Sold on silver

On its 25th anniversary, Lawrence Art Auction attracting more artists and buyers than ever

As Mike Elwell remembers it, the situation was pretty dire.

Word came that the Lawrence Arts Center would not be getting an annual grant on which it had come to depend. Director Ann Evans and company were faced with a choice: Either raise some money or start letting people go.

"At that point, we had a lot of artists in the community and the arts center had been the nucleus for shows and done a great deal in the community," recalls Elwell, a district court judge-turned-sculptor who was then president of the arts center board. "I said, 'Well, heck. Let's see if the artists want to help us out now that we need some help.'"

So he called a handful of friends -- Steve Edmonds, Barkley Clark and Bob Wells -- to see if they'd stand in as amateur auctioneers, and he put the word out to the city's cadre of creative types, who responded by donating 65 works of art.

The inaugural auction -- infamous for stretching into the wee hours of the morning because the friendly auctioneers milked the bids for all they were worth -- generated $6,600.

That was 25 years ago.

Today, the Lawrence Art Auction is a local institution, as notable for being the year's premier social event as it is for showcasing top-notch artwork. And it's a cash cow: Last year's gala hauled in $66,500.

That's 10 times the bank in 1981.

What's most impressive, though, is the ever-increasing support by artists, Evans says. About 60 artists donated pieces for the inaugural event; 211 gave items this year.

"They see this as a way to support our programs," Evans says of the artists. "They're glad that we're here."

Giving where you live

That's certainly been the motivation for Lisa Grossman, a Pennsylvania transplant who's been contributing to the auction since not long after she moved to Lawrence in 1996. She's the featured artist at this year's auction.

"I just think the arts center provides invaluable opportunities," Grossman says. "And, as far as I've seen, this is one of the highest quality auctions of art around this area. My work, anyway, has always gone for at least its retail value."

Grossman created her piece, "Darkness Falls on the Konza Prairie," during an autumn trip to the Kansas grasslands. Smoky sweeping strokes demarcate light from shadow, prairie from sky. It's a style for which Grossman has become known, though her subject typically has been the Flint Hills, a Kansas treasure she fell in love with at first sight.

"It just hugely impacted me," she says of her first road trip to the Flint Hills. "I was just blown away by the open space and the grasses and the sky."

Her painting will be sold along with 74 other works during the live auction, which begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and is expected to draw some 600 people. An additional 160 items are available in the silent auction. Auction proceeds support the art center's gallery program. All pieces are on display this week in a preview exhibition at the center.

Among them hangs a pastel, pencil and ink drawing by veteran Lawrence artist Colette Bangert. "To the Ground: Tinted Pink" completes a 25-year string of donations for the 70-year-old artist.

"The Lawrence Arts Center was something to give to from the beginning," Bangert says. "Part of the idea is, at least in the generation I'm coming from, you go out there in the world and put your work out in the greater world, but you also do and give where you live."

Fond recollections

In addition to paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, jewelry, ceramics, prints and textiles, nostalgia will have a place on this year's auction block. Though professional auctioneer Kasey Wold will handle sales most of the night, as she has since the auction's second year, Steve Edmonds will sell the first piece of the evening -- a bronze by Mike Elwell -- for old time's sake.

Memories of the first art auction are faint for Edmonds, who returned to his day job as a financial adviser after his brief run with the gavel.

"I don't remember too much about it, but I remember it being successful. We sold about 60 pieces of art and raised about $6,000. It was so fun in the old place because it was so crowded," he says of the arts center's former home in the Carnegie Library building at Ninth and Vermont streets. "We got several hundred people in there and it would just be packed."

Metalsmith Jim Connelly, co-owner of Silver Works and More, maintains fond recollections of the former location's intimate spaces but says the new facility has allowed the auction to get "bigger and better." Although uncertainty always looms as to whether a piece will bring retail value, Connelly says, the risk is worth the chance to support an organization that provides art education.

"There are just an awful lot of people who don't appreciate creativity," says Connelly, who donates a piece of handcrafted jewelry to the auction every year. "I just think that if you can get the young people to do it (make art), maybe they'll either become artists or people who buy art."

Roger Shimomura, a distinguished professor emeritus of art at Kansas University, says his pieces -- he's donated all but one year during the auction's history -- always sell for more than retail value. (In fact, one sold at 3 1/2 times its marked price).

On the other hand, Shimomura says he has "absolutely destroyed" his market in the Lawrence area by giving away so much work and wishes there were ways for his counterparts in music, theater and dance to shoulder some of the strain placed on visual artists by all the auctions in the region.

Perhaps what balances out those conflicting sentiments are moments like the one at the 1988 auction, where Lawrence resident Judy Wright bought the original artwork Shimomura had designed for the Independence Days poster.

"She would bid and scream, bid and scream. It was like the devil possessed her and she couldn't stop bidding," Shimomura says. "I was laughing so hard I spilled wine all over myself."


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