KU art students complete Federal Reserve Bank sculpture

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A collaboration among 50 Kansas University visual arts students, faculty and staff has resulted in a work of art that will now be on permanent display at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

The sculpture, entitled “An Abounding Asset: The Diligent Reserve,” debuted in an unveiling ceremony Nov. 15, coinciding with the Reserve’s 100th anniversary.

Matthew Burke, associate professor of sculpture at KU, led “Special Topics in Art: The Federal Reserve Commission” with the goal of students conceiving, designing and executing a piece for the Kansas City branch.

The class, offered over four semesters, culminated in 400 ideas that eventually had to be narrowed down to three in preparation for the pitch to the bank.

“The aesthetic would be made by the students,” says Burke, a practicing artist who has worked on other large-scale community projects in the past. “I knew that my authorship would be in how I designed the process of how we went about it.”

Burke and his students spent the bulk of the first semester “just kicking around ideas,” putting concepts onto the drawing pad each class twice a week.

The Federal Reserve left much of the creative control to the artists, only asking them to include a collection of objects donated by employees — “items you put in a time capsule like pens and notebooks,” Burke says — in the finished work.

The winning concept is inspired by old-fashioned beekeeping equipment, says Burke. Team members constructed a total of 55 pedestals with hexagonal surfaces, each resembling a honeycomb.

The ancient skep — an upside-down woven basket in which bees build their hive — is symbolized by the object sitting on top of each pedestal.

Burke says students used about 7 percent of the donated items to make the “beehives,” sometimes “taking liberty” with the original form.

In one instance, a student used a photograph of a woman in a floral dress as inspiration for her beehive, using watercolor to paint the flowers onto a porcelain skep.

“They’re going to recognize those flowers,” Burke says. “The people who donated that object will know exactly what the artist did and why.”

Eventually, the team will create a total of 183 beehives, he says. At the moment, the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City has 40 pedestals, 20 of which are on view in the building’s mezzanine. The remaining 15 pedestals will be displayed at the bank’s branches in Denver, Omaha and Oklahoma City.

Burke, who says he is already looking for more projects like this one, has enjoyed watching his students gain new professional experience.

“The work is done at the end of the semester, and usually the pieces end up in the trash or go home with Mom and Dad,” Burke says of students’ art.

At the sculpture’s unveiling in Kansas City, several visitors approached the students and told them how much they loved what they did with the donated objects, he says.

“They knew this would look good in their portfolio and help them in the future, but what really mattered to them is outside people got to see their work and give them feedback,” Burke says. “For a student, that’s huge.”