In a Johnson County public library in Lenexa, readers young and old alike sit beneath a tall mosaic covering the walls. Letters of all shapes, sizes and fonts spanning the panels, with vibrant colors catching eyes, people are drawn momentarily away from books to gaze upon it in interest.
"The scale of the work allows it a magnificent presence in the Atrium," said Christopher Leitch, community relations coordinator for the library. "It is glittering and effervescent, and all who see it are momentarily silenced in awe."
Stephen T. Johnson, a lecturer in the University of Kansas Department of Design, created the public art installation as part of the Public Art Program, through which 1% of the funds of a public building are set aside for a permanent art piece.
Johnson’s public art displays stretch from the University, with a painting next to the KU Law School library, a colorful statue downtown on the corner of 6th and Massachusetts and mosaics in Brooklyn and Los Angeles — these are just a few.
Johnson knows the challenge of a public art installation. To create and display public art, a person enters a proposal into a Request for Qualifications through the Johnson County Kansas Public Art Commission and is chosen from many applicants to be commissioned by a public art committee and awarded a stipend.
“The challenge for any project of this nature, and one that I greatly enjoy, is to design artwork that will work in harmony with the architectural surroundings, can be produced within the total budget, and is intellectually interesting and engaging to the public,” Johnson said.
Each art installation generally has its own considerations to match.
"Typically, I ponder over architectural plans for a building which has not been built, as was the case for the Lenexa library, or I consider the extant locations designated for artwork as I did for the for the Lied Center sculpture in 2003," Johnson said. "In time, I begin to get a sense of the space and how I might design a work or works that will tell a story visually and activate the space in a dynamic and memorable way."
For Johnson, the visual story includes the materials, the regional elements and the communities they serve.
“Since the context was a library for the City of Lenexa, and as a published author and illustrator of children’s books, notably three alphabet books to date, I developed a design with imagery surrounding the 26 letters of the alphabet as well as imagery from my alphabet books,” Johnson said.
The Lenexa City Center Library was opened June 2, 2019. The library created a Family Art Guide for the art installation with the educator at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College.
"The work has proved to be very popular with visitors to the Library. It is an interesting image that recalls the layers of posters on the walls of the Paris subways," Leitch said. "The materials are classically historic in nature and suggest the ruins of a Roman bath or temple of antiquity. The work is composed of images of letters of the English alphabet, and this makes it a charming addition to the library environment."