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By all accounts, the ceaseless torrent of tasks required to install a large-scale art exhibition fails to fluster exhibition designer Richard Klocke, now in his 20th year at the Spencer Museum of Art. Even the rigors of designing and installing the sprawling “The Power of Place: KU Alumni Artists” exhibition, featuring a creatively and structurally eclectic array of works by 30 alumni, could not displace his bemused smile.

His confidence is such, Klocke confides, that he tends to keep his mission-critical designer-do list in his head: “My wife will often say, ‘Why don’t you keep lists? Log all this down?’”

With a slight nod, Klocke indicates that he recognizes the wisdom of his wife’s plea; then a conspiratorial sparkle in his eye hints that he’ll keep doing things his own way. He admits that a “feeling of fright” typically sets in about three weeks before an exhibition’s opening, but he shrugs it off and gets back to work.

Standing in the museum’s Sam and Connie Perkins Central Court, shortly after the second of two “artist dialogue” events that on Feb. 21 concluded the exhibition’s two-day opening celebration, Klocke, an artist himself who maintains a private studio as his after-work getaway haven, glances around the main court’s airy space, born new yet again with a vibrant assembly of images.

The south wall features the colorful “Weathermap,” a 28-piece drawing by Cris Bruch, f’80, intended to evoke the transitive nature of weather maps: As soon as they are made, the wall label explains, they become obsolete. Nearby is “Navigating,” a languid painting of the Kansas River by Lisa Grossman, f’00, which faces a wall of 11 Greenland and Kansas photographs by Terry Hoyt Evans, f’68.

Cris Bruch, “Weathermap,” 2016

The court also includes textile and tactile works by Ann Hamilton, f’79; three oil paintings by retired University of Arkansas professor John L. Newman, d’75, g’82, depicting the safety and pleasures of front yards and front porches; and “Beyond the Wall,” an industrial felt piece by Marcie Miller Gross, f’82, inspired by a photograph she took while visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial.

The piece that Klocke singles out for attention, though, is in the center of the room: “grass/roots,” by Rena L. Detrixhe, c’13, a tender concoction of wheat sprouted into handmade cotton paper. At first glance, the fragile piece appears perfectly safe and secure in its glass case. There remains, however, an exterior force that concerns Klocke: light.

Because “grass/roots” is, technically, a work on paper, Klocke prefers to expose it to minimal light (5 to 7 “foot-candles” of illumination); robust oil paintings and a nearby sculpture, meanwhile, can handle four times as much (20 foot-candles).

The trick, then, comes not so much in the task of riding a scissor lift two stories high to set the lights (and returning to the floor to measure their output, repeating the process over and over again), but in the more subtle art of illuminating each piece according to its needs without creating a distraction for the space as a whole.

In other words, Klocke must design varied lighting zones within the same room without making it “look like a carnival ride.” He smiles and adds, “That gets kind of tricky, but the lighting issue is fun. I really enjoy it.”

Curator Susan Earle reports that “The Power of Place,” which runs through June 30, required more than two years of planning, dating back to her early ideas about how she might organize an exhibition of alumni art. She hopes other themes also considered will be used for future shows featuring different arrays of alumni artists.

“This was pretty compressed,” Earle says of the show’s two-year timeline. “I could have used more time for this, but only because I was pretty ambitious in trying to cast a wide net.”

Left: Gina Adams, g’14, “Honoring Modern Unidentified .9,” 2013; Right: Richard Mawdsley, g’69, “Alpha-Omega: Water Tower #5,” 1995-1999

Saralyn Reece Hardy, c’76, g’94, Marilyn Stokstad Director of the Spencer, has for the past 14 years invigorated the museum by stressing educational and community outreach programs that bring students, faculty and patrons to the museum and creative exhibitions that encourage repeated—and rewarding—visits.

External exhibitions can be customized and localized to some degree by museums that rent them, but they’ll still reflect the ideas of their creators—who aren’t affiliated with KU. Under Reece Hardy’s leadership, Spencer curators are encouraged to realize their own dreams for assembling and presenting interesting art, leading to an energetic exhibition calendar that is, it seems fair to suggest, ambitious beyond norms typically associated with campus art museums.

