July 23 2014 12:00 AM

Public art by longtime MSU prof is destroyed, covered up



The push for new public art is well under way at Michigan State University and growing in Lansing and other mid-Michigan towns. But in the stampede to new art, gems from the past are sometimes trampled, or at least neglected.

Owen Brainard was a master of color and form and an MSU art professor for 30 years until his retirement in 1987. He died in 1995. One of Brainard´s biggest works, a 25-footlong multi-media mural that took on the history of human civilization, was chiseled off the wall at MSU’s Kellogg Center’s Heritage Room and trashed in the late 1990s.

A sparkling standalone wall mosaic commissioned from Brainard in 1959 for Lansing’s Everett High School is still standing, but these days it serves largely as a bulletin board and backdrop for potted plants.

“A very expensive bulletin board,” Brainard’s daughter, Ilona Steinberg, commented after visiting the school and finding the mosaic plastered with posters and announcements. “Not intended for that. You wouldn’t commission and build something like that and allow students to abuse it like that.”

Steinberg, who lives in Williamston, read a City Pulse story about Lansing’s budding public art earlier this year and called us to share a cautionary tale.

“Public art is wonderful,” she said. “But you need to know you´ve already got some you’re not taking care of.”

In the late ‘90s, Steinberg popped into the Kellogg Center’s Heritage Room to check in on her father’s late-career masterpiece, which read from left to right as a phantasmagorical timeline following mankind from stone tools to spaceships. It was a virtuoso mashup of ceramics, metal, wood, polymers and other materials. To her shock, the work had vanished from the recessed wall built to hold it.

She found her father’s artwork in pieces, in a rolling laundry hamper in the parking garage. Kellogg Center staff told her it was being thrown away and she could take it home if she wanted.

“Many of the pieces were broken and stuff was missing” Steinberg said. “It was like a puzzle.”

Steinberg hung onto the chunks, hoping to interest another MSU department in hosting the work, but nobody wanted to foot the estimated $30,000 restoration bill. After 10 years of trying, Steinberg threw the pieces away.

“We were all sort of appalled,” Jeff Kacos, MSU’s director of campus planning and administration, said last week.

MSU’s Board of Trustees formed a public art committee in 1999, shortly after the Brainard demolition. Since then, over 100 works of art have been commissioned and installed on campus, many of them big and splashy. The committee is keeping a closer eye on art on campus, Kacos said, so it’s unlikely a major piece could slip through the cracks the way Brainard’s Kellogg piece did.

But there’s still no uniform policy for disposing of older art on campus and no comprehensive inventory MSU’s art holdings, Kacos said. Unwanted art might go to another department or end up at MSU Salvage.

“There might be some good quality pieces, but for the terms of the business process, they’re considered more like furniture,” Kacos said — but there’s evidence that the culture has changed. “There´s more sensitivity to art now.”

Last year, a stem-to-stern acoustic makeover at MSU’s Cook Recital Hall threatened an enormous painting by another 1960s art faculty legend, James Adley. The Public Art Committee asked around and learned that the Eli Broad College of Business was looking for a large piece of art.

The Adley opus was too big to fit through a normal door, so it was taken off the frame, rolled up and re-stretched on a repaired frame at its new home. It now hangs in an open stairwell of a recent addition to the college, looking sharp against a bare brick wall.

“I wish we could say we have a firm policy and we’re dealing with things effectively in all cases, but I think we´re making progress,” Kacos said.

Most of Brainard´s art is in private hands, but his other major work in the Lansing area is the wall-sized, zigzagging ceramic mosaic that greets visitors to Everett High School. The 1959 mosaic is a standalone wall, angled like an Oriental screen.

No posters were stuck on the art last week, in the middle of summer vacation, but there were dozens of gummy blobs from tape and glue. Potted plants were arranged in front of the mosaic. Despite these indignities, and a few missing tiles, Brainard’s dynamism and mastery of color popped from the surface.

Creativity came naturally to Brainard, whose parents ran a 24-bedroom boarding house in the heyday of the Catskills resort. Brainard’s family played music for the guests, with Mom on piano, Dad on fiddle and young Owen, at 9 years old, on the drums. Brainard, who loved playing the drums all his life, was a mainstay of the Geriatric Six Plus One, a Dixieland jazz band that played before every Spartan football home game.

After getting a master’s degree in fine arts from Syracuse University, Brainard went to Drake University as associate professor in early ’50s and came to MSU in 1957. He tackled dozens of media in his studio at MSU’s Kresge Art Center, from serigraphy (a tricky printing process) to charcoal to ceramics.

In an uncredited piece on the north wall of the Kellogg Center’s Heritage Room, meant to complement the demolished mu ral, Brainard’s metal, stone and wood forms thrust, pulsate and babble at one another. The more you look, the more you see. A rugged ceramic blob hides a handprint and a sunrise. Thick metal gone to rust (apparently on purpose) washes against pristine brushed chrome.

Brainard waded boldly across the frontier of abstraction in works like “Lascaux I, II, III,” a large triptych hanging near the parking garage at the Kellogg Center, but usually snuck in references to the human form.

“He was like Da Vinci,” Steinberg said. “He was into science and made everything. If you needed a lamp or a table, (he) made it.”

Despite his ambitious, multi-media forays, Brainard always insisted that his students master fundamental skills, as he did.

There’s plenty of reason for Steinberg to remind the community of her father’s work. The people who commissioned or bought his paintings and serigraphs back in the day are passing away. Recently, Steinberg learned that two of his father’s larger paintings were sold at a Lansing area estate sale.

“They didn´t go for that much, compared to what my father used to sell them for when he was alive,” she said. “But I’m happy they were sold, versus somebody cut them into tiny bits and threw them in the garbage.”