Marshalltown’s public art portfolio has grown even further with the delivery and installation of the new “Scherzo” sculpture, which now stands in front of the Marshalltown Performing Arts Center.
The large, intricate structure, designed by Kansas artist Stephen Johnson, was shipped in pieces last week and built by Mike Riggs, owner of Lawrence, Kansas-based Riggs Fabrication. Johnson was the creative visionary for the project, but Riggs used his engineering background to figure out how to make the idea work structurally.
When he started brainstorming ideas for the sculpture, Johnson knew it had to have some sort of musicality to work for the performing arts center.
“It celebrates musical notation in an abstract way, and it’s kind of, well that’s really my thing, it’s taking a sense of musical forms, like the bass clef or the treble clef , and other kinds of shapes in musical notation and twist them and twist them and turn them into interesting and playful shapes,” Johnson said.
He was also inspired by “Music is…”, a children’s book that Johnson wrote in which he illustrated 10 different musical genres. He said this book was a journey of taking shape and abstraction to celebrate different genres of music and how to best encapsulate them for everyone to enjoy, which he likened to the concept of “Scherzo”. .
“It speaks to the nature of public art,” Johnson said. “Children would love and understand, art critics, the general public and visitors. Visitors, everyone can hopefully see something in it that brings them a bit of joy and they understand the concept.
Colorful musical notes can be seen around the entire sculpture, representing the music played at the performing arts center, and Johnson also added three stylized mouths to the top to celebrate speaking, such as theater or vocal ensembles.
While developing the plan, he started by building models out of paper, cutting out shapes and moving parts around as needed, and of course he worked with Riggs to make sure the idea was structurally viable.
After some back and forth between Johnson and Riggs over the piece, Johnson finally said he had simply “stepped aside”, so that Riggs could make the sculpture. The collaboration between them was a highlight for Johnson, and he said working with the community was one of his favorite parts of public art.
“For me, public art is a collaboration. It’s not just me, solo, doing everything, and I love that aspect, so there’s a lot of people involved,” he said.
Even as the sculpture was being built on Monday, Johnson said there was an element of improvisation when deciding where exactly to place the pieces and where they would be anchored.
“The installation is like music, in a sense, or musical chairs. Moving things around, trying to balance the right – the tangent, where they are, the negative space, the playfulness of it, until we decided that was really where they needed to go” , Johnson said.
Riggs, who made all of the parts for “Scherzo,” ran the installation with several other people helping him put it together. He is a manufacturing engineer by training, but he found making the same products over and over again somewhat boring. So he started working on public art and other artistic pieces.
He said the hardest part of creating “Scherzo” was figuring out how each piece would work together, working only from the paper and cardboard template Johnson provided him.
“I got this 12-inch cardboard model and had to turn it into a 17-foot-tall structure that could hold weight and be structurally sound and still look good,” Riggs said.
Riggs redesigned the individual parts in computer-aided design software and tweaked a few aspects of the sculpture that wouldn’t work for manufacturing before putting it through his CNC plasma cutter and cutting out the flat shapes.
After several months of work, the parts were sent to a powder coating company to be painted. Once they were ready to go, all that was left to do was drive it from Kansas to Iowa and build it.
Marshall County Arts and Culture Alliance Director Amber Danielson was thrilled to have the sculpture installed and to see the culmination of all the hard work of the past few years.
“I feel like the play is even better in person,” she said. “The pictures don’t do it justice. The model didn’t do it justice. This piece is just outstanding and so unique and so vibrant. It almost feels like this room was always meant to be there and it’s even hard – even though it’s only been in place for a few days – to imagine this space without it.
Danielson said she is thrilled that students at Marshalltown High School are seeing the growth of public art in the community and on their campus, and she looks forward to community members visiting the Marshalltown Performing Arts Center for the see for themselves.
This sculpture was made possible through the hard work and fundraising of the Marshalltown Auditorium Foundation Partnership Fund, the Marshalltown Community School District, and the Arts and Culture Alliance.
Once the sculpture was in place, Johnson visited Marshalltown throughout the week and made a special appearance at the Marshalltown Public Library’s weekly Wednesday storytime, where some of the children’s books he has written have been read. He also arranged a meet and greet afterwards.
A sculpture reveal celebration will be held Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Marshalltown Performing Arts Center, beginning with a chamber ribbon cutting followed by performances by MHS students.
Contact Susanna Meyer at 641-753-6611 or