A meeting of metals

Lawrence sculptor's 'Converge' reinforces convention center's purpose, defies its lines

Constructing his most recent sculpture was about like building a ship in a bottle, Lawrence artist Steve Richardson quips.

There were a few differences, though. The first: Working with tiny bits of wood and canvas isn't nearly as risky as putting half-inch steel under 24,000 pounds of pressure to bend it into a piece of artwork.

"If you don't know how to work the equipment, you could ... have a piece snap, and, next thing you know, you've got metal flying around the studio moving at about 250 miles an hour," says Paul Dorrell, the Kansas City art consultant who recommended Richardson's sculpture, "Converge," for a prominent Kansas City commission.

The second difference: scale.

Standing 14 feet tall, the 4,000-pound collection of twisted steel ribbons all but licked the ceiling of Richardson's studio during construction, which took nearly a year.

Now it gleams in the day's changing light, hardly a challenge to the open sky, in its permanent home next to the Overland Park Convention Center, 6000 College Blvd.

"I'm really impressed with it," admits Richardson, a Kansas University alumnus. "It's the best thing I've done so far."

The City of Overland Park commissioned Richardson to create "Converge" after Dorrell pared a pile of 75 submissions to five finalists, who then created maquettes.

Richardson's proposal stood out.

"The juxtaposition of stainless steel and rusted steel, I found fascinating," says Dorrell, who owns the Leopold Gallery in Kansas City, Mo. "I especially liked the way he just flat out worked the plates of steel, warping them as though some super-human giant had grabbed a hold of them and twisted them and flexed them and bent them in all these different directions."

In some ways, the sculpture reinforces the building, Richardson explains. Several pieces of steel rise and meet at a central point, representing the type of convergence that takes place at a convention center.

In other ways, the piece stands on its own, an organic complement to the very linear building it's rooted next to. Richardson intermingled stainless steel with Cor-Ten steel, or steel that oxidizes to a dull gray-brown color, for contrast. The metal bends, curves and tilts.

"I call it process art," Richardson explains. "You could see that the pieces were cut and then overlapped, and anybody who's taken a piece of paper and cut it and made a cone or funnel out of it can understand."

Richardson constructed the prodigious "Converge" without assistance. For the past year -- when he wasn't working at the Lawrence Arts Center, where he's the facilities manager -- he was cutting metal with a plasma torch, bending it cold (using only hydraulics, not heat) and welding it together.

"I've worked with metal all my life," says Richardson, who has a degree in metalsmithing from KU. "My dad is a farmer, and he used to make a lot of implements or tools by welding things together."

Examples of Richardson's craftsmanship can be seen in the sculptural metal lights that hang in the arts center lobby, as well as the sculpture in front of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, 200 Maine. He also made a piece for the restored Fox Theatre in Salina.

Although Richardson has worked in dimensions minuscule and mammoth, he says he prefers the big heavy stuff.

"In a strange fashion, it really keeps you humble because you really have to be on your toes," he says. "You really have to respect the material."

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