Library lessons

Johnson uses new Lenexa murals to inspire students to go make art

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Stephen Johnson art at Lenexa Library
Towering art such as Johnson’s mosaics “speaks to the changing roles of libraries in American public life,” says library spokesman Christopher Leitch. “In 20th-century America, we saw libraries designed to look like elementary schools. Modern libraries are very different from that. Modern libraries are centers of community intellectual life.”

As the fall semester began, lecturer Stephen Johnson joined his design and illustration colleagues in a “process” exhibition in Chalmers Hall’s main gallery to show students the steps required to advance from a first idea to completion and paychecks. For his submission, Johnson detailed “Interconnections,” the 2-story-tall mosaic triptych he created for Johnson County Library’s Lenexa City Center Library.

While the creative output might be beyond his students’ reach for now, the behind-the-scenes story of “Interconnections” includes details they need to absorb—all the way back to the Johnson County Public Art Program’s original call for submissions, which hangs on the gallery wall next to his sketches.

“I tell them, ‘I’m your client, so knock me out. And fail. Show me tons of mistakes,’” says Johnson, f’87. “From those we can learn to make them better and they might go off on a tangent and realize that some of those mistakes are pretty good, and then they kind of riff on that.”

Even though Johnson’s idea won the national competition, his client asked him to go riff on a tangent and consider using letters from his three alphabet books: the Caldecott-honored Alphabet City, A is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet, and Alphabet School.

Christopher Leitch, Johnson County Library’s community relations coordinator, says the artist “knows how to craft a work that can be immediately satisfying, as this work is. It’s bold and colorful and great and giant. He also knows how to carefully construct a project that rewards repeated viewing. It can sustain your gaze and your questioning and prompt even more.”

Along with its visual feast, “Interconnections” offers another level of interaction: Leitch says patrons young and old immediately want to touch it. “Stephen is A-OK with that and we are, too. It’s great to have a work of art that you can have a multisensory experience with.”

Johnson is currently working on his first exterior mosaics, for Texas Tech University’s $30 million basketball complex, but he also shares with students his large and growing stack of rejection letters.

“It’s part of the job. I get rejected all the time, and that’s OK,” he says. “I’m telling them, ‘Visualize your work in a show, winning an award. You can apply to shows in Overland Park, all kinds of places, and who cares? No one knows you’re a student, so start getting busy.’

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