and the forte symbol, and then he twisted them into a bundle of abstractions -- some retaining hints of their original shape, others inviting viewers to draw their own connections. (One onlooker quickly spotted what looked to her like the letters "KU" rendered in crimson and blue).

The Friends of the Lied commissioned the sculpture last year after selecting Johnson's proposal from a pile of submissions from around the country. At 12 feet wide, 18 feet tall and 350 pounds, "Arrangement" is the largest sculpture he's ever created.

It's also the first piece he's ever designed to be crafted from aluminum.

So he called on an old friend, Cotter Mitchell, materials lab coordinator at Kansas University. Mitchell is known as a whiz with wood around Kansas University's Art and Design Building, where Johnson met him as an undergraduate student. They've maintained a friendship since Johnson graduated in 1987, and Mitchell has long been making crates for Johnson to ship his paintings around the country.

The wood-savvy Mitchell had to learn a few new tricks to fabricate aluminum.

"It has been a bit of an adventure," said Cotter, who spent hundreds of hours in his Vinland studio shaping the metal. "For the last six months, this has been about all I've done."

But he's certainly not complaining.

"Building picture frames is fun, but this is a lot more exciting," he said.

Mitchell got a little help with the welding portions of the project, and Pearson Collision Repair mixed Johnson's precise shades of red, blue and gold paint and applied them as baked enamel finishes.

The bold colors were a hit with onlookers.

"My breath was almost taken away because it was so beautiful," Carol Pilant, who chaired the committee that selected the work, said after the unveiling. "I think it's just very bright and uplifting."

KU fine arts dean Steven Hedden agreed and predicted the sculpture would become an attraction in itself, drawing campus visitors to the Lied Center to catch a peek.

"This is such a perfect addition to the space," he said. "I particularly appreciate that in a piece of work that's definitely static it still has so much energy."

Johnson, a bit overwhelmed by the response, said it would probably take several return trips to the center for him to believe his artwork had a permanent home in such a lovely place.

"It's a huge honor to have been entrusted to create such a piece for the Lied Center, and to have it done is very exciting," he said. "It still hasn't quite settled in."

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