Keeper of the Plans

Don't call the police about these odd devices on Wichita buildings — they're art

This sculpture, "Guard Rail," is installed off the McLean Boulevard sidewalk in downtown Wichita. It's the work of Elizabeth Stevenson, director of Wichita's Fisch Haus.
This sculpture, "Guard Rail," is installed off the McLean Boulevard sidewalk in downtown Wichita. It's the work of Elizabeth Stevenson, director of Wichita's Fisch Haus. The Wichita Eagle

If you spot a suspicious-looking metallic device in an odd location near downtown, don't panic.

As long as you see a QR code nearby, you can rest assured it's not dangerous.

Over the past couple of weeks, local artist Elizabeth Stevenson has installed two "guerrilla art" sculptures onto downtown structures — and plans to install more this weekend.

They're not exactly prominent — unless you look for them, you probably won't even notice the shiny contraptions.

That's the point.

They're meant to blend into the landscape, waiting to be discovered by curious onlookers, she said.

The concept stems from her personal love of wandering cities and finding hidden "secrets," she said.

"Maybe it’s a natural phenomenon, but I’m fascinated by the way cities work — the little bits and pieces that don’t seem quite right or unusual," said Stevenson, who is the director of Wichita's Fisch Haus gallery. "(Exploring cities) is my favorite thing to do in the world. If there's anybody else out there who enjoys exploring, I'm doing this for them as well."

The series is called "Urban Prosthetics."

It's a curious name for an art installation. In the world of medicine, prosthetics are introduced to regain functions that have been lost for various reasons — take prosthetic limbs, for example.

Stevenson said her sculptures take that concept and apply it to the structures on which they're affixed, as a sort of creative "solution" for some problem it has, real or imagined.

For example, her "Guard Rail" piece along McLean allegedly clamps together a rusted-out section of rail that she says has been damaged by seismic activity in the region.

It's a fabricated story, admittedly — but one that is laid out in great detail when people scan the nearby QR code.

A QR code sticker placed next to each sculpture, when scanned, will pull up each object's story or conceit, photos and a list of coordinates for other objects to be found in Wichita.

Two have already been installed in Wichita (with two more slated to be installed this weekend) and four have been installed in Kansas City, in collaboration with the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center.

All of these pieces were on display at the popular Kansas City art gallery late last year as part of Stevenson's First Friday exhibition, "Fissure." She was one of five local artists whose work was on display as part of a "Wichita extravaganza" at the gallery in November.

At that exhibition, these pieces were laid out or otherwise attached to pedestals, along with photographs of where they were destined to be installed in Wichita and Kansas City.

Now all that artwork — gazed upon by thousands in a prestigious gallery — is strewn all about the two cities.

Making art out of junk

"Urban Prosthetics" is a series that was largely furnished, oddly enough, by the Wichita Eagle's move to Old Town Square last May.

Much of the material these little sculptures are crafted out of came from the rubble of the old Eagle building at 825 E. Douglas.

As the building was being demolished last year, Stevenson coordinated with the Eagle and the Bradburn Wrecking Company to salvage quirky bits of the building for use in this art exhibition — at that point, still merely an idea she'd had for years.

Stevenson, who also works as an architectural consultant, said she admires Charles McAfee — the pioneering architect who designed the additions to the old Eagle building early in his career.

"I think every single one of (the sculptures) does have something in it from the Eagle," Stevenson said. "It was very sad when it came down. I loved Charles McAfee and perhaps I'm paying homage to Charles by trying to include something from his building."

The Eagle-building parts were supplemented by other odds and ends Stevenson has accumulated over the years, she said.

The concept of creating art out of discarded building pieces isn't new at the Fisch Haus.

In 2012, Fisch Haus artists did the same thing at what is now known at The Lux, salvaging parts from the building as it was converted from vacant office space to apartments. A show — "Remades" — went up at the Commerce Street gallery later that year.

Now, the guts of other ill-fated buildings may find second life as part of Stevenson's guerrilla art series.

She said she's talking with Bradburn Wrecking Co., to scour through other buildings for unique parts before they're hauled off to the dump.

"I love half-demolished buildings," Stevenson said. "It's super-interesting to me to see how things went together."

If you want to see Stevenson's works in person, start at the "Guard Rail" piece located across McLean from the Metropolitan Baptist Church, 525 W. Douglas. Scan the nearby QR code to continue the journey.

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