“When Saralyn came here, she said, ‘You all have been taking a lot of external exhibitions,’” Earle recalls, “and that’s part of how she has tried to foster our own ideas, our collaborations, our interdisciplinary connections at this university, which I think is one of KU’s strengths, one of the reasons this museum is so lively.”

Favoring house-created exhibitions over the rented variety tends to save money, but in the Spencer’s case it’s more about creating the sort of programming that it values—a perfect example of which is “The Power of Place”: Turns out that when you unleash a topic with so much potential on thoughtful artists, the artistic replies go far beyond Allen Field House nostalgia and glorious views of golden valleys.

John L. Newman, “Front Porch Therapy,” 1987

“If you try to understand the power of place, there are a lot of pathways and byways to explore,” Cris Bruch says. “It’s a rewarding exhibition.”

Bruch, whose work had been unknown to the Spencer staff until Reece Hardy recently encountered his art in her travels, came to Lawrence from Vashon Island, Washington, long before “The Power of Place” opened, to see the space for himself. In addition to “Weathermap,” the exhibition includes his sculpture of a shrouded grain elevator titled “Weldona,” a maze of wood fencing titled “Pent,” and “Harbinger,” a tornado sculpture made with a thin, 500-foot-long strip of paper, which Klocke mounted to the Perkins Court’s ceiling.

“I love how vertical it is,” artist Lisa Grossman says of the exhibition. “They’ve got things way up on the wall, and they’ve got the cyclone hanging from the ceiling. It’s so cool. It’s very Kansas.”

Bruch says that after much reading and deep thought, he has come to view place “not as much about physical space as it is about what has happened over time.” The modern world’s “radical mobility” and the trend toward “sharecroppers” grinding out paychecks in today’s “gig economy” lead Bruch to an “uneasy recognition that something is about to disappear.” Anything that might disappear, he contends, gains status, and what is more fleeting yet substantive, especially in the riotous Great Plains, than weather?

Richard Klocke (top right) and exhibition technician Doug Bergstrom (top left) were joined in installation duties by two of Ryan RedCorn’s assistants (above), who drove up from Oklahoma with his giant photographs and promptly installed the high-tech graphics fabric on aluminum tension frames.

Perched on a tall stool in front of “Weathermap,” Bruch says, “I was thinking about the Plains, and the weather on the Plains, and how the sky is the biggest event of all times, and the topic of weather is not due to a failure of imagination so much as a critical dependence that residents of the Plains have on the peculiarities of weather.

“Once you start scraping away at the nature of a physical place, there are just infinite layers of history and geography and geology and climate and colonization and waves of migration.”

While other artists invariably praised the lasting influences of a KU education on their work—Edgar Heap of Birds, f’76, for instance, told students, “I’m well-schooled in the practice of art. I’m not just a culture warrior. I’m well trained. That began here”—Ryan RedCorn, f’04, shared a dissenting voice.

A member of the Osage Nation who owns an advertising agency, Buffalo Nickel Creative, in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, RedCorn says he had a “less-than-stellar experience going to school here, and it definitely shaped me.” He says he felt native students were invisible and exploited—especially by publications and videos that, in his opinion, featured powwow imagery to overplay the depth and vibrancy of its small Indian community.

Ryan RedCorn, “Portait of Chantelle Keshaye Pahtayken & Shay Pahtayken, Plains Cree,” 2018

When he was offered a place in the exhibition, RedCorn responded with two stunning portraits, recently shot with his medium-format Hasselblad and printed on 10-foot-long swaths of high-tech fabric. The images seemingly leap off the wall, which was exactly his intent.

“Part of it is, people don’t see Indians in color, and they don’t often accept that indigenous people are alive right now,” RedCorn says, arguing that perceptions of many Americans never progressed beyond stoic, black-and-white photographs of the late 19th century. “So when they called me to be a part of this show, I wanted to make the biggest prints I possibly could because I wanted to take up space. Indigenous space. Osages used to be here.”

