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Kansas City Federal Reserve Commissions Student Art For Centennial

The Federal Reserve System was established by Congress 100 years ago. To honor the centennial, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City is working with University of Kansas students to turn some of its own history - from name plates to modems - into a new art installation.

Shaping a range of objects, from mundane to archival, into art

Inside the Art and Design building on the KU campus in Lawrence, there's the smell of turpentine. On the third floor, in a large room, chairs, in a row, are ready for guests.

"Welcome. And what we're going to present to you today is our three projects for the commission, Living Time Capsule," says Matthew Burke, associate professor of art.

It’s early December, and the first of two practice sessions before Burke's class of five students makes its pitch to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

The Fed awarded a commission to KU for a new artwork, incorporating 183 objects donated by staff. These are scattered on two long tables, like a rummage sale. There's an adding machine, a stamp marked "restricted," and telephone directories.

"The objects, some of which are sort of mundane office supplies, range to some very interesting archival material – have varying difference of visual interest," says Burke. "It was important to us to honor the stories in which they were given."

Hundreds of ideas narrowed to three

Burke’s class is called Special Topics on Art: The Federal Reserve Commission, and it will continue each semester until the project is completed. The first five students are called the "inception team."

This process started with over 300 drawings, and then pared down to three possibilities: a two-piece wall structure with cubbies, a ceramic and wooden honeycomb of pedestals, or quilts to display on the walls.

On this day, in small groups, the students face a trio of professors as they run through slides detailing construction, maintenance, budget, shipping, delivery and installation.

Joe Walters, a painting major, lays out the concept of the beehive.

"The bank has so many individuals that work together in so many different departments…to make that a cohesive unit. We wanted to mirror that," he says. "What we are proposing is to have one beehive for every object. The beehive would be kind of like our blank canvas."

Pete Wolken, a metalsmithing major, says the materials for the two-piece curved structure include stone and wood from state trees in the district, such as cottonwood, dogwood, redbud, and pinon pine. "It's two pieces, so it would be like a serpentine. And it kind of shows the curvature and change of time," he says.

Sarah Podrasky, a graduate student in visual art education, stands in front of three colorful quilts. "The first one was a DOS-based communication board," she explains."So basically that’s what this fabric was inspired by, (the) circuitry here."

Students encouraged to "make a powerful statement"

The professors, from different disciplines - visual arts, metalsmithing, and architecture – call for changes, from a lighter background color to clarifying inspiration.

"This is more suggestion than criticism, because it’s a difficult thing to do," says John Gaunt, dean of the school of architecture. "But I would suggest that you present this, right at the outset, make a powerful statement about what this is."

Credit courtesy Matthew Burke / University of Kansas
University of Kansas
The winning proposal, a ceramic pedestal work now titled 'An Abounding Asset: The Diligent Reserve.'

Associate professor Matthew Burke says juggling all the elements has been a logistical challenge, but it’s provided a meaningful experience for the students, and a taste of their future as working artists.

"We get to bring our gifts as makers, but we have to meet the world on an equal stage," Burke says. "We’re going out working with people around their concerns, around their strengths, and that’s really important."

The winning proposal, selected shortly after the students presented on December 13--the beehive, the ceramics pedestal work, now titled An Abounding Asset: The Diligent Reserve. The Living Time Capsule Project.

With the help of this semester’s students, and about a dozen more in the summer, the project is expected to be completed in the fall.

Burke says it will be on time and, as you’d expect with something connected to the Federal Reserve, on budget.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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