KCAD Alum Excited to Boost Muskegon City Public Art Initiative Highlighting Unity, Strength and Love

Posted February 27, 2024 in Alumni, Illustration

An ambitious public art project in Muskegon representing unity, strength and love – on a large scale -- will get a big boost from a Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University graduate.

Lee S. Brown is preparator at the Muskegon Museum of Art, and the artist behind "The PORTAL," which will be the eighth in a planned 10 art installations in Muskegon that are part of the Muskegon City Public Art Initiative.

A sculpture appearing as a large, red ring sitting on a grassy hillside"The PORTAL," the eighth of a planned 10 art installations in Muskegon that are part of the Muskegon City Public Art Initiative, is the work of artist and KCAD alum Lee S. Brown, a preparator at the Muskegon
Museum of Art (image courtesy of the artist)

He also is a 1976 graduate of KCAD’s Illustration program, spending three years at the college back in a day when graduates left not with a bachelor’s degree but rather, as he said, “you came out with your diploma and a bag of art.”

Now, almost a half-century later, he has turned his diploma and bag of art into a long and thriving career as an artist, including his current work as a preparator at Muskegon Museum of Art.

photograph of a man with short, spiky graying hear and a gray beard wearing a black t-shirt and black framed glassesLee S. Brown

But, "The PORTAL," a large standing ring some 45 feet in diameter constructed from some 25,000 pounds of corten-type weathering steel, might be his most ambitious project yet.

Corten steel takes its name as a portmanteau of corrosion resistance and tensile strength. It is a type of steel that’s been around for a century or so and is well-known for its toughness as well as the rich and deep rust color that it develops over time. In fact, the steel doesn’t rust in a detrimental way, but rather the rust color is a protective layer that continuously regenerates.

That regeneration, Brown said, is a metaphor for his adopted hometown of Muskegon.

“The people of Muskegon have big dreams and aspirations,” he said. “This is reflected in the resurgence of the city in the last decade and the energy of its citizens that help spur this growth. I wish to create a monument to and for the city that represents this strength and unity.”

As a circle, Brown added, The PORTAL represents themes such as unity, strength and love, and he said those heading up the Muskegon City Public Art Initiative see The PORTAL easily becoming a destination for those entering marriage, renewing friendships or making positive resolutions.

Because it is public art, The PORTAL will be alight from sunrise to sunset and open for people to walk through.

Other elements of the sculpture, including its location, will be equally symbolic, Brown added. The cross section of "The PORTAL" is an isosceles triangle that Brown told FOX 17 gets swept into a big circle, so that the sculpture looks like it just dropped out of the sky and planted itself.

And the installation site, between Shoreline Drive and the Shoreline Inn in Muskegon, also has meaning.

That site is near the former headquarters of SPX and near the company’s first plant. SPX, now located in North Carolina, had its origins in a company founded in 1911 in Muskegon as Sealed Power, an auto-industry supplier that employed 1,500 or so workers during its heyday and created millions of piston rings each year.

Brown was the right choice for The PORTAL, Judith Hayner, the project director for the Muskegon City Public Arts Initiative, told WOOD TV.

“Our goal has been to do monumentally scaled works of art, and there’s not a lot of artists that are prepared to do that,” she said.

Being prepared, Brown said, goes back to his time at Whitehall High School when a machine shop teacher named John Fanberg saw that Brown had an aptitude for working with metals but was not likely headed to a career in machine shops or industry.

“So, he said to me ‘You know, all of this equipment in here you can make art with too,’” Brown recalled with a chuckle. “He basically gave me free run of the shop, and I started to make art.”

That freedom continued at KCAD, Brown said, where a 1970s ethos permeated the campus, but highly influential and talented professors expertly shepherded their charges.

Even today, Brown remembers “Mr. Podacar” and his influences in the world of three-dimensional work. “I loved the physicality of it, and I didn’t get to do a lot of 3D in my other classes,” he said.

He also appreciates still the professors at KCAD who opened his eyes to abstraction, something that was new and exciting to him at the time.

Now, as he turns his attention to the fabrication of The PORTAL, Brown said he finds himself drawing on the foundations forged years ago, at Whitehall and at KCAD.

He had made conceptual renderings of The PORTAL out of cardboard in 2023. But 2024 brings the real deal. Though he won’t be doing the actual welding needed to create the sculpture, he will serve as the project manager, working hand in glove with folks at Versatile Fabrication, a sheet metal contractor in Muskegon Heights that has all of the heavy equipment, cranes, lasers and more that will be needed to complete the job.

“We’re talking 12 and a half tons of steel,” Brown said with a smile.

He expects that some of the welding and fabrication will happen in the next month or so, and he is excited to be on site with regularity, making sure his vision comes to fruition as the project progresses. And he can’t wait for the public unveiling of the sculpture in the fall of 2024.

“Public art is for the public,” he said. “It will be satisfying to see it when it’s completed and to see people connecting to it.”

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