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Art for all

MU artists earn public commissions

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos by Shane Epping and courtesy of the artists
  • Published: March 21, 2012

We don’t want to say Columbia’s City Hall has gone to the dogs, but a spring unveiling in the building will introduce two bronze beasts that promise to endear themselves to the public.  

The installation by MU alumnus Chris Morrey is one of four displays created by MU artists through Columbia’s Percent for Art program. Morrey, Professor Lampo Leong and graduate students David Spear and Norleen Nosri won commissions after responding to open calls for public art.  

“Spectacular,” is how Chris Stevens, manager of the Office of Cultural Affairs, describes the installations. “It’s worth a trip downtown to walk around and see these.” 

Columbia initiated Percent for Art in 1997 to add cultural interest to new or improved public buildings having a budget of $1 million or more. A citizens committee selects the art, using dedicated funds from 1 percent of the cost of new construction or renovation projects.

The unveiling of Morrey’s installation will be announced soon.  

Guard dogs

Morrey envisions his dogs as guardians of City Hall on Broadway, like the lions that watch over New York City Library. One canine sits on its haunches. The other, at 33-inches tall, sprawls its 4-foot-length along the floor.

The installation will be “a fun encounter for the public,” says Morrey, who will join the MU Department of Art faculty in the fall.

He gave the Great Danes a light-hearted attitude and a story.      

“You’ll want to know what they’re looking at. The story will become clear as you leave,” Morrey says.  

Exit the elevator on the third floor, and you’ll see the animals, carefully positioned to encourage viewers to follow the dogs’ sight lines. It’s OK to touch these dogs; they won’t bite. To keep fingers safe, Morrey has filed and hand-worked any hard edges.

The process of creating the installation Bird/Dogs was arduous. Morrey formed the skeletal frames of bronze leaves, buds and flowers. He crafted the flora to represent Celandine poppies, which are native Missouri wildflowers.    

Before the lacelike dog sculptures were bronze, they were wax. Morrey pressed the wax pieces into a plastic mold, coated the wax with a ceramic shell, burned out the wax, melted the bronze and poured it into the ceramic mold. Then he chipped away the ceramic and blasted the bronze with sand. Woof!

To learn the end of the dogs’ story, take Morrey’s advice to follow their noses. As you exit the offices and return to the elevator, look up at the ceiling. There, on the lighting frame, you’ll see what has the dogs on alert.

Grrr! Why is that crow inside the building?    

Energetic explosions

To see Leong’s work, unveiled at City Hall in December 2011, get back on the elevator for a stop on the second floor. Prepare for an explosion of color because these acrylic and mixed-media paintings on canvas present powerful statements about Columbia.  

“Geographically, Columbia is at the heart of America, and it is a center for research and creativity in the Midwest,” Leong says of his artistic message for City Hall.  

Like his work displayed nationally and internationally, the City Hall paintings radiate majesty. Viewers experience the power of nature giving birth to new life, planets and stars. Leong’s style speaks through abstract images mixed with English words and Chinese calligraphy, calling to mind Columbia’s cultural diversity.

Inspired by the caverns of Missouri, Convergence layers the word “Columbia” and the ZIP code abbreviation “MO” over a fiery red space, evoking a vision of seething magma and solar flares – the elemental forces that created rock formations.  

Leong’s paintings Layers of Diversity and Digital Landscapes play with images of space and time in an information age. Subtle aerial views of cornfields in a snowy winter give calming glimpses of Columbia’s recent history and geographic location.

To celebrate Columbia’s embracement of globalization and technology, Leong painted the three works in a 16:9 ratio, the format of high-definition TVs, movie screens and computer monitors. The contemporary shape reflects City Hall’s modern design. 

Columbia on the move

Then take a short walk to the Wabash Station on 10th Street, where David Spear’s installation Time in Transit reminds travelers of Columbia’s transportation history and how time transforms people and spaces.

“These are the jobs artists work for,” Spear says of his commissioned paintings installed in 2000. His recognizable painting style is often compared to Regionalist artists such as Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood. At MU, Spear is finishing work toward a master’s of fine arts degree.

For the commission, Spear took inspiration from the Wabash Station — a Columbia landmark since 1910 — and the people who have passed through it. He used live models for the figures.

Spear’s paintings dominate the lobby’s south wall in a display that incorporates the working ticket window and clock, representing the literal transition of time.

Two paintings positioned to the left of the clock reflect the nostalgia of a train station: outside in the yard, trains are bathed in the rising sun; inside the lobby, passengers of the 1930s sit on benches as they wait.     

Two paintings to the right of the clock depict transportation scenes from today: outside, buses come and go with shadows indicating an approaching sunset; inside the lobby, the contemporary passengers use electronic devices as they wait. 

Other Spear paintings can be seen in venues that include Columbia area restaurants, MU’s Memorial Union and Jefferson Junior High School, where, as artist in residence, he directed students in the creation of a mural

His first commission was for a St. Louis restaurant.

Hospitality at City Hall

Master’s student Norleen Nosri came to the U.S. from Malaysia to study business and fell in love with ceramic art. That love blossomed recently into a commission for the fourth floor of City Hall.

Nosri, who teaches an MU class in beginning ceramics, is creating pieces that reflect warm themes of community, harmony and hospitality. 

“You come to my house, and I will offer you a drink. I will make an effort to make you feel comfortable,” she says of her vision for the offices of water and utilities. 

Nosri envisions the installation to include teapots and cups, displayed in a glass case to protect them from accidental bumps. Look for intricate sculptural pieces accented with carving, inlay and other rich decorative elements and glazes that drip to form texture with the runs.

Her work in progress features sets with heavy bases resembling wood to protect and hold delicate, porcelain cups. Nosri wants the people who work on the fourth floor to enjoy the installation, so she hopes to host a tea party for the staff, using the cups and teapots.

Nosri and master’s student Bill Wilkey are among a handful of students chosen from 324 applicants to display their work at the 2012 conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts.  

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Last updated: March 21, 2012