"The Power of Place” has its roots in the sprawling 2013 exhibition “An Errant Line,” for which Ann Hamilton and her KU faculty mentor, Cynthia Schira, g’67, explored the Spencer Museum of Art’s collection, and art found across campus, as inspiration for the artwork they created for the exhibition.

“This campus art museum was a place that could provide ideas for their current work, at that moment, as artists,” Earle says. “Partly out of that, I thought about other artists who have used these collections or who have found ways for this university to continue to inspire them.

“But that wasn’t the real impetus. It was really more about how we have a broad variety of artists who studied here who created meaningful work about place.”

Earle eventually identified artists from both urban and rural backgrounds in a dozen states, discussed their existing art and new pieces they could make for the show, and the synchronized dance began.

First Earle had to assure herself that the pieces she wanted for the show would fit in the museum’s galleries, then she had to find external funding for shipping. (Shipping costs are why the exhibition includes artists from across the United States, but none working overseas.)

“It’s a very careful, constant puzzle,” Earle says. “Most of the locations were planned long before the work got here. And then sometimes, for the way I work, it’s also really helpful to see it in person, so I might shift it, or Richard might say, ‘You know, that drawing might actually do better on that wall.’ It’s a constant collaboration.”

Susan Earle (l), curator of European and American art, and Spencer director Saralyn Reece Hardy, next to Cris Bruch’s “Weldona,” a shrouded grain-elevator form that Bruch created for “The Power of Place.”

With a timeline determined by working backward from Klocke’s installation schedule, each piece traveling to Lawrence had to be carefully crated, either by the artist or by professional art handlers. Shipping estimates and insurance had to be secured, and trucks scheduled so everything didn’t hit the Spencer loading dock at the same time.

The Spencer’s policy is to leave incoming artworks in their shipping crate for 24 hours, for acclimation, then move them into temporary storage or directly into a gallery.

As Communications Manager Elizabeth Kanost, c’09, j’09, g’14, began to write wall labels—which were particularly detailed for this exhibition, for background and context to explain the show’s variety of styles and ideas—Klocke and his assistants began their work in the galleries.

“My part in this whole play is to make sure things look as good as they can,” Klocke says. “The idea of trying to orchestrate the whole exhibit is always fun for me. You’ve got so many people, so much time, so much material, and you’re trying to put it all together.

“Then, after it’s all done, you look around and say, ‘Wait a minute, this could have looked entirely different if certain key moments in the beginning were flipped.’ Tweak one little thing and there’s a ripple effect on something else.”

Clockwise from right: Mark Goodwin, f’81, “Star System,” 2012; Rick Mitchell, f’72, “Bottleneck,” 2017; Virginia Jean Cox Mitchell, f’53, “China Trade with Miss Liberty, U.S.A. quilt top,” 1986
Marcie Miller Gross, “Beyond the Wall,” 2019

Their work finally finished, Spencer staff eagerly joined artists and their families, donors and Friends of the Art Museum members for an opening reception. As she unveiled “The Power of Place,” Reece Hardy chose to emphasize the theme by focusing on the meaning of this place: the museum, the University, the city, the state.

“These artists challenge the way we question ideas about who we are, where we are and our own place in worlds. I don’t mean ‘a world.’ I mean plural ‘worlds.’ Past and future.”

She then shared a statement drafted by Katelyn Trammell, ’19, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/Loo Family Intern in global and indigenous art, in collaboration with KU’s Native Faculty Council and the First Nations Student Association’s faculty adviser:

“We, the Spencer Museum of Art, collectively acknowledge that the University of Kansas occupies the historical homelands of the Kanza, Kaw, Shawnee and Osage people,” Reece Hardy began. After recognizing other tribes currently residing in Kansas, she concluded, “We affirm indigenous sovereignty, support of Native American peoples, and commit to indigenizing the Spencer Museum of Art.”

Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Reggie Robinson, c’80, l’87, one of the University’s highest-ranking officials, spoke next:

“It’s really important to remember that neither this city nor this university were founded and established on ground that was truly terra incognita. This place did not exist in a vacuum before Lawrence and KU arrived. It was not a blank canvas. ... It’s important that we acknowledge and respect the history of who was here before we were here as we celebrate what came to be.

“The presence of that history of those who were here remains. They and their legacies are with us still. This is a place that has great and special meaning for all of us, and this exhibition inspires us to think about relationships with places.”

As Reece Hardy and Robinson spoke, images of powerful native women towered over them, and the artist who created those magnificent photographs had difficulty believing what he was hearing.

Ryan RedCorn explains his mixed emotions about Kansas and KU by noting that perfectly tended red corn seeds planted in Oklahoma, where his tribe was forced to relocate, will perhaps reach about 5 feet tall.

“If I take that same seed and plant it next to the Campanile,” RedCorn says, “that shoot will grow 10 feet tall.”

His message is that the Osage lost something of great value when forced to leave Kansas, and RedCorn feels that loss still. He felt the sting throughout his student days. It made him reticent to return and inspired him to reclaim Osage space with two soaring works of Osage art.

And then came Reece Hardy and Robinson’s affirmations of indigenous history on Mount Oread.

“Hearing the Osage nation mentioned was like, KU had a concussion after I left and something’s wrong with them,” RedCorn says. “Maybe they’ll wake up sometime and be back where they were. Hopefully not.”

“Tick-tock, time’s wasting here,” Cris Bruch says during one of the Feb. 21 artists’ symposia. “We have important things to convey.”

Bruch made that comment to chide himself for his ruminations on place and time that drifted along swirling currents of his interwoven ideas. The comment also applies in a broader context: There are important images to consider, vigorous ideas to discuss. Tick-tock.

“I read A Moveable Feast shortly after undergrad,” Oregon-based artist Julie Green, f’83, g’96, tells her audience Feb. 21. “It’s a Hemingway book about how you take places with you. This show captures that for me.”

Lawrence painter Lisa Grossman has lived the opposite experience: Rather than taking place with her, she needed to travel to find it. After finishing art school in Western Pennsylvania, Grossman moved to Kansas City for a job at Hallmark Cards.

“I discovered the Flint Hills pretty quickly,” she says, “and I thought, ‘This is the home I didn’t know I had.’”

Lisa Grossman, “Navigating,” 2018

Determined to make a career by producing art inspired by the Flint Hills, Grossman decided to first complete her bachelor of fine arts degree. She spent a year catching up on required courses at Johnson County Community College, and, after seven years at Hallmark, left Kansas City for Lawrence and KU, “to get my degree and to build community, network with people, get all those pieces that I missed in that nontraditional past.”

Much like the Kansas River she so lovingly renders in “Navigating,” Grossman’s artistic passion meandered through its own best path. Now she finds herself as a featured artist in the “sanctuary” where she “found inspiration and solace,” a museum that she says was “central to my KU experience.”

“Most of us can’t fathom the behind-the-scenes work it takes to put this together,” she marvels. “And then you walk into a place like this and it kind of miraculously appears, all beautifully hung and interestingly arranged.”

Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, “Dead Indian Stories,” 2015

His installation now open to public inspection, Richard Klocke savors the joy others find in “The Power of Place.” He explains how, as an artist himself, he is “always keen to honor what I think the artist’s intent might be. I try to empathize with what they might have had in mind and not let other ideas step on those.”

As he installs exhibitions, Klocke says, he watches for “the little ways in which certain things compare.” For Klocke, the interaction of art is endlessly fascinating.

Rather than focus on such large-scale exhibitions as complex and daunting, he views them as “organic.” When colleagues from across all Spencer departments have finally completed a show, from conception to installation, Klocke steps back and admires what came to be.

“What strikes me, almost every time, is that we finally get everything in place, and I’m standing there thinking, ‘What’s the big deal?’ It all looks so easy. Everything in its place. Everything looks good.

“I very quickly forget.”

Yet another power of place, especially this place: the opportunity to lose ourselves in serenity that sustains us.

As featured in

Issue No. 2, 2019

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