A is for artist

'Abstract Alphabet' spells new direction for Lawrence creator

Lawrence artist Stephen Johnson says Abstract

Artist Stephen Johnson has done a lot of alliterative brainstorming lately.

Take, for instance, what he came up with for the letter “I.”

“Indoors, in an industrial interior, is an installation of individually illuminated, isolated, immobilized immersed and inverted identical insoluble imitation ice cream cones.”

After he came up with those words, he had to follow through with a work of art. Specifically, it’s a set of upside-down ice cream cones that are sunk in liquid inside glass chambers.

Appropriately, it’s an “i”nstallation piece.

That’s the way Johnson has been thinking for the past six years, as he’s chipped away at what he considers his most ambitious art project yet – “Abstract Alphabet,” which opens today at the Spencer Museum of Art at Kansas University.

“Limiting myself to words I came up with drove me into a whole new world of art,” he says.

Johnson might be best known for his children’s books, including the interactive “My Little Yellow Taxi,” “My Little Blue Robot” and “My Little Red Toolbox.” But he’s opened himself up to a new world of abstract art for his latest project.

“It sort of evolved into this mammoth undertaking,” he says. “It’s very exciting. It’s the direction my art is going.”

Broad audience

That direction involves a 9-foot-high pink mattress, standing for the letter “M.”

It’s “Meditation on a Memory of a Princess,” and – complete with a marble representing the pea from the fairy tale – it will fill up the center of the Central Court at the Spencer.

“It’s going to be so powerful when you walk in,” says Emily Ryan, the curatorial intern who is organizing the show. “It will be the first thing you see when you walk in.”

Eventually, “Abstract Alphabet” will include pieces representing all 26 letters of the alphabet. The Spencer show will include about 20, though not all of them will be on exhibit today. They should be in place for the formal opening on June 21.

All of the pieces rely heavily on elements starting with the letter they represent. Most actually include the letter itself in the artwork.

“One of my favorite things about this show is it appeals to a broad range of ages,” Ryan says. “Kids can see a letter and recognize it. People with art backgrounds can recognize styles and qualities they see in pop artists and artists of the 20th century. Linguists are excited because of the play on words.”

‘Strongest work’

The works are widely varied. For example:

¢ “X” is an X-ray of a xylophone.

¢ “C” features between 10,000 and 15,000 candies in a 48-inch-diameter collage.

¢ “F” is a grouping of 1,455 fake French fries.

¢ “H” is a 12-foot-high slink of hoops that Johnson hopes may hang in front of the Spencer before the opening.

Johnson hopes his collection attracts both art aficionados and families with young children. Simon & Schuster publishers, which has worked with him in the past, plans to publish a children’s book based on the artwork in 2008.

“It’s interesting because it’s serving two completely different markets,” Johnson says. “It works for a children’s book, and it works for the art world.”

The undertaking has been somewhat difficult, says Johnson, who has been chipping away at the 26-piece project over several years. For instance, the “M” mattress work involved talking with several contractors overseas before settling on an American company that makes many of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons.

“It’s some of my strongest work,” he says. “Oftentimes, the complications were overwhelming, just the logistical complexity of everything.”

Future plans

Johnson hopes – in addition to his book – that his 26-piece set might be bought by an art collector, or make its way to another museum after it’s done at the Spencer in early August.

He doesn’t mind if the art is split up.

“The works should stand alone,” he says, “even if you didn’t know anything about the words.”

Ryan, the intern coordinating the exhibit, says she thinks the exhibit fits the new direction of the Spencer Museum.

“I think I would say, really, at this point that nothing is unusual at the Spencer,” she says. “We’re trying new things, new styles and new cultures.”