Kinetic artist visits area schools

Register Reporter

Register/Anne Kazmierczak
Mobilist Kevin Reese explains to Marmaton Valley High School sophomores Amie Beggs (center) and Molly McEwan how the weight of paint they are adding to the piece will affect the finished mobile’s balance point during a workshop Wednesday afternoon.

Sculptor Kevin Reese didn’t set out to become a mobile mobilist, taking the kinetic art form from school to school across the country.
“The job found me,” he mused Wednesday afternoon, awaiting the high school art class at Marmaton Valley to file in to work on a giant mobile that will be hung tonight in the school’s common area.
Reese is spending two weeks in the area, working with three area schools. This week, he visited with students at Humboldt and Moran; next week, he’ll be working with Iola Middle School students to design and build a mobile for their commons.
Reese, who lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, playwright/director Mary Hall Surface and daughter Malinda, spends much of the fall on the road, teaching students how to build mobiles.
Previously, Reese focused on acting. He credits his wife with his career turn.
“My wife wrote a one-man play in 1987 based on the U.S. space program called ‘Apollo to the Moon,’” Reese said. “It was well-received and we were asked to do something else.” So, in 1991, Surface wrote “A Perfect Balance,” incorporating Reese’s hobby of building mobiles into a story about an artist balancing his life with his art. By the end of the piece, a 17-foot mobile is constructed and hangs over the stage. Reese will perform the piece for area school children on Oct. 16.
After performing the play at numerous schools, teachers began to ask Reese to build mobiles at their schools, he said.
“In 2001,” Reese said, “another teacher asked me if I would work with her class to make a permanent kinetic sculpture for the school. I said no. But then I reconsidered.
“None of this was my idea,” Reese emphasized. “It was always a school saying ‘We want you to do this.’ It was a school that said ‘We want our kids to be involved in design’ and I thought, ‘Are you nuts?’”
But Reese tried it. “I started asking the kids what they want to see in the sculpture.”
Reese receives 100-150 drawings from the schools about six weeks in advance of his visits. He gleans from them common elements and recurring themes, then uses those ideas to design a small model which he brings for the students’ approval. The mobile is then modified as necessary to fit the actual space it will hang in.
For example, Marmaton Valley’s model “has a lot of vertical” but the space it must hang in “is flat,” Reese said. So the finished piece is being leveled out to meet that requirement. Reese considers the process “collaborative art.”
“It’s something that’s very organic,” he said. “The kids appreciate that they have some sort of impact. They can use the model as a guide, but we’re not stuck on it.”
This is Reese’s first visit to Kansas, and his first time working with two schools at once, he said. “I really, really enjoy it,” he noted.

REESE credits his interest in mobiles to his dad.
“When I was 12, my dad and mom took me to an exhibit of (mobilist) Alexander Calder at the San Jose Museum of Art. I thought it was cool, but not life-changing. But my dad did, and he decided to make a mobile for our house.”
Reese lived with the mobile, but didn’t give it much thought, he said.
Then, at 21 and in college, “I was home on spring break and had nothing to do, so I decided to make a mobile,” Reese said. “I made a simple moon and stars mobile that was easy to replicate.” He began giving them as gifts and selling them at arts and crafts fairs, he said, “But I stopped making mobiles around 1982 and focused on my acting.”
It wasn’t until “A Perfect Balance” that mobiles again took center stage.
The kinetic sculptures Reese builds with the schools are made of foam core and wire. Foam core is an ideal substance “because it’s so light it moves easily,” Reese said. “Body heat in the room will make it move.” Each gauge of wire, too, “has a different property in the way it bends.” Plus, Reese said, the material is hard to identify from below.
“The idea is people who look up at it should not be able to guess what it’s made of.”

STUDENTS at Marmaton Valley were actively involved in creating the sculpture Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s really spectacular creating something no one has seen before,” senior Kate McEndree said.
The mobile’s pieces are cut, sanded and painted by the students, then put together by determining the balance point of the lowest hanging part. Components are added from the bottom up, so as not to disturb the alignment.
The mobiles are painted using just a few primary colors.
“You limit color to draw focus to the structure,” Reese said. Calder’s mobiles were typically monochromatic, he noted. The mobiles for Humboldt and Marmaton Valley use multiple colors because of “the spaces these two pieces are going in to,” Reese said. “One is white and one is industrial prison brick gray. There’s just nothing interesting to it whatsoever.”
After tonight, though, there will be. Final installation of the pieces will take about two hours each, Reese said.
At Moran, “We’ll put up a plaque with it to say who put it up,” including students’ names, said senior Shelby Norman.
She said she was particularly pleased to have been able to work on the project, and leave something lasting for future students.
“It’s like a memory that will go up in the commons area.”