This Louisburg, Kansas, fabricator is known for his world-class sculpture restorations
An artist and fabricator in Louisburg, Kansas, spent a decade working in the studio of a famous New Orleans artist. Now he’s the go-to person when her work is damaged.
The artist Ida Kohlmeyer was better known as an abstract expressionist painter when she hired a grad student at Tulane University back in 1988. She'd just received a commission to create a series of 20 sculptures for the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and she needed help.
The grad student she hired was G. Paul Lucas of Louisburg, Kansas. Once that project was completed, he spent a decade working closely with Kohlmeyer as a fabricator and painter in her studio until she died in 1997.
After spending so many years with the famous artist guiding his hand, Lucas says he still feels a strong connection to Kohlmeyer and her work. Since her death, he's often called upon to restore Kohlmeyer's sculptures.
Each year several crates are unloaded in the modest studio where he works — next to a lawn care service in an industrial strip of shops in Louisburg, about an hour south of Kansas City and just up the road from a cider mill.
Lucas spent so many years working with Kohlmeyer, and then interpreting her work during restorations, that, in the quiet moments as he's brushing on layers of paint, Lucas says he hears her voice in his head.
“I'll be painting a certain thing and I'll hear her say, ‘Paul, Paul. No, no. Go up higher with that red, work it in more.’ And it's just like back when I was in her studio,” Lucas says.
“I know it could all be just in my head, or maybe I really am channeling her in some way, but usually the things I hear, I stand back and look at what correction I've made and it's like, Yeah, I see it now,” he continues. “That makes it work. Better yet, it feels more like you, Ida. More like your work.”
His latest restoration is a sculpture called “Carousel.” It was created in 1985 and owned by a private collector. It’s spent almost four decades outdoors, buffeted by New Orleans storms.
“It was on top of a building — with a view of the city,” Lucas explains. “Well, then two hurricanes came and took it down. ”
Lucas crouches down to get a closer look at the jumble of different metal shapes topped by a light green crown.
“I think of that as a gherkin pickle, in a way, with lollipops stuck into it,” Lucas says with a laugh. “And then, I guess arrows or spears that look like they’ve just been planted into a geometric, rectangular form.”
The greens, purples, and pinks have all faded on this sculpture, but Lucas says he sees joy in all of Kohlmeyer’s work.
“It’s its own Mardi Gras symphony — each one of her pieces were,” he says. “They were a celebration of just fun and what it means to be alive.”
Carey Bond and Henry Lambert agree. They’ve lived with the sculpture since they bought it back in the 1980s from a small gallery on Magazine Street in New Orleans. The two own several examples of Kohlmeyer’s work, but “Carousel” is one of their favorites. They say Kohlmeyer’s colors and her playfulness reflect something of the city's annual celebration.
“In Mardi Gras, it's the people, it's costuming,” Lambert says. “And, you know, everybody's having fun, and getting dressed up in these crazy outfits and things and the colors are so beautiful. All the floats, you know, all the parades. That's what Mardi Gras is.”
The two were away from New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. When they were able to get into the city a couple weeks later, they were horrified to discover the sculpture had been knocked off its base and had been seriously damaged.
“The conversation did occur very briefly and quickly is: Do we repair it or not?” Lambert says. “And we decided that it should be kept for posterity.”
The sculpture means a lot to both of them so they are looking forward to getting it back. This time, they’ve found a place for it inside.
Kohlmeyer was born in New Orleans, the daughter of Polish immigrants. She started painting when she was in her 30s, after she was already married and the mother of two young children. She made a name for herself as an abstract painter and found wide recognition for her work. Sculpture allowed her to take her paintings into three dimensions.
Lucas met her back in 1988. The two hit it off and he spent a decade working as a fabricator in her studio.
“She was just beloved in this city at a time when this city itself was modernizing and experimenting with modernism and architecture and in art,” says Lisa Rotondo-McCord, deputy director for Curatorial Affairs at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Rotondo-McCord says collectors and museums look to G. Paul Lucas for guidance in the restoration of her work.
“He was one of her primary fabricators when she was here in New Orleans,” Rotondo-McCord says. “So that's the ideal, right, since sadly, she is no longer with us. So to have that long term exposure and understanding of the artist is really just invaluable.”
Kohlmeyer’s work remains prominent in her hometown today. Twenty of her sculptures line the Mississippi River in front of the city’s aquarium. Lucas helped carefully restore each one after Hurricane Katrina swept through.
“After a storm, you want to see beauty, right?” Rotondo-McCord says. “You want to restore beauty into your life as soon as you can. And it just brings joy and happiness to people to be able to do that because there's so much you don't have control over, so you may as well focus on those things that you can.”
Back in Louisburg, the sculpture’s been sandblasted, repaired and covered with layers of primer. Now Lukas begins to retrace each of Kohlmeyer’s brushstrokes.
“I’m just tracing these in,” he says. “Some of these lines, there were just remnants of these left.”
Lucas says his task is to bring each sculpture back to the way Kohlmeyer originally intended, so future generations can enjoy her work.