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New Art Installation At Springfield Art Museum Extends Into Nearby Park

Michele Skalicky

A new Springfield Art Museum exhibit is mostly NOT at the art museum.  It’s in nearby Phelps Grove Park, and viewers must use a code to figure out what the artist’s message is.

Burn Out, by Kansas artist, Shawn Bitters, consists of 23 screen-printed aluminum volcanic bombs encoded to represent a letter.  Sarah Buhr curator of art at the Springfield Art Museum, said art pieces that are grouped together form a word, and the words allow the art to “speak” to viewers. 

"He's given the landscape a language," said Buhr, "so, as you decipher or decode the rocks, he's thinking about what might this landscape be saying if we could hear the Earth speaking to us."

The key to figure out the message can be picked up at the museum’s front desk, or you can get it on your phone with a QR code reader.

Buhr explains the meaning behind the title of the sculpture installation.

"Shawn is interested, obviously, in different parts of the landscape, but in this one it's how fire can be a necessary part of maintaining the natural landscape, especially if you're thinking of prairies and how fire is something that is necessary for maintaining a prairie," said Buhr.  "And then he's done several residencies in places with active volcanoes, and, so, the shapes of the rocks are volcanic bombs, which are referenced from actual volcanic bombs that he's seen when he was in Iceland and Italy, and, so, it's sort of marrying those two ideas of the extreme parts of our landscape that, you know, literally a flaming ball of rock coming out of a volcano is pretty extreme but then also fire as a natural part of the landscape."

Credit Michele Skalicky
Burn Out by Shawn Bitters

Burn Out has been exhibited only at one other place—at Swope Park in Kansas City last year—and Buhr says it was a completely different setting.  The installation was on a wooded trail there in a more secluded spot.  At Phelps Grove, it’s more out in the open and amongst park visitors. 

Bitters was very much involved in deciding where the volcanic bombs would be placed.  He did a site visit in May, according to Buhr, and chose locations near interesting objects like unique trees, the old, native stone barbecue pits and the remains of a zoo that used to be at Phelps Grove Park.  She hopes the art installation will cause people to pay closer attention to the local landscape.

"As people drive by they've been commenting, "oh, what is that?' which makes you stop and look, and, so, I'm hoping it will at least give people pause and hope they'll look a little bit more around at the landscape around them," said Buhr.

The outdoor sculpture installation is a collaborative project between the art museum and the Springfield-Greene County Park Board.  They had to be sure the sculptures were safe for drivers, bicyclists and trees.

It took six hours on a hot summer day, July 17, to install the pieces.  Workers had to dig 23 spots while preserving the earth around each piece.

"Because the point is for the rocks to look like they're naturally coming out of the ground," said Buhr.

Buhr  hopes Burn Out will be the first of many outdoor installations in collaboration with the Park Board.

The museum’s 30 Year Master Plan calls for making the museum grounds part of the experience for visitors.

"We want people to know that it's not just the museum, but we have this huge campus with the amphitheatre, and we're right next to Phelps Grove, so there's a lot to do outdoors as well," she said.  "But a lot of the sculpture that's already on the grounds is larger and colder, maybe, with the hard edge, so this is can feel more intimate even though it's expansive."

Credit Michele Skalicky
Burn Out by Shawn Bitters

And she said, even if people don’t want to decode Burn Out’s message, "you can also just wonder what it is, you know, and just walk around it."

The installation begins at the museum’s amphitheater and moves west and north through Phelps Grove Park.  Guided walking tours of the installation and an Artist Talk will be held this fall.

The exhibit will be on display for one year.

If Bitter's name sounds familiar, it's because he was selected by Buhr to represent Kansas in the 2018 4X4:  Midwest Invitational Exhibition at the Springfield Art Museum.